Wednesday, November 09, 2005

And Now, Molting

OK, so you're enjoying your first season of small scale urban poultry farming and then in the Spring or the Fall after your birds have been around for about a year, you go outside one day to find your hens look a little shaggy...and seem to be losing neck and tail feathers...until one day they look almost exactly like Harriet, pictured above.

Is it some bizarre parasite or mite? Does your hen need medication or a good bath? No, it's just a molt, the shedding of old feathers and replacement with new feathers. Quite frankly we haven't figured out what the cycle is, because half the flock molted in the Spring, and some unlucky few are going through it now in the Fall--while it's rather chilly out!

Although Harriet looks pretty raggy, she's actually on the feather growing side of things, thus all the weird pokey looking things on her neck--those are called pin feathers. She still losing a few of her body feathers, but for the most part that has slowed down and new feather growth is beginning.

During this phase of feather growth, chickens require more protein to support the additional feather development, and they usually stop laying during molting. We typically try to increase cultured dairy, give more seeds, and also supplement with occaisional raw meat. (If you're a new visitor, please see my previous posts on this--chickens are not vegetarian. They will eat any protein they can beg, steal or hunt.)

I remember a more experienced chicken enthusiast warning me about the first molt--but even so, when our first hen began molting I was worried it was feather mites or some such thing. At night Michael and I went in to the coop, and while the poor molting hen was sleeping we accosted her with diatomaceous earth (like forcing a dust bath). In the end she didn't really mind it, and probably enjoyed the mid-rainy season dust bath--but it didn't stop the molting!

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Katy Skinner said...

This has been a big year for molting I think. It's the first year I've even noticed molting in my chickens. My sister called up, too, worried about how bare her hens looked. That was a first for her, too. And now your hen looks that way, too. Mine really lost a lot of feathers around the neck; just like the hen in your picture. It's the first year I've seen that!

happygardeningmama said...


It got significantly worse after that photo was taken! Then our black sex link went into molt, and she looked liked someone came in the night and halfway plucked her! She had bare patches on weird parts of her body, it was so shocking.

I got so worried I called our extension service--they said some breeds molt more deeply than others. From what I hear you saying I wonder if it's unusual weather or something. Glad to know it wasn't just us!

Amy Stewart said...

I just discovered your blog. Looking forward to reading more--nice to meet another chicken blogger!

happygardeningmama said...

Amy, thank you for coming by--I'm going to swing on by your site--and my apologies on the delay for adding your commentary!

Power to the Poultry!

Barb said...

Hello. We are new at this chicken thing and have come into our first molt, I think.

How long does it last and is there a way to bring them out of it quicker?

Thanks in advance for you help!

happygardeningmama said...

I'm sorry about the delay in response! My daughter is sick and that has been demanding most of my attention.

Molting! Yeah, there does come that point where you begin to wonder "Is this an illness?!" Especially for the breeds who molt very hard and take a long time to come out of it. Our black australorps were like that, seemed like they were near bald for a very, very long time. It was our county extension service poultry goddess who informed us that molting was a breed by breed experience, some breeds molt longer, some lose more feathers, etc.

I don't know any way to force them back out of molt "quicker". I would definitely say upping the protein in their diet will help them refeather more quickly, as it takes a tremendous amount of energy to replace the lost plumage. (Funny I keep wanting to call it foliage! LOL)

You can feel free to view our archives for blog posting on molting, recipes for chicken mash, as well as chickens not being vegetarians.

When our flock is coming out of a long winter, or during a molt, we will make a mash with organic raw hamburger (that has been frozen for 2 weeks to eliminate any possible bugs of any kind) and yogurt or kefir (organic cows or goats milk) with other goodies.

When I can get it, I really prefer to feed the flock a whole raw deer or elk liver (again, that has been frozen for at least 2 weeks to kill any possible bugs or parasites). We don't know near enough hunters who will willingly pack this organ back for us after they have taken down an elk or deer though!

The hens *love* protein and meat, and the extra nutrients show in their general appearance and egg laying. For the molting bird, this extra protein boost is especially useful.

That said--in the wild (yes, chickens actually originate in the rain forests of South East Asia) I do not believe chickens would get meat based protein terribly often. We offer meat based protein occaisionally, and they suprise me periodically by cornering a snake or mouse and gorging themselves.

elphin said...

Over the last few days, my favourite hen, a Dorking Silver, has seemed lethargic and has been keeping to herself in the darkened nesting area. Last night she came out, and to our horror, was almost completely naked of feathers!

I hope it's just a hard molt. Any advise on how to help her through this?

I read the blogs and feel much better now. Has anyone heard of giving dry catfood for protein?

Thanks for the support!

happygardeningmama said...

Hi Elphin, I am sorry for the delay in moderating comments. Actually what you describe is interesting--while our molting hens don't seem their normal selves, I have never had one do what you are describing. However, some breeds molt "harder" than others. You may want to call your local extension service to find out breed specific habits during a molt, and rule out any feather mites or other possible difficulties. Dry cat food is a *great* chicken treat, as the kibble is high in protein. You may want to consider a meat treat for the extra protein boost needed to feed new feather production. Also, when you describe the hen hanging out in the darkened nesting area--if the bald patch is specifically on the breast of the chicken, I would suspect you have a broody hen. They pluck their breast feathers in an effort to regulate egg temperature and humidity while trying to sit on the eggs. Good luck!

backyardchookinoz said...

Firstly thanks to all contributors - the informationa nd questions on this site have been a great help. Wish I discovered it when our rather demanding Rhode Island Red had a large ring shaped lump on it's face. One expensive vet bill later the revelation that it was chicken pox and dandruff!

Our ISA Brown looks to be moulting and is showing all the correct symptons listed on this blog BUT it's mid summer in Australia and she hasn't gone off the lay - mind you, she never seems to stop laying unlike the rock star Rhode Island Red - does moulting only occur in Spring and Autumn (Fall) or canit happen in mid summer and can they keep laying through the moult?

Nathan E. Hammer said...

Thanks for your photo. This is my second winter with my back yard hens. I have one rhode island red who picked the wrong time to lose her feathers. We have a lot of snow and temperatures are in the single digits!

JulieBrown said...

I want to thank you all for very interested and helpful information. My hens are now molting and have stopped laying and know I have ideas as to why. I do find that mine like to eat dog food and they do love the carcuss and skin from a chicken cut up for supper. I let mine free range but when they do that do they lay other places other than the hen house????

Tammy said...

I couldn't stop laughing when I read about "accosting the sleeping hen with diatomaceous earth". My birds are going through the first molt I've ever witnessed, and I when it all started I was beside myself with worry over my poor hens! Thanks for the chuckle and the affirmation that all is well, or normal, with my hens!

L Draper said...

Wow...I have been extremely worried about our chickens. My mom found this website and insists that the chickens are indeed molting. The local feed store says they need a round of antibiotics and didn't mention anything about molting. Out of our 4 chickens, only 3 are losing their feathers and look quite bad. None are laying any eggs and eat and drink very little.

Although their combs are still red, they are laying over on the three chickens that have lost so many feathers. My question is is this part of the molting process or are they possibly sick?

nikila_42 said...

im very worried about my chickens. i came home from holidays to find one of my chickens sitting on 10eggs. i took them away but ever since then shes been plucking out her feathers at an alarming rate. is she molting or sick? my other chicken has also stopped laying. please help!

happygardeningmama said...

Hi Backyard--I've seen our hens molt in winter, spring, and even summer. So yes, your hen could be molting. I seem to recall that many hens will stop laying during a molt, but there might be exceptions to this with *younger* birds. The older the hen, the less likely to lay through anything remotely stressful to the body.

Nathan, yes it's very alarming when they decide to molt with snow on the ground! We had some heavy snows this year in our area (unusual for us), and I believe through it I had one crazy molter.

I made sure the heat lamp in the coop was on all the time, and bought some trashy wool blankets from a local thrift store to put over windows, and seal up cracks. I also used plastic trash bags to cover some gaps, and where I could, straw. Straw is a fantastic and cheap way to insulate a hen house.

Julie, without knowing the size of your property, I can't say for sure if free range would result in eggs being laid in all sorts of crazy places. If you are a backyard chicken enthusiast, chances are if the hens are already used to laying in nesting boxes in the coop that you wouldn't have an issue.

If you have large piece of acreage that might be another matter. At the height of our yard sharing, I believe we may have had 1/3 of an acre for 2 dozen chickens. We never found eggs outside the coop, with the exception of some very secure places on our back porch. I think hens like to feel safe where they lay there eggs.

happygardeningmama said...

L Draper, without knowing more about symptoms I would be tempted to say the birds are molting, but I'm not sure. Typically molting hens will still eat and drink. That is the worrisome part.

Red combs indicate they are probably not laying, although when hens get sick, sometimes the combs will look unhealthy.

You might want to contact your local extension service to get the final word.

happygardeningmama said...

Nikila, I believe your hen on the 10 eggs is *broody*, trying to hatch out the eggs. They pluck their chest feathers to keep the eggs humid and warm, and may add feathers to the area to keep the eggs warm. Feel free to browse the posts here on dealing with broody hens.

As for the other bird not laying--this could be caused by a number of things. Extremes of hot or cold, broodiness, molting, and some illnesses can all result in hens not laying eggs.

bonniesgirls said...

I was so excited to find this site! I didn't realize there were so many backyard flocks! I have 13 girls who had stopped laying also and I didn't understand why. I started searching and you all explained why. After taking a closer look OH YEAH, definitly molting! Now my Brahmas don't look any worst for wear and I did have 3eggs yesterday. My girls are over a year old, so I guess I missed this last fall. Or could this be their first molt? I look forward to talking with all of you and will post pics soon. I'm very proud of the coop my husband built.
Hope to hear from you soon.