It looked like chicken carnage in the coop. There were feathers everywhere, and my heart sunk. I quickly did head count. Everyone was present and accounted for, thank goodness! Now to figure out whose feathers were everywhere, and why. A little more investigation gave me the answer: the chickens were molting.
The first time my hens started molting I started freaking out. I thought they were sick or hurt or something. Thankfully molting is perfectly normal and all they really need is extra protein added in their diet. Unfortunately, while molting they stop laying because all available resources are being used for making feathers, not eggs. Bummer!
Why Are Your Chickens Molting?
Usually adult hens of around eighteen months old begin to molt in the fall when the number of daylight hours decreases, but stress, or withholding feed or water can trigger a molt at other times as well, and they also molt after being broody, (which is a sort of nature imposed withholding of food, I suppose). If you use a lamp in your coop to extend daylight hours, Oregon State Extension suggests leaving it off for six weeks during the fall or winter will help your birds completely finish a molt and start laying again at top production. Just be careful with your timing so that you don’t leave your birds without protection if they go through a hard molt in extra chilly weather!
How long will this take?
If you raised your birds from chicks you may have noticed them molting when they lose their downy feathers in that awkward gangly stage around 4 weeks. They have another molt around sexual maturity at about 20 weeks, although, that can vary depending on the breed. These molts are not quite as dramatic as the annual molts, which can take anywhere from 2-6 months.
Chickens molting always progresses in the same order from the head, then down the neck, the body, wings, and lastly the tail. Your chicken should actually never be completely bald when molting because the new feathers emerging is what pushes out the old feathers. If your bird has bald spots, especially near the vent that’s NOT molting, it’s something else like mites. Chickens do their best to prevent mites by dust bathing, but mites can be treated naturally. Here’s more information on that from The Frugal Chicken. Another cause of bald spots could be the birds picking on each other. That’s a symptom of stress in your flock that needs to be dealt with immediately by increasing their space and quality of life.
You can actually tell by looking at the flight feathers how long your bird has been molting and how much longer it will take. Better Hens and Gardens has a nifty illustration explaining the order and how to tell the timing. If you have a bird that starts molting early, and drops only one flight feather at a time it will take longer to complete her molt. If you have a bird that starts her molt later. then loses multiple feathers at a time she will finish faster) and get back to laying breakfast faster as well).
What Should You Do?
You can help out your chickens during their molt by providing them with high quality protein foods. Feathers are made of protein, so it takes a lot of it for them to manufacture new ones. Some birds may even be able to continue laying if they are getting enough nutrients, although not all will do so. Drop low protein snacks and filler foods, and up the quantity of protein. Some good ideas are mealworms, black oil sunflower seeds, scrambled eggs, cat food, diary products like yogurt, and tuna or other fish.
The newly growing feather are very sensitive. They emerge through a shaft that can bleed quite profusely if damaged, so try not to handle your birds as much as possible, and be very gentle when you must pick them up. It’s also a good idea to limit their stress as much as possible. When your chickens are molting is not a good time to introduce new flock members or move them to a new home. Let them regain their dignity first!
Utah State Extension: Molting and Determining Production of Laying Hens
Keeping Chickens Laying Through Winter Podcast from The Frugal Chicken (molting specifically mentioned starting at 3:53)
If you have ducks (I’m so jealous!), here’s an article on ducks molting from 104 Homestead
Molting – What It Is And How To Help Chickens Get Through It from Grit
Helping Your Flock Through Molting from The Cape Coop