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.
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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!
(Sarah in the comments kindly detailed that they don’t stop laying BECAUSE they are molting but rather it’s two separate processes. Thanks Sarah!)
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.
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, dairy 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.
Try not to handle your birds as much as possible. Make sure to be very gentle when you must pick them up.
It’s also a good idea to limit their stress as much as possible. Molting time is not a good time to introduce new flock members or move them to a new home. Let them regain their dignity first!
If you have more chicken questions, feel free to check out some of the chicken related books on our resource page!
5 Ways To Help Your Molting Chickens
- Switch to the highest protein food available at your feed store.
- Add black oil sunflower seeds to their feed.
- Add heat to the coop if it’s cold outside.
- Keep stress down
- Don’t touch them!
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I recently polled my Facebook followers on their favorite way to help their molting chickens and got some great suggestions! William uses catfish food to boost the protein in his flock. Nikki recommends boosting their fat levels ahead of time. This helps them maintain enough preening oil and replace their old feathers quickly. Debbie recommends a 20 % protein feed based on fish meal.
And it’s a great idea to take molting time to do a quick health check of all your birds. This gives you a chance to visually see potential problems you may not have otherwise caught. Just make sure to handle them very carefully, so as to not disturb the growing feathers.
Here are some chicken health related posts to help you do a quick exam and handle potential issues.
The first time your hens molt it can be a surprise. But once you know when chickens molt and how to help them through it, you don’t need to worry!
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
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Monday 6th of September 2021
I have a question about a hen who has begun pulling her feathers.
She is certainly an alpha girl, and with a very small flock (anywhere from 3-7 hens at a time and no roosters because of our city regulations) she started pulling feathers from the other girls. I honestly believe she'd be a wonderful addition to a larger flock but we've expanded as much as we can (22x8'). So I put her alone in a smaller coop (5x6' ish) to the side of our main coop while I try to re-home her with a better sized flock.
I have to say here that we have 4 new pullets coming up and I have watched her hold a same-aged flock mate down. They are both around 1 year and 4-5 months.
So she is now separate. She stopped laying approximately 3-4 weeks before I moved her out. She's been in her new coop for a little over a week. Suddenly there are feathers everywhere. Mature feathers, fluff feathers. Just seemingly random feathers that SHE seems to be pulling.
I'm very concerned. Please let me know what you think. It doesn't seem like molting. We haven't been through a true molting yet as we're only a year and a half into our chicken experience. But do they pull them? Or do they just fall on their own?
I am giving her extra protein in the form of dried fly larvae and electrolytes and probiotics in her water with fresh water right next to it.
Please let me know your thoughts.
Thank you, Shannon
Tuesday 7th of September 2021
A few thoughts, their pecking order can change after a separation, so she may not be such an alpha if you put her back into the flock. Also, molting time usually reorders their pecking order, so it may change it as well. This is the right season for molting, so it certainly could be that too. Hens usually only pull their own feathers if they are broody. Two other things I might try is adding more protein snacks, and giving your flock more space.
Saturday 10th of October 2020
I also feel I should add I love in Texas so we aren't really getting cold or anything. Still sitting in 80-90 degree weather.
Saturday 10th of October 2020
At less than six months is could be that they just aren't getting started yet. Egg laying and molting are related to day length, not necessarily temperature, so it could be that they start laying once days start getting longer again.
Saturday 10th of October 2020
I have 3 hens all ranging a out 5 1/2 months old. I recieved them from a family who couldn't keep them anymore a d that was the info she gave me age wise. I have a Rhode island red, black australorp, and a leghorn. Great birds. But they aren't laying eggs yet or showing any interest in their nesting boxes. I'm wondering if they are doing a light molt? My red is very full but I can see the (what I call) shell like casings on her feathers and there are a few feathers from all of them here and there. No major amount though. No brutal looking chicken crimes. Are they possibly too young to be laying yet? Or is it possible they are doing their "maturity" molt and it's kind of halting the eggs? My leghorn also has a tad but of yellowing in her comb which I've read could be a sign of molting?
Monday 17th of February 2020
My second wife and I had a small farm,three dozen chickens. We would get a dozen pullets every year(order them).The reason was we would get a different breed so as to keep track of their age. They had good feed and access to alfalfa, grass and any bugs they came across. They never molted. In the wild you do not see nor hear of birds molting. I do believe that it comes down to feed and lack of stress.
Monday 24th of February 2020
Tuesday 26th of November 2019
All of my chicken have quit laying, feathers all over the place. Some of them have exposed skin where feathers have not come back. They eat well and are very active. This all started when I changed the brand of food I feed them. I just went back to the old brand and add cracked corn along with there feed. Any thoughts?
Tuesday 26th of November 2019
Unless you are having very cold weather, I would supplement them with sunflower seeds instead of the cracked corn. The extra protein should help them rebuild feathers.