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Chicken Feather Loss

A chicken losing feathers could be a sign of molting or a more dangerous condition. Learn how to tell the difference with these cues.

By Sharon Biggs Waller


If your chickens are losing feathers, investigate reasons why before assuming they are molting. Photo by Rachael Brugger (HobbyFarms.com)
Photo by Rachael Brugger
If your chickens are losing feathers, investigate reasons why before assuming they are molting.

Many backyard chicken owners assume their chickens are molting when they lose their feathers, but look at other reasons for feather loss first. It can be difficult to tell if backyard chickens are in molt, because many of them molt at different times and in different ways. Some lose their feathers a little at a time and grow them back a little at a time. Some lose all their feathers and stay naked for four or five months. If you can rule out everything else, then you can blame the feather loss on molt.

If feather loss is flock-wide, and all of your chickens have lost their feathers, diseases such as parasites or fowl pox could be the cause. Chickens can be infested with lice, mites and fleas. Lice have to live on the body, so look for lice at the base of the feathers. Fleas and mites don’t have to stay on the body. Red mites, for instance, will feed during the night and hide during the day. You will see a powder puff—it looks like white cotton—on barn floors or walls where the mites hide. If you can’t see parasites on the chicken, look for signs of damage, such as scratches and bite-like lesions on the skin. You can part the feathers and look for parasite feces, or "dirt,” usually around the belly or the tail. If parasites are your problem, clean the coop and remove any cobwebs, and then treat the coop and the birds with a poultry insecticide dust or spray.

Fowl pox looks like pimples—big angry ones with bleeding and scabbing. It’s usually on the unfeathered portions of the skin—face, vent, sometimes where the unfeathered portion of the leg joins the feathered portion. There is no treatment for fowl pox, as it is a viral disease. The lesions can be kept clean and free of flies if they are in a sensitive area such as around the eyes. Fowl pox can be prevented by vaccination.

One more cause of flock-wide feather loss is a significant reduction in protein intake or a change of diet. Feathers and their point of origin, follicles, rely on high protein. Flock nutrition is crucial to plumage health.

If the feather loss is in some birds and not others, it’s most likely feather-pecking. Chickens, by nature, are aggressive to other chickens, no matter their space or housing. The closer the breed is to the original jungle fowl, the more aggressive the birds. A chicken exerts its dominance by getting on the back of another chicken, grabbing the neck and back feathers with its beak, and removing feathers with its toenails. This is also the way that roosters mate with hens.

If the skin isn’t broken and you aren’t too upset by the feather loss, you can just let it go. If the skin is damaged or you want the pecking to stop, tree-pruning sealer works great. It acts as a second skin while the feathers grow back and the skin heals. It’s cheap and can be found at any garden center or hardware store. Because the tissue under the skin or damaged skin is moist, you might have to layer it on pretty heavily. It will stain your skin and your clothing, so wear old clothes. The other benefit is that the sealer is black, and chickens aren’t attracted to black. But if a chicken does peck, the sealer will stain its beak, and you’ll find the aggressor in your coop.

Blinders work very well for stopping aggression. Available at poultry suppliers, blinders sit on the bird’s nose and are secured by a pin that goes through the nares (nasal holes), from one side to the other. The nasal septum is really thin in a bird, so it’s not painful. The blinders are red, and the color makes the birds less aggressive.

—Patricia Wakenell, DVM, PhD, associate professor of avian diagnostics/comparative pathobiology, cohead of Avian Diagnostics at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.

About the Author: Sharon Biggs Waller is an award-winning writer and author of Advanced English Riding (BowTie Press, 2007) and the upcoming The Complete Horse Bible (BowTie Press). She lives on a 10-acre hobby farm in northwest Indiana with her husband, Mark, 75 chickens, two Lamancha goats, two horses, and an assortment of cats and dogs.

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Chicken Feather Loss

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Reader Comments
I have about 20 White Rock chickens. Seven of them have lost their feathers on their backs and near where the wing starts. It does not appear to be molting. The skin in that area is very red but not broken. The rooster also has the same thing on the inside of his legs. I have attributed this to aggressive mating. But now I am concerned that it might be something else. Anyone have any ideas?? thanks, Tom knt005@yahoo.com
thomas, aylett, VA
Posted: 5/1/2014 5:30:51 AM
To Steve: I'm in a much warmer climate where it dips into the 20s at night, but seldom lower. Sometimes my birds seem to want to be out in the cold too, and I try hard to keep a very clean coop, as do you. I don't really have a good answer for you, but am wondering if your birds feel crowded at night...you say they are caged. Perhaps they feel overcrowded. I don't know... My only other thought is whether you have any predators lurking about. I've had possums and the occasional cat enter my coop and the birds would flee outside, even into the dark. They free-range during the day and I lock them in at night, but do on occasion forget to do it at dusk. Then again, your birds may have really full undercoats and are not much bothered by the cold. Hope you find a better answer!
Pamela, Henrico, VA
Posted: 1/2/2014 2:03:07 PM
I seem to have lice problems no matter what. I also use DE to dust my birds, and they really don't do much feather picking, but I see lice congregated above the vents and those horrible little white cottony egg clusters, around the vent and on heads and necks. I have tried to remove them by bathing, by hand, by coating with Petroleum jelly, etc. It is especially maddening to find these little balls on the neck and chin of a little chick. Any other ideas on how to remove these darn cottony blobs?
Pamela, Henrico, VA
Posted: 1/2/2014 1:50:53 PM
I only have 4 chickens that free range during the day and are caged at night. Im pretty good at keeping fresh water, a full feeder, hay and a heat light when needed. Recently they began perching out in the pen even when its real cold. I've been scratching my head why..

Recently, I couldnt find hay and bought a compact bail of straw hay from Tractor Supply. I actually think is was discounted because of a corner had mold. I just removed all the straw and put a fresh bail of regular hay. Could the straw hay be affecting them? I feel bad its 5-15 degrees at night and they are outside.

Any thoughts would be appreciated.

Steve
steve, north berwick, ME
Posted: 12/11/2013 7:02:16 PM
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