You’ve walked out to the coop and suddenly halt in your tracks. Feathers are everywhere, and it looks like your entire flock has been wiped out by a roving band of vicious minks. A few of your chickens round the corner, looking as if they went head-to-head with the local coyote pack.
Thankfully, your chickens are fine. You’re not the first chicken keeper to be caught off-guard by the feather explosion that signals the start of molting season.
Every year, starting in mid to late summer, adult chickens go through an annual molt. This natural process allows chickens to shed their old, broken, dirty feathers, and regrow fresh new feathers before the chill of winter sets in. These brand-new feathers help chickens stay warmer throughout the winter and survive until spring.
The molting process is a stressful experience for chickens. And the process is painful, for the chickens as well as the chicken keeper. During molt, many birds look like they were on the losing end of a nasty bar fight. They often lose feathers in large patches, act lethargic and depressed, and skulk around the yard like they’re trying to avoid being seen by anyone they know.
Thankfully, we can do a lot to help ease our chickens through molting and support their bodies while they’re hard at work regrowing their feathers, and using medicinal herbs is a great way to start.
Chickweed is an unassuming spring weed that you’ve likely walked past a hundred times without giving it a second glance. However, this innocuous “weed” can be a marvelous snack to your chickens while they’re molting.
Chickens love the flavor (hence the name, “chickweed”), and the plant is high in vitamins A and C, as well as B vitamins, calcium, magnesium and zinc. It’s also a powerful anti-inflammatory and helps the body feel refreshed and rejuvenated, particularly after a long, cold winter.
The challenge with feeding your chickens chickweed during molt is that this is an herb that typically only grows in the cool days of early spring. Once the hot summer sun blazes, it disappears. And your chickens will be molting in fall. So, what can you do?
The answer lies with your freezer. Chick-weed freezes well, so harvest chickweed in spring, freeze it and then dole it out to your chickens once they start to molt. I do this every year, as we have an abundance of chickweed that grows on our property, and it’s always a special treat for the chickens.
In addition to tasting divine, basil is a good source of protein and vitamin K, a mild sedative, and is helpful in treating stress, nervousness and irritability. Sounds like the perfect herb for a molting chicken to me!
Basil is best used fresh, as it loses much of its flavor and medicinal properties upon drying. One of the best ways to preserve basil is to freeze it with olive oil when it’s at its summer peak.
To do this, grab a handful of basil out of the garden and finely chop it. Stuff the basil into an ice cube tray, and then fill each cube with olive oil. Stick it in the freezer until it’s completely frozen, then pop out the cubes and store them in a freezer bag.
You can give your chickens these basil cubes frozen or thaw them and put them in a food dish. These basil cubes are also an excellent way to preserve fresh basil for winter soups and spaghetti sauce!
Calendula is famous for its ability to repair skin, promote cellular repair, and combat infection. It’s often used topically in salves, but you can serve your chickens fresh or dried calendula in their feed.
This is another herb that’s easy and wonderful to grow at home. It’s also much more cost-effective than buying dried calendula from a retailer. Another benefit to feeding your chickens calendula is that it will turn egg yolks and your chicken’s feet and beaks a deep, rich yellow.
Red clover grows wild throughout most of the country during the summer months. And this pretty little weed offers a wide range of medicinal and nutritional benefits that you can take advantage of when your chickens are molting.
Red clover is an excellent cleanser of the blood. It’s also high in beta-carotene, calcium, vitamin C and minerals such as magnesium, copper and zinc. Think of it as a little vitamin for your flock!
You can offer your chickens fresh or dried red clover blossoms. However, if you live in a northern climate, most red clover will be past its prime by the time your chickens start their fall molt.
To overcome this, forage for red clover when it’s at its peak, and dry the blossoms yourself. Choose flowers that are bright pink, and avoid harvesting any blossoms that have turned brown.
Chamomile is a sweet, gentle herb perfect for the molting season, for several reasons.
First, chamomile is a calming herb that excels in alleviating stress and nervousness, especially when it’s prepared fresh. It’s also anti-inflammatory.
You can give your chickens dried chamomile mixed in with their feed. Or, you can make a pot of chamomile tea and give it to them in place of regular water once it has cooled.
Stinging nettle’s scientific name is Urtica dioca. It comes from the Latin word uro, which means “to burn.” And if you’ve ever touched stinging nettle, you’ve felt the burn!
We have stinging nettle growing all over our homestead. I planted it right after we moved in, and it has grown and spread like gangbusters. Our neighbors wonder why we welcome such a painful plant onto our homestead, but we use nettle for so many different things that it’s worth the occasional sting.
So where do we start with nettle? It’s an anti-inflammatory powerhouse and can work wonders to control allergies. It’s also delicious when cooked or made as a tea with honey. Many people also use it to alleviate arthritic pain.
Nettle is beneficial during molt because it’s high in iron. It’s also rich in other vitamins and minerals such as vitamins C, A and K, as well as several B vitamins. It also contains calcium, phosphorus and all essential amino acids.
It’s important to realize that your chickens won’t willingly eat fresh, raw nettle. It stings their tongues! There are a few different ways you can give your chickens the benefits of nettle without doing them harm.
One way is to dry the herb and crumble it into their feed. Drying, as well as cooking, causes the stinging hairs to fall off and renders it harmless. You can sautée nettle or bake it into a frittata with other fresh herbs. Or you can steep nettle in hot water for 30 minutes to make a nettle tea and give it to your chickens in place of water.
If you choose to sautée it for your flock, taste it yourself before you give it all away. Sautéed nettle is delicious, and you might decide to start cooking it for your family.
Lemon balm is a sunny, citrusy herb in the mint family that’s well known as a relaxing nervine. And during the stressful molting season, your chickens can greatly benefit from herbs and any other calming aid you can give them.
Although many herbs are potent when dried, lemon balm is one that’s best to use fresh whenever you can. Lemon balm contains beneficial volatile oils that are often lost when dried, especially when handled incorrectly. So growing this easy, cheerful herb at home is a fantastic way to ensure you always have quality lemon balm when you need it.
One way to help your chickens relax is to make a tea using fresh lemon balm. Cut up 4 tablespoons of fresh leaves and steep, covered, in 20 ounces of hot water for 30 minutes. Pour the cooled tea into your chickens’ watering dish. You can also put fresh lemon balm in their water to soak throughout the day.
Support the Immune System
Molting is a stressful process for chickens, and their bodies are taxed while they’re regrowing feathers. This means that their immune system won’t be as robust as it is during normal times. So, providing chickens immune-boosting herbs and spices can help prevent illness and disease during molting.
Some beneficial herbs and spices to mix into feed for your chickens when they’re molting include turmeric, fresh garlic, oregano, thyme, cinnamon and fresh ginger.
Keep in mind that the duration of the molt is going to be different for each bird. Some chickens will molt hard and fast and have a complete set of new feathers in a month. Others take eight to 12 weeks or more to go through their molt.
A rare few, typically poor layers, can take up to six months to go through the molting process. However, because these molts are so slow you might not even be able to tell that they’re losing feathers.
So your birds might need extra support for longer than you think! Keep an eye on their progress as they transition through their molts, and switch them back to regular layer feed when they start laying again.
Magic Molting Frittata
Here’s a helpful recipes for herbs to feed your chickens during molting season.
- 6 to 8 large eggs
- 1/4 cup plant-based milk
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
- 1/2 teaspoon oregano
- 2 cups of molting supportive fresh herbs (chickweed, basil, calendula, chamomile, lemon balm, etc.)
- 1/4 cup sunflower seeds
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. In a 12-inch cast iron skillet, pour the olive oil to coat.
In a large bowl, whisk the eggs, plant-based milk, garlic cloves, turmeric and oregano. Fold in the fresh herbs and sunflower seeds.
Pour the egg and herb mixture in the skillet.
Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until the eggs are completely set in the middle. Let cool completely, and serve to your flock.
This article originally appeared in the Sept./Oct. 2023 issue of Chickens magazine.