Most backyard-chicken owners know when their flock experiences molting. It’s an interesting, yet natural, process that can also be very stressful to the animals. This article takes a deep dive into the process of molting and how poultry owners can help alleviate some of the associated stress for their beloved chickens.
What Is Molting?
Simply put, molting is a physiological process that occurs in avian species where they shed and replace their feathers. Molting is mainly regulated by various hormonal changes within the body and usually involves a period where the reproductive system stops.
During this time, birds typically lose and regrow their feathers in a gradient. They lose from the innermost feathers first to the outermost feathers last.
The primary reason birds molt is to keep their feathers functioning well. Feathers play a very dynamic role in a chicken’s life. They help regulate temperature; protect birds from scratches, wounds and cannibalism; are used to communicate and attract a mate; and are indicators of a bird’s health.
Research has shown that molting can be beneficial to a chicken’s health and improve egg quality. Photoperiod-induced molting has been shown to increase livability in laying hens (Brake and Thaxton, 1982) and to improve egg production and egg quality (Koelkebeck and Anderson, 2007).
The reduction or pausing of egg production gives a hen’s reproductive tract time to rejuvenate, resulting in stronger eggs and better production. Plus, without molting, a bird’s lack of feather shedding and regrowth would lead to poor plumage, which is associated with fearfulness and stress and chickens.
When Does Molting Occur?
Avian species typically molt during any time they require a healthy plumage, such as breeding season, wintertime or migration. The time of the year in which a molt occurs can help determine if it is related more to a natural molting or can be attributed to stress.
Natural molt in chickens occurs seasonally, during the fall, where the primary trigger is a reduction in day length. This decrease in day length changes the bird’s circadian rhythm, which triggers a variety of physiological processes such as reduced reproductive function and molting of feathers. In migratory birds, it would increase fattening and induce some restlessness. On the flip side, in the spring, when day length gets longer, the reproductive tract increases egg production and therefore we don’t typically see chickens molt.
So, a strong relationship exists between molting, day length and egg production. In fact, ducks and chickens that have been sterilized tend to stay in an extended state of molt. When sex hormones are supplemented, however, molting stops.
Broody hens can also experience a natural molt. When a hen becomes broody (starts to sit and incubate her eggs), she typically reduces her feed and water intake. Research on broody jungle fowl hens found that hens consumed very little food or water during this time even if it was offered near the nest. (“Weight loss and anorexia during incubation in birds,” Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 1980, Sherry et al.).
The lack of egg laying and voluntary anorexia results in shedding and replacement of feathers, suggesting broody hens can also experience a molt. Once chicks hatch, a broody jungle fowl hen will resume eating and drinking, and her feathers will grow back.
Stress-related molt occurring at other times of the year can be associated with inadequate nutrient intake or severe stress. Molt can also be induced with water and feed restriction, which is why we may see some molting during the summer.
Support your flock during their annual molt with the following tips.
Feed more protein, especially sources rich in cysteine. Feathers are made up of about 80 percent protein and represent about 3 to 6 percent of a chicken’s total body weight.
Proteins are made of building blocks known as amino acids. Cysteine is typically the most limited amino acid during feather synthesis so supplementation can help speed up feather regrowth. Cysteine is also important because it forms bonds within the feathers that make them durable and resistant to wear and tear.
Support Digestion & Immunity
Typically, issues in feather quality at any time of the year are often the result of a poor diet or lack of nutrient utilization. Ensuring molting chickens can digest and absorb the nutrients they need for feather regrowth is key.
Molting has also been shown to suppress the immune system in chickens and is associated with an increase in pathogenic bacteria, such as salmonella. Providing molting birds with supplements that strengthen the immune system and support the digestive tract can ensure they remain healthy during this stressful period.
Comfort Is Key
Make them comfortable and reduce stress. During feather regrowth, a chicken’s skin becomes more sensitive. This sensitivity typically peaks at eight to 11 days after the start of a molt. Plus, molting is a time when chickens are more vulnerable and, in some breeds, this can lead to more aggression and stress.
We can help reduce stress by minimizing handling during molt to help limit injury and discomfort, and continuing to provide care like offering fresh water and feed even if they aren’t consuming a lot. Plus, if you notice a molting hen getting picked on, isolating her from the flock can help prevent further injury.
That’s molting in a nutshell. When your flock molts this year to replace damaged or broken feathers for their protection and health, hopefully you feel better equipped to support them so they are revitalized and stronger for the months ahead.
Mikayla Baxter, Ph.D., is the Digestive Health Products Manager at Perdue Animal Nutrition. This article originally appeared in the Sept./Oct. 2023 issue of Chickens magazine.