When the days start getting shorter, you may walk out to your coop to find feathers everywhere! Worried, you take a head count and find no one is missing. There are a ton of feathers and you notice a few of your birds are bald.
You think to yourself: “Surely a predator did this!”
While a predator could be likely, what is also likely is that your flock has begun their yearly molt. Now this is a little overdramatized. But right at 18 months of age, a flock will lose a majority of its feathers over an 8-week period.
After your chickens finishing molting for the first time, it’ll continue annually. New feather growth can take up to 16 weeks to complete.
Molting looks different on different chickens. There are many factors that play a role in how a bird molts and how quickly they bounce back from it. The first sign that molting has started is chickens will start to look a bit dull, as feathers lose their sheen.
After that point, you can have a chicken that goes through a hard molt and blows off all their feathers at once. These chickens look bald.
You can also have a bird you hardly notice is molting—with an old feather here, a new feather there. You’ll especially notice roosters because some tend to lose their tails during molt. Molting starts with the head and works its way down to the tail feathers.
Growing Feathers Instead of Laying Eggs
When chickens are molting, they regrow their feathers. An old feather falls out and is replaced with a pin feather. This pin feather is covered in a protein sheath. As the feather grows, the sheath falls off.
You’ll notice a few things happening with your flock during a molt other than the multitude of feathers. Egg production will drop off tremendously, and you may not even get any eggs at all.
Molting and the combination of lost sunlight are factors that play into the sudden decrease of eggs from your chickens.
Molting chickens have to conserve their nutrient reserves. Growing those feathers and the protein sheaths is a lot of work! Especially when their feathers are 85 percent protein.
Weight loss may also be a factor.
During a molt, your flock is hard at work making sure new feathers will offer just as much warmth and protection as old ones. Your normally sweet birds may be standoffish or even mean during this time.
Molting can be a very painful and stressful time for your chickens.
How You Can Help
There are so many methods and tricks to help your flock’s molt go smooth and less stressful. Some are very mainstream, and some I will discuss are tools I employ within my own flock.
At the first sign of molt, start boosting treat time on top of their regular diet. Your most helpful treats are as follows.
Scrambled or boiled eggs are going to be a great treat that is chock full of protein.
Cottage cheese is high in protein and is easily digestible for chickens. It also has a low fat content so you do not have to worry about overfeeding.
Yogurt is an excellent source of calcium and beneficial bacteria for your flock’s intestinal health. This treat must be monitored. Feeding too much can cause diarrhea
Broccoli has many nutritional beneficial properties and also contains some protein!
Tuna & Sardines
Tuna and sardines are also full of many nutrients that are beneficial during molt. Be careful with this one also. Any additives may cause intestinal upset. Fresh is best over processed. If you can’t find fresh, tinned is fine, but stay away from added salt.
Pumpkin seeds are high in protein and a great treat! Every year, my flock gets a few whole pumpkins cut up in quarters. They eat them down to the rind and absolutely love it.
Mealworms are always going to be a flock favorite. Being that they are also packed with protein to help through molt, keep some on hand to help when molt time hits.
Sprouted lentils are an excellent treat that is very easy, inexpensive and full of protein, too! You may have to DIY your lentils but it’s worth it.
Black oil sunflower seeds are easily available, cheap and full of nutrients! If your birds start having weight loss, this is an excellent treat for them. The oil will also help those new feathers come in shiny and soft.
This next item may seem controversial to some, but it has helped many of my hard molt birds through their molt. I only give this treat in emergency situations. If you notice one of your birds isn’t doing well, at the first sign I give mine moist high-protein dog food. It is packed with protein and will definitely boost your bird’s nutrient intake.
Please keep in mind that none of these treats listed here should replace or outweigh your flock’s regular dietary feed. It’s not best practice to give all these treats year around. Reserve most of these treats for hard winters and molting season.
Other Ways That You Can Help
Molting can also be painful for chickens. I know we all fear sunburn when we have that one hen that goes bald on the back. But forego the chicken saddle and push off handling your birds until their molt is almost completed.
If you break these new feathers, they can bleed. Even accidentally touching these feathers can cause pain. In turn, that will stress your birds.
It’s the same with putting on a chicken saddle. The pin feathers have a vein-filled shaft and can end in a point. If those feathers somehow get hung in the fabric of a chicken saddle, they can break and again start bleeding.
If possible, I would separate all roosters during this time. They can cause damage to those feathers as well while mounting the hens. Especially not having the added protection of a hen’s feathers during this time, the rooster’s spurs can cause some open wounds on the skin.
Keep Them Occupied
Chickens are already very stressed while molting. Their nutrient deposits take a hard hit, leaving them vulnerable. And you may notice they aren’t as active as they were a few weeks ago.
They’ve shed feathers, which also leaves their skin vulnerable to the elements and pests. Skin sores can develop, and your chickens will be grumpier than usual.
Keeping their environment during this time as stress-free as possible will help them recover quicker. Never move your flock members during molt. This will take a tremendous toll on them. Personally, I coop up my whole flock during this time, .
My roosters are put into a bachelor pad away from my hens to keep them from fighting. They are given areas that provide shade. And to keep them from picking on each other or becoming stressed out, I give them boredom busters that incorporate treats to help with their molts.
Here are my favorites:
DIY Chicken Swing
This one is pretty easy. All you need is a sturdy 2-inch branch and some twine. Tie the twine on either side of the branch and attach to something sturdy in their pen or you can build a stand.
A regular hay ball with a large head of broccoli will keep your birds busy for quite some time.
Simply place a whole pumpkin with a few holes cut into the sides. You can also hang it up if you would like. Chickens are curious, and once they realize it won’t hurt them, get ready for some funny antics.
Releasing live crickets into your chicken pen will give your flock some exercise while they get the reward of a tasty treat packed with nutrients that they need.
This is a good way to recycle those plastic bottles you no longer use. Put some 1⁄2–inch holes in a plastic bottle. Fill it up with treats and place inside your pens. Use more than one bottle to keep fighting down.
This will give your birds a good nutrient boost and is also simple to do. Get your lentils and put them in a container. Let the lentils sit overnight in water. Drain the water the next day. Every 12 hours cover the lentils in water and drain. Repeat that process until you get to your desired size! Typically that is around four days if you are sprouting a lot of them.
These boredom busters should be introduced slowly and gradually over a course of time. Introducing all of these at once may stress your chickens, and that is the last thing we want to do while they are molting.
The busters that include treats should also be done in moderation and should not replace your flock’s feed or primary nutrient source.
The first time you see your flock molt can be worrying, but with the above tips I’ve used over the many years of having my flock, you all will pull through just fine. While molting may look like a serious issue the first time you see it, it’s very natural and will occur every year.
Sidebar: Build a Bath
The final tool that I implement during molt is adding a few things to my flock’s dust bath. Dust bathing helps during molt by helping keep pests at bay and also helps those loose feathers come out. Don’t be alarmed if you come out one day and their dust-bathing area is full of feathers.
Outside of molt season, my flock’s dust bath is the following:
- 25 percent wood ash
- 25 percent diatomaceous earth
- 50 percent dry dirt
This is just my personal practice with my chickens, but once molting season kicks off, I change the dust-bath formula to:
- 25 percent wood ash
- 25 percent sand
- 25 percent dry dirt
- 5 percent diatomaceous earth
- 5 percent dried & crushed lavender
- 5 percent dried & crushed lemon balm
- 5 percent dried & crushed mint
- 5 percent dried & crushed chamomile
Sidebar: Birds of a Feather
Molting doesn’t apply to only chickens in the avian world. Every avian of every species has some type of molt. Quail, ducks, geese, swans and even wild birds have an annual molt. If you keep any of these other species, most of the tips above still apply!
Waterfowl and quail need a heavy protein boost, just like chickens. Most ducks will have two molts a year, while geese and swans will have one annual molt. Quail will have one to two molts a year, depending on the species.
Ensuring that your waterfowl has plenty of fresh, clean water available to swim in will play an important role in helping their molt along. Your once-very-friendly duck or goose will be irritable during this time. Molt affects them the same as chickens regarding how the feather grows and that it can be painful.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2021 issue of Chickens magazine.