Earth Eats: Real Food, Green Living

Where Have All The Feathers Gone?

Are your birds looking a little disheveled? Not to worry -- It's molting season.

macro chicken feather

Photo: ToniFish (Flickr)

Out with the old, and in with the new!

Should I Be Worried?

A few days ago, a friend new to chickens asked, “I’m worried about my pullets. I have noticed that they have bare spots on them, but the skin isn’t sore or red so I don’t think they are pecking each other. Any ideas as to why the bare spots? Should I be concerned?”

In short, the answer is no, don’t be concerned. Your birds are probably just going through their first molt. Molting generally happens at about 18 months old, but that can vary depending on what time of year a chick was hatched. And guess what? Both males and females molt!

An Annual Ritual

Each fall chickens go through a process in which they drop out old ragged feathers and grow in new ones. There is an order you can watch for: the head will lose feathers first, then the neck, breast, body, wings and tail. Complete molts take anywhere from two to four months.

What else happens? One of the biggest signs is a drastic reduction in, or even a complete cessation of, egg laying.

The cause of this annual mayhem is the lessening of natural light, which is a signal to the birds to jettison old feathers and grow in shiny, undamaged ones. The reason egg production drops or stops is that the bird is devoting resources to growing new feathers.

molting chicken

Photo: sierravalleygirl (Flickr)

Molting generally happens when pullets are about 18 months old. Both hens and roosters do it!

Supplemental Nutrition

Some experts recommend increasing protein during this time, as chickens use a lot of it to produce that glossy plumage. If you want, you can try switching to a higher protein feed for a few weeks. That is easier than adding protein to their existing diet, which should be done only with great care and knowledge of the poultry diet.

There’s not a lot else you can do during this time, except trying to reduce stress and handling while the feathers grow in.

It’s also a good time of year to check your birds for lice and mites since you can see what’s going on at skin-level.

Give ‘Em A Break

The issue of keeping birds under extra light to continue egg production in the winter months is one I don’t usually address because I don’t do it. Personally, I think its better to let the birds have that rest and do what nature has intended them to do. If this is something you want to explore, however, there are plenty of resources out there.

Otherwise, let the birds build up their feathers to get ready for the coming colder days of autumn and winter. If you have younger pullets, they may continue to lay a eggs during their molt, but most hens will take a short time off.

And why shouldn’t they? Doesn’t everyone deserve a little vacation, a little time to lie around and recharge? When the birds are done with their time off, they will get back to it looking and feeling rested and rejuvenated.

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Jana Wilson

Jana Wilson lives on 20 acres just outside of Bloomington, IN and writes her blog, The Armchair Homesteader. In addition to the chickens, she has ducks and a border collie named Winnie who helps her with her various efforts at becoming more self-sufficient.

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  • Luzia

    Good advice – even for people.

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