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Feather Molting in Chickens: Why, When, and What to Know

Frizzle Chicken

If your chickens are losing feathers, there is a good chance that they are molting.

Every year when the days get shorter, you may notice that your chicken starts to lose and re-grow their feathers in odd patches. Your chicken may not look as vibrant as it did before, and you may be wondering why your chicken goes through this process.

There are many fascinating reasons behind molting in chickens and this article will provide you with all the answers you need.

new chicken dividerWhy Is My Chicken Losing Feathers?

The most common reason that a chicken would lose their feathers is due to a process called molting. However, it is best to check if the area experiencing feather loss does not have any mites, lice, or that your chicken is self-plucking their feathers. After evaluating the area, you will be able to tell if they are going through an annual molt or experiencing another problem. Molting itself is a natural process and healthy chickens will lose their feathers to make room for new ones.

If your chicken is molting and you have ruled out other possibilities to your chicken’s sudden feather loss, it is important to know that it is a completely normal process you will experience in mature chickens.

Chicken flying
Image Credit: TTstudio, Shutterstock

What Is Molting In Chickens?

Molting is the process where your chicken will shed their old feathers and grow new ones. The chicken will ‘turn over’ their feathers and push out old ones to make room for the new feathers to grow. In some instances, your chicken may lose all their feathers, but not all at once. Molting occurs in patches and by the time another section starts to lose feathers, new feathers will have already developed in the previous balding area.

Each year your chickens’ feathers will become worn and raggedy in appearance from sub bleaching, preening, and self-plucking. Molting is necessary for the well-being of your chickens as their feathers are very important.

They will first lose feathers on their neck and between the shoulder blades. Over time the molting process will make its way over their entire body and they may look ruffled in appearance during this time.

Signs Your Chicken Is Molting

  • Sudden bald patches may begin to form on your chicken, exposing healthy skin underneath.
  • Reduced egg production
  • Down (soft, fluffy white feathers) begins to appear to replace the main feathers that fall out.
  • The comb and wattle looks dull
  • The surrounding area that your chicken is kept in is littered with more feathers than usual.
  • Their behavior can change and bouts of moodiness may occur.
  • Ragged feather appearance
  • Metabolism slows down
  • Decreased activity levels
  • Dull plumage
  • Dandruff and waxy covering in sleeping sheds.
Chicken eating in the grass
Image Credit: Messala Ciulla, Pexels

Why Do Chickens Molt?

Your chickens’ feathers’ quality will deteriorate over time. Although this is not a cause for concern in summer, it can greatly affect their tolerance to colder temperatures. Worn feathers will not be able to keep their bodies insulated, which is why molting is necessary.

This is the chickens’ bodies’ way to prepare for winter when they will require healthy feathers to keep them warm as the temperature decreases. During molting, hens will stop their egg production to redirect their energy towards renewing their feathers. The new feathers will be of higher quality and make your chicken fluffier and shinier. This yearly occurrence may be an unpleasant time for many chicken owners, as a decrease in their flock’s vitality and health may decrease.

Shorter daylight hours and a natural ending to egg production are the common triggers that encourage chickens to molt.

When Do Chickens Molt?

Chickens will molt according to the seasons. This process will generally occur during fall (autumn) or late summer when the daylight hours become shorter. Mature chickens will usually molt around 16 to 18 months of age. Chicken that is born early in the year will not molt for the first time during fall, but rather the following year when they are older. Backyard flocks will usually molt for about 8 weeks, and regrowth can take up to 16 weeks for some chickens.

Chickens have two molts during their first year of life, however, the feather loss is not as severe or prolonged as it will be in mature chickens. The first molt is when a chick loses its baby fluff and starts to sprout and develop its juvenile feathers. The second molt will be when the chick is around 7 to 12 weeks of age when they shed their baby feathers for their first full coat of adult feathers.

two chicks
Image Credit: Lolame, Pixabay

Types of Molts In Chickens

There are three terms used to describe the type of molt your chicken is experiencing.

Hard Molt

The feathers are lost all at once, so the molting process will be over quickly. The hen or rooster may look unwell during this time and have sudden feather loss and large areas of exposed skin or bald patches.

Soft Molt

This is when the chickens do not lose much plumage. Their tail feathers will fall out and this is the most telling sign that your chicken is experiencing a soft molt. However, they will not have as many bald patches in comparison to a chicken that is experiencing a hard molt. They may be covered in a soft and delicate layer of fluffy plumage for weeks, but most of their feathers are still intact.

Forced Molt

This is also known as a stress molt. It should be noted that this type of molting is illegal in the European Union, and it is most practiced in commercial egg factory farms.

This molting process involves stressing the chickens to the point that they molt out of stress. The food will be withheld for one or two weeks and sometimes water is withheld for a day or two. The immune system depletes, and the chicken’s body will react by going into a molt. The chicken will appear very stressed, underweight, and dull during this time. In agricultural terms, forced molting is caused by systematic starvation. The theory is that forcing the chicken to molt will give their reproductive system a rest as hens in commercial egg farms will lay eggs all year round.

production line of chicken eggs of a poultry farm
Image Credit: C.Lotongkum, Shutterstock

6 Tips To Help Molting Chickens

  • Avoid handling your chickens as picking them up or tugging at their feathers can cause them pain. You could potentially damage new growth as developing feathers contain blood-filled veins near the new feathers shaft.
  • Ensure that the chickens living space is comfortable and that there are no areas where surfaces can rub on their feathers, where the chickens can get stuck, or any sharp objects such as wire from fencing that can poke the exposed skin. If the pin feathers are damaged, your chicken can bleed profusely.
  • Keep the sleeping hutch insulated and warm during this time as your chickens’ feathers are unable to keep them protected from the elements.
  • Try transition back to layer feed as your chicken’s metabolism will decrease while they molt.
  • Pack the diet with protein to promote healthy feather development.
  • Reduce any stress your chicken may endure and keep them comfortable and happy during this time. Your chicken’s immune system will be low, and any extra stress will further reduce its immunity.

new chicken dividerFinal Thoughts

Molting is an interesting process that occurs in chickens but is highly necessary for their seasonal survival. Keep track of how long your chickens molt for and accommodate this delicate stage in their lives by gradually changing their routine and making adjustments to their living area to ensure that they have a comfortable and stress-free molt.

Featured Image Credit: minka2507, Pixabay

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