Often starting in early fall, chickens will begin to lose their feathers in a process called “molting”. It can be alarming for a new chicken keeper, since your hens will often become less active, be noticeably naked, and stop laying eggs. It is, however, totally normal.
Before you assume your hens are just molting, make sure to check for parasites and general coop health. Another reason that chickens might lose feathers is mites, which can destroy a henhouse quickly. You can identify mites by inspecting your hen’s feathers and making sure there are no brown or red dots at the roots of the feathers, or a white powdery substance along the shaft of the feather. Once you’ve determined this is not the case, you can be certain that the feather loss is molting.
Chickens usually molt once a year, and the process takes about eight weeks from start to finish. Young chickens also molt twice before they reach adulthood. The first time is at about 6-8 weeks and is very noticeable, because they are losing their baby fuzz and growing their very first feathers. The second time is at about 12 weeks old and replaces the small, juvenile feathers with full-sized adult feathers. From this point on, chickens will molt every year, usually in late summer or early fall. Hens will also molt after being broody or hatching chicks, as they return to a normal diet and lifestyle after several weeks on the nest.
Because producing new feathers takes a lot of a chicken’s energy and requires a lot of nutrients, they need some extra attention during this time. Making sure that she is receiving plenty of protein and is not being bullied at the feeder will be a great help for a molting hen. Extra treats and more nutritional feeds will help to keep your chickens healthy during this time, and keep an extra watch for any hen-pecking, because chickens will immediately try to oust weakness in the flock.
If it is later in the fall, you also need to make sure that a molting chicken is kept warm. In temperatures below freezing, not having all of your feathers can be a real issue. A molting chicken may need to be kept inside where it is warm, or provided with a heat lamp on cold nights.
Other fowl, such as ducks and geese, also molt regularly and have similar needs for added nutrition, heat, and protection. Birds who normally fly – even a chicken just flying up to a roost – may not be able to during a molt and also need a place they can go which is secure from predators.
With just a little bit of extra care, this alarming loss of feathers quickly turns into a dazzling array of new plumage that will see your chicken through the next year.
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