Bare Naked Ladies: What You Need to Know about Molting Chickens

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It’s that time of year when some chickens look like they been in a bad bar fight. That’s right, it’s molting season.

photo courtesy of Heather Nettrour

What is molting?

All birds molt, from a tiny hummingbird to a glorious bald eagle. Molting is the process in which chickens (and other birds) go through to replace their old, broken, ragged, dirty feathers with glossy, pretty, healthy new ones. And it’s not just to make them look prettier either, new feathers are more efficient at helping to trap warm air through the winter months.

When do chickens molt?

Chickens go through several molts in their lifetime. The first times as baby chicks when they lose their downy covering for feathers. They also have a second juvenile molt around 8-12 weeks old. In this molt their feathers start looking more vibrant and the adult color patterns emerge. Ornamental feathers begin to grow in too. It’s during this molt where backyard chicken keepers realize they may have gotten a roo (or two) in their bag of mixed baby chicks.

What triggers molting?

photo courtesy of Carol Hughes
The decreased daylight in the late summer and fall triggers the molt. Chickens typically go through their first adult molt at about 16-18 months old. Young hens less than 12 months will not molt for their first year, but will start the following fall.

The shorter days also triggers a decrease or complete halt in egg production for your laying hens. It causes a regression of the hen’s reproductive system, basically the end of an egg-laying cycle for the year. Molting and a halt in egg production are two separate processes that just triggered by the same environmental changes.

Molting can also be brought on by stresses, such as lack of food and water, heat stress, malnutrition, overcrowding, predators, or broodiness.

What to expect when chickens molt

The length of a chicken’s molt can vary widely and can take anywhere from 8 – 12 weeks. However, the molting progression is always the same —starting with the head, then down to the neck, body, and wings, and finishing up with the tail. (how appropriate!)

Sometimes a chicken will only partially molt, while other times every feather is replaced. Also, primary wing feathers (flight feathers) are replaced before the secondary ones, starting from the innermost to the outermost.

During a molt, the new feathers literally push out the old ones, and new quills or shafts can be seen where the old feathers are missing.

photos courtesy of Heather Nettrour

In addition to losing feathers, their combs and wattles will lose some of its bright red color. Not to worry, this is completely normal.

Your chickens might be a little listless and grumpy during their molt, which is also to be expected. But once their new, shiny, warm feathers grow in, they will be back to being the perky, sassy chickens that you know and love.

Not all the members in your flock with start molting at the same time either, so the process can be quite drawn out. The fastest molters are typically the best layers. And once they start laying again after their first molt, the eggs are general bigger and of better quality.

photo courtesy of Jessica Dilger
How to help your chickens during their molt

Feathers are about 85 percent protein, so you want to give your flock a feed that is higher in protein if possible. Many people switch over from layer feed to starter/grower feed for a while. You don’t want to feed too much protein because that can cause other problems, just a feed that’s about 20-22 percent protein.

There are other ways you can supplement their protein intake too, such as with mealworms, soldier fly larva, black oil sunflower seeds, scrambled eggs, meat scraps, yogurt, and canned fish (low sodium in water, please).

Many herbs contain protein too, such as basil, coriander, dill, fennel, parsley, spearmint, chervil, marjoram, and tarragon. You can feed them free-choice fresh or add them in their feed in a dried, crushed form.

photo courtesy of Grubbly Farms

Since we love to support small businesses we highly recommend Grubblies, from Grubbly Farms for a great protein snack made from black soldier fly grubs that is safely grown in the USA. Also try Molters Chicken Feed Herb Supplement from another wonderful business, Faith and Farms. (photo below contains Grubblies and Molters Feed Herb Supplement)

photo courtesy of Faith and Farms

Although some crazy chicken people may be inclined to put a sweater on a molting chicken, please don’t. (Actually we always advise against putting sweaters on chickens, unless for a photo op). The newly growing feathers are incredibly sensitive and come out through a shaft that can bleed profusely if damaged. A sweater would irritate and possibly hurt your chickens during this time. For this reason, you also shouldn’t handle them much if at all during their molt.

A molting bird with bare skin spot may be more susceptible to pecking and bullying from other flock members, so make sure you keep a watchful eye on them during this time.

Don’t despair, molting is a completely normal and natural process for your chickens. Even though they may look sad and raggedy during their molt and you won’t be getting many eggs, keep in mind that nature always provides. After this rest and renewal period is over, they will be happy, beautiful birds ready to supply you with eggs once again and show off their fabulous new plumage.

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