If you’re a longstanding member of the chicken community chances are you have seen your fair share of chicken molts. For those that have not had the pleasure of seeing your chickens happily running around partially naked, just you wait! It’ll be a sight to see, for sure, at least the first time. Molting is not all fun and games however, and we’ll explain why.
You may have encountered this piece because you’re looking for easy-to-understand answers. Maybe you’ve just entered your coop to find that it looks a mess with feathers strewn all around. Maybe you’ve never heard of molting and don’t know what it is or even why it is happening.
Perhaps you think something unnatural is occurring and that there’s something really wrong with your feathered friends. Maybe you knew this time would come and now you’re wondering if there are ways that you can help them. There are lots of questions when it comes to why chickens molt and how you can help them.
It’s perfectly understandable that you may be concerned about your chicken’s health and these are all very good queries, but generally speaking, a molting chicken is not cause for concern.
What Does It Mean When Chickens Molt?
For those that are new to raising chickens and haven’t heard of molting, or had a chance to experience it yet, when a chicken molts it just means that it is sprouting new feathers. In order to make room for the new ones, the old ones have to go. The molting generally starts in sections, beginning around the head and face area and works its way to the body and wings, and finally the tail. It does not, and should not, happen all at once. If your chicken loses all of its feathers in one shot there may be another issue going on with it.
Chickens molt for various reasons, which we will cover below. They will go through just two molts when they are young, one around 4 weeks when they lose their cute chick downy feathers and one when they reach their sexual maturity somewhere between 20 to 24 weeks. After that they should endure one natural molt annually. The annual molts are the lengthiest and can take anywhere from 2 to 6 months to complete.
Also there are two types of molts – a hard molt and a soft molt. A hard molt involves the chicken losing a majority of its feathers in a very short amount of time and is very noticeable. A soft molt occurs when your chicken loses just a few feathers here and there and it is not very noticeable unless you are physically looking for it. Most times you won’t even be aware that your chicken is undergoing a soft molt.
Why Do Chickens Molt?
Molting is a necessary practice for chickens. There are a number of factors that can cause them to begin molting. Some are out of your control like the weather and the amount of daylight they receive. Others that are within your control, like not having enough food and water and having to endure an abundance of unnecessary stress, can bring on a molt.
Typically when summer ends and fall begins there is an automatic reduction in the number of daylight hours. This seasonal change is the main trigger that causes the hormonal change that lets the birds know that they should begin molting. This time of the year is really the perfect time for molting since it’s still relatively warm and it’s before the winter cold comes. Sometimes chickens may experience a second molt when winter turns to spring, but that’s not the case for every chicken.
To Molt Or Not To Molt? That Is The Question.
Preventing your chickens from molting is one of those hot topics that is highly debated among various chicken forums online. Yes, there is a way to prevent (read: discourage) your chickens from molting. It involves using artificial lights inside the chicken coop so that your chickens don’t know that the daylight hours are shorter and thus has no effect on the hormones that are responsible for molting. It’s by no means 100% guaranteed to work, but some have seen success with it.
But what’s the big deal, why not just let them molt? Well, for some people, they own chickens for the benefit of having a consistent source of eggs. Molting, which can last for up to 6 months, causes chickens to stop laying eggs. All resources inside your chicken get deviated to focus on producing and growing new feathers. Going up to 6 months without eggs can be a huge inconvenience and for some that is not a viable option.
Also, since all efforts inside your chicken’s body are going towards the process of growing those new feathers out, that means that their immune system may end up taking a nosedive, too. This means that molting can actually make them more susceptible to catching a disease or illness. Some say that they’re protecting their birds more by not allowing them to molt.
The argument here is that many chicken owners believe that preventing your chickens from molting is a tad bit inhumane as molting is a necessary process to ensure your chickens can maintain a healthy coat of feathers. Throughout time a chicken’s feathers can get worn out, broken, and stop insulating as good as they ought to. Molting helps to ensure they can keep themselves warm during the winter, plus it makes them look a lot fresher, which may even boost their confidence and overall happiness in the flock.
There are other ways to help keep their immune system in check when they’re molting. As you will need to boost their protein anyway to help the feathers grow back as quickly as possible, you may consider adding some DE (diatomaceous earth) to their feed and around their coop to help keep disease-spreading pests at bay – which should help lessen the likelihood that your flock will get sick during their molting process.
As far as egg production goes it’s not guaranteed that they will completely stop laying eggs, you may just suffer an extreme decrease in production. If you’re able to withstand buying eggs from a market for a couple of months, it may be more beneficial for your chickens to just let them molt naturally.
If you’re straddling the fence on this one, you may consider a mix of the two. Perhaps you can allow them to start their molt and then towards the end, maybe a few weeks in, you can add in a light to get them to start laying again. Ultimately it’s up to you and, generally speaking, adding a light in their coop shouldn’t harm them, it just kind of tweaks their internal clock.
How You Can Help Your Chickens Through Molting
While molting is not something you can easily prevent your chicken from going through, as mentioned before, there are some things that are within your control to help make the molting process a little easier on your flock.
1. Food Quality
Remember that feathers are around 80-85% protein. Make sure you’re feeding them food that’s super high in protein. Upping their protein is the best way to help speed up the molting process and make their feathers grow in quicker. Treats like mealworms, scrambled eggs, peas, and black-oil sunflower seeds are high in protein and a good place to start. Some even swear by adding cod-liver oil to their diet.
2. Avoid Handling
Molting has been known to be painful as it exposes sensitive skin that’s typically covered and protected. You will want to avoid handling your chickens as much as possible when they’re molting so you can make sure not to irritate it any more than necessary. Also, pay close attention to their pin feathers (the quills that carry blood to the feather’s shaft). It can easily break which can be very painful to the chicken and cause it to bleed.
3. Reduce Stress
Eliminate as much stress as possible for them. Stress slows down the body’s ability to grow the feathers, so reducing stress will help to ensure the molting happens as quickly as possible. If there are any bird-bullies in the flock pecking at the other chickens or if you have a rooster with a one-track mind that’s determined to mate, you may want to consider removing them from the flock for the time being. Also make sure there is always a fresh supply of water and plenty of food available to the chickens at all times.
If you’re concerned that your chickens are experiencing a particularly difficult molt there’s not too much you can really do except wait it out. Luckily most chickens are pretty tough and can just deal with it. As long as you’ve done your part as a chicken parent to keep them well supplied with protein-rich feed and have removed any triggers of stress, you’ve pretty much done your job. Ensuring that you limit your handling of them can help, too, but make sure that you’re still keeping a close eye on them so you can spot any open wounds or parasitic bugs, just in case.