Chickens are the most domesticated bird in the world. There are more than sixty billion chickens, making them the most successful birds on the planet. While they have been very successful procreators, they too have vulnerable moments. In this article, we will be discussing their most vulnerable state, the molting chicken.
Molting Chickens and What that Looks Like
When the days start to get shorter and the season starts to cool down that is when you start to see the first signs of molting in your chickens. Molting season usually begins late summer and early fall. The shortening of the days is the biggest trigger for the molting process. No matter the weather, after a year in age, chickens will molt once a year. Young spring chicks may molt several times before fall and thus skipping the normal molting season to continue their molting process the next year.
One of the first things you may begin to notice is a shorter supply of eggs. Chickens feathers are made of 85% protein. Chickens may stop laying eggs when molting to conserve protein and other vital nutrients needed in the production of feathers. Feathers are made mostly of keratin. The following list describes briefly the parts of the body you may find feathers.
- The neck
- The midsection
- The wings
- The legs
- The tail
Do not panic. This is a natural process that happens every year. If you rely on eggs laid by your chickens, you may freeze excess supply before molting season to ensure there is not a shortage of eggs.
The more you know about molting chickens, the better prepared you will be to aid your chickens in this process. Chickens start to molt in a sequence. Beginning with the head, they lose their feathers slowly. The shedding process then moves down from the back to the breast then to the thighs, ending with their delicate tail feathers. In the same sequence, they lose their feathers do new feathers emerge. These are called pin feathers. Pin feathers can bleed and are often painful for the bird. It is important to handle your molting chickens with care because of this.
While the sequence of shedding remains the same, molting chickens do differ in time. Most of the feathers will be shed and regrown, however, not all feathers are lost in this process. Some chickens are more efficient and only require 3-4 weeks. Others require more time. This may depend on the amount of feathers they will be shedding. It is important to note that both hens and roosters molt. Chickens losing more feathers may require up to 13-16 weeks for molting.
What is molting without feathers? In this passage, we will briefly discuss the anatomy of feathers so you may get an idea for how they work and why they molt. An adult hen needs about 14-17 hours of sunlight to produce an egg, thus granting the best time to molt when the days become shorter. While an opportunist, the shedding of feathers is essential to maintaining a good quality of health.
Chickens have four types of feathers each with a unique purpose. Below I have included a list of each feather type their benefit.
- Webbed Feathers: These are the larger feather types. They help insulate rain and wind and are protective.
- Plumules: These are smaller feathers that grow closer to the body and provide warmth.
- Bristle Feathers: These are even smaller feathers located in the eyes, beak, and ears. These feathers help keep away pests.
- Filoplumes: These are ever finer feathers, hairlike and soft. These feathers may have sensory or decorative features.
Once a feather is shed, the pin feathers come in. These pin feathers a covered in a protein sheath. The protein sheath is then removed in a process called preening.
While each feather may differ in size, texture, color and other variants, the anatomy stays the same. The base of a feather, the part mostly in contact with skin, is called a quill. You may know the quill from old usages of it for writing. Next is the central shaft or rachis. This is usually curved and forms a vane. Following that is the inner vane and the outer vane. An up-curved edge is found at the bottom and a down-curved edge is found at the top of a feather leading to the feather tip. A barb, barbule, hook and catch create the most recognizable features of the feather.
How to Assist Molting Chickens
In the molting state, chickens are very fragile. They require more protein and are weakened by painful pin feathers pushing their way to the surface. This resembles porcupine quills and may look rather patchy. There are many ways that you can help your chickens out during this vulnerable time. It is important to monitor your chickens to make sure they are not actually suffering from illness at this time. While monitoring your chickens, you may also want to consider intervening in their daily protein take and feed supply. With the proper nutrients and a quality diet, molting chickens can be managed safely and efficiently.
Most chicken farmers suggest at least a 16% diet of protein for chickens throughout the year. Since more protein is required during the molting process, it is suggested to increase this diet to 20-22%. A high-quality diet is required during this time. Some recommend the free choice method of feeding as opposed to rationing when chickens are molting. While rationing feed may be economical most times of the year, free access allows the chickens to have the best chance at getting the nutrients they need for their molt.
There are other ways to provide enough protein for your molting chickens than their feed alone. Biotin is an essential vitamin for healthy bones and feather growth. You can use biotin powders by sprinkling into their feed. You may also add biotin or other supplements into their water supply. It is very important to have an abundant source of water during this time.
You may also consider other methods of protein for molting chickens. These can be offered regularly or in the form of treats. Below is a list of high protein snacks to consider for molting care.
- mealworms: 53%-30% protein
- cat food: 26%-30% protein
- sunflower seeds: 26% protein
- oats: 10%-17% protein
Alternative Tips to Help Molting Chickens
As suggested above, it is important to reiterate how fragile a chicken maybe when molting. Now that we have a good idea of how the molting process works and what nutrients may be required, we can see some alternative care tips to ensure a most successful molt.
Stress may be a huge factor in molting recovery. As we have learned molting can be a rather stressful and draining process. One way you may reduce the stress in a chicken’s environment is by not introducing new, un aquatinted birds. Chickens are highly social animals. Because of this, they are great for domestication. While very social, each new chicken may induce stress on the flock and may disorient their highly established pecking order. It is a good idea to understand the social nuances of your animals.
Another great tip is to handle with care. As much as possible avoid handling molting chickens. As discussed earlier, the porcupine-like pin feathers are quite painful. They are supplied with blood when coming in. They often bleed and are very sensitive to touch. It is great to monitor your birds during this time, but avoid touching them. Handle only when necessary and with great care. Luckily it is easy to see the most sensitive areas so you may avoid them. If a patch is bald, it may mean the pin feathers are coming in and are just below the surface. Each bird may vary with the time it takes to grow new feathers, but you will be able to see where they will be coming in.
Since water is very important for molting chickens, you may want to consider adding a variety of water drinkers to your coup. This, accompanied by a free choice method of feeding, may allow your chickens to choose their appropriate nutrients. For example, adding Apple Cider Vinegar to one drinker and supplements to another drinker adds variety and improves health. You can add other supplements to each drinker in order to create variety and choice during the molt.
In summary, a little bit of patience can go a long way. Be kind to your molting chickens. These are very social creatures. Offering them support both environmentally and nutritiously can go a long way in the renewal process. Remember that this is a natural cycle. With your support, your chickens will be back producing eggs in no time!