Chickens are the most domesticated bird in the world. There are more than 25 billion chickens, making them the most populous 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.
When do Chickens Molt?
When the days start to get shorter and the season starts to cool down, it is when you see the first signs of molting in your chickens. The molting season usually begins in 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 of age, chickens will molt once a year. Young spring chicks may experience it several times before fall and thus skip the “normal” molting season to continue their molting process the following year.
Molting Chickens and What That Looks Like?
One of the first things you may notice is a shorter supply of eggs. Chicken feathers form from 85% protein. Chickens may stop laying eggs when molting to conserve protein and other vital nutrients needed during the production of feathers. Feathers are made mostly of keratin. The following list briefly describes the parts of the body you may find feathers.
- The neck
- The midsection
- The legs
- The tail
- The wings
Do not panic. It is a natural process that happens every year. If you rely on eggs laid by your chickens, you may freeze excess supply before the 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 manifest these signs 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 crucial to handle your molting chickens with care because of this.
While the sequence of shedding stays the same, molting chickens differ in time. Most of the feathers will be shed and regrown. But not all feathers are lost in this process. Some chickens are more efficient and only require 3-4 weeks.
Others require more time. It may depend on the amount of feathers they will be shedding. That is why 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 of how they work and why they shed. 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, shedding feathers is essential to maintaining good quality health.
Chickens have four types of feathers. And each with a unique purpose. Below I have included a list of each feather type and their benefit.
- Webbed Feathers: These are the massive 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 smaller feathers usually situated 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 sheds, the pin feathers come in. These pin feathers a covered in a protein sheath. The protein sheath is separated 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. It is usually curved and forms a vane. Following that is the inner vane and the outer vane. An up-curved edge forms at the bottom. And a down-curved edge is found at the top of a feather leading to the 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 since they weaken from painful pin feathers pushing their way to the surface. It resembles porcupine quills and may look rather patchy. Luckily, there are many ways that you can help your chickens out during this vulnerable time.
It is crucial to monitor your chickens to make sure they are not suffering from illness at this time. While observing your chickens, you may also have to consider intervening in their daily protein take and feed supply. With the proper nutrients and a quality diet, molting chickens receive safe and efficient management.
Most chicken farmers suggest at least 16% protein for chickens throughout the year. And since they need an additional protein during the molting process, experts recommend increasing this diet to 20-22%. A high-quality diet is essential during this time.
Some recommend the free choice feeding method—contrary to rationing when chickens are molting. While rationing feed may be economical most of the year, free access provides chickens with 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 them into their pellet/feed. You may also add biotin or other supplements to their water supply. Lastly, it is essential to have an abundant water source 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: 47%-53% 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 critical to reiterate how fragile a chicken may be when molting. Now that we know how the molting process works and what nutrients may be required, we can see other alternative care tips to ensure a most successful molt.
Stress may be a massive factor in molting recovery. As we have learned, molting can be a stressful and draining process. One way to reduce the stress in a chicken’s environment is by not introducing new, unacquainted 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 it with care. As much as possible, avoid carrying molting chickens. As discussed earlier, the porcupine-like pin feathers are irritatingly painful. They are supplied with blood when coming in. They often bleed and are very sensitive to touch.
It is great to monitor your chickens 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 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 indispensable for molting chickens, you may want to consider adding a variety of water drinkers to your coop. That, accompanied by a free-choice feeding method, 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 complements to each drinker to create variety and choice during the molt.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. Is it good for chickens to molt?
Your chicken may look scruffy, but the natural process makes them healthy and comfortable. Molting helps them protect their body from cold weather by forming new strong feathers.
To think of it entirely, it’s like replacing a new worn-out sweater for the winter season. Isn’t it the norm for us humans? So instead of ostracizing mangy-looking birds, it’s better to help them during the process.
2. Do chickens need heat when molting?
Since they lose their feathers, you can expect that their insulation ability decreases. A coop with an enclosure is enough if your chicken molt during the cool weather. But if they are undergoing moderate to severe molt, you may want to add extra protection and heat inside the shelter.
3. Do chickens feel unwell when molting?
Yes, they do, and sometimes they even lose weight. But the most crucial thing to observe is if they are sick. If your chicken present with irregular and sluggish behavior, it’s best to seek professional help.
Another is the risk of infection, so ensure they don’t have damaged skin. Chickens may get this during a fight with their bully coop mates. If the said scenario persists, better to move them to another shelter for a short time.
4. How does cider vinegar help chicken?
Poultry farmers have long used apple cider to improve the health of their flocks. It contains healthy vitamins, minerals, and trace elements that support the body’s systems. Here are a few benefits you can gain from using it:
- It helps boost the immune system
- It aids the digestive system by providing good bacteria
- It increases calcium absorption
- It prevents algae from developing on poultry waterers
But remember to keep it at one tablespoon per gallon a week to avoid unnecessary side effects.
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 guidance, your chickens will be back producing eggs in no time!
Joseph Hudson has been raising chickens for over 15 years. In 2018, he completed the Agriculture & Natural Resources program at Mt. San Antonio College. He currently raises over 1400 chickens on his 7.5-hectare farm. He keeps sharing his experience on raising healthy and happy chickens on Chicken Scratch The Foundry.