Chickens are adorable as chicks, but then they quickly grow up into roos or egg laying machines. Then one day *POOF* they start dropping feathers everywhere! Usually around 18 month of age a chicken (and you) will experience their first molt.
This is a natural process that will occur annually from this point on. Your poor chickens may look down right horrible during a molt, with feathers falling out in some spots and new ones coming in in others. Some chickens molt slowly, almost unnoticeable, others go hard and heavy and your coop may look like a pillow exploded! Just like humans, chickens are individuals, and each molts in their own way.
What is molting? Molting is the natural process of shedding feathers and growing new ones. Once a chicken passes their first molt, their will molt each year, usually in late summer and into the fall as the days begin to shorten. Why do they molt? They are just getting a new coat for winter, with better insulation. New clean feathers do a much better job of insulating and keeping a bird warm in colder months. The new feathers help trap warm air close to the body.
Keep in mind, stresses such as heat, overcrowding, predators or poor nutrition can also cause a chicken to start molting. We had a heat spell this summer and one of our hens, who is usually the last to molt each year, exploded and was done with her molt before fall even fell!
Molting usually happens in order, starting at the head, down the back, breast and ending on the wings and tails. Of course if you have a fast molter, they can go from feathered to completely naked all over in just a few days! The first time our Ester molted I freaked! I have never seen a hen molt so hard, so fast. When I found a pile of feathers in the yard and no bird, I was sure a predator had got her! After searching like crazy, I found her, hiding, naked in a bush!
You will notice when your hens molt, they will also stop laying. Molting can be hard on not only the hens, but your egg supply! Did you know that feathers consist of approximately 80-90% protein depending on the source of information. Feathers are actually made of keratin, the same protein fiber that makes up our hair and fingernails. It takes a lot of protein to grow new feathers! It also takes a LOT of protein to lay eggs. I hope you can understand why egg production comes to a halt during a molt. A girl can only do so much!
Sometimes chickens will peck each other and pull feathers. This is way different then molting. A “hen pecked” chicken will have bare spots. A molting chicken will have new shafts or quills poking through the skin.
During molting, the new feathers literally push out the old ones. Each new feather is covered by a waxy coating to protect the growing feathers that are filled with blood to nourish the growing shaft and feather. As the feather emerges, the wax casing breaks off to allow the new feather to emerge. You might notice the cast off casings around the coop if a bunch of girls molt at once.
One year Ester actually got assistance from Goldie, who groomed the tips of the casings off so the feathers could emerge. I had never seen a hen groom another hen and help during molting! Goldie was so gentle and Ester was in bliss.
While your chickens are molting, they should be on a quality complete feed. It never hurts to give them some protein support too! But what types of things can you give your chickens to boost their protein intake?!? Check out the list below!
Now some folks will say a molting chicken doesn’t “feel” anything. Molting is just molting. I on the other hand disagree. While it is a natural process, I am sure having hundreds of shafts pushing through your skin can not feel good. Kind of like when baby teeth are pushed out by adult teeth. There is some discomfort there. I have noticed that our girls do NOT like to be handled while molting. Heck, I don’t blame them! I honestly believe while maybe not “painful”, it is uncomfortable for them to say the least.
I also believe some chickens feel shame at their shabby condition, while others could care less. Buffy struts around the yard half dressed, while Ester disappears into the bushes for weeks! I swear she is embarrassed and doesn’t want anyone looking at her. It will be interesting to see how this year’s group of spring chicks handle molting next year. I wounder if they will be fast or slow, strut or hide. No matter how they go about it, I will make sure they have a little extra protein to help them though it.