If you are new to keeping chickens then feather loss can be a frustrating event.
You might already be aware of the annual molt but what else causes feather loss in chickens?
As it turns out there are a few good reasons for them to suddenly drop or lose their feathers.
There are some natural causes which cannot be altered, but also health issues that can be helped by paying close attention to your flock’s health and behavior.
We have been investigating and have come up with some useful and surprising information for you…
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Stress (Mini Molts)
When chickens get stressed the first thing that happens is they stop laying eggs.
After this they stop eating and can go into a mini molt.
What causes a chicken to become so stressed?
Sometimes there can be just one thing bothering them whilst other times ut can be a combination of things. Some of the biggest things that can cause stress are:
- Lack of food or water
- Excessive handling
- Loud noises
- Temperature too high or too low
- Bright lights
Your chickens will thrive on a consistent routine.
Any changes to that routine has the potential to cause a certain amount of stress to them. A change to the routine (no matter how small) can lead to a certain amount of fear in your birds and fear creates stress.
Adding new birds to the flock can cause some birds to become stressed – the new chickens represent a change in the pecking order for everyone.
Moving to a new coop can also cause some hens to have stress. A new environment represents not only change but a challenge for them to adjust to. Some hens will sail through it, others not so much.
You can help to minimize the effects of stress by removing or stopping the stressor.
Providing good nutrition and fresh water in a peaceful environment will help to get them back on track – their feathers should start returning soon after the routine is re-established.
A predator attack is stressful for the whole flock and not just the bird that was attacked.
This stress can cause their feathers to fall out and it can take weeks for them to get back to normal.
Hens that survive a predator attack usually have a lot of missing feathers and perhaps some flesh as well.
Young inexperienced predators may end up with only a mouthful of feathers but the more experienced ones sadly end up with a chicken for dinner. Sometimes all you will find is a pile of feathers and it can be very emotional.
If your hen survives an attack then check her over immediately for wounds. The predator will have removed a good clump of feathers from the area but you may also find teeth marks, tears and talon rakes too.
The dense layer of feathering has been a lifesaver for many hens. As the predator is dealing with a mouthful of feathers the hen can sometimes escape to safety.
Needless to say this is utterly traumatic for the hen.
She will be frightened for a while and will likely stop laying and may go into a molt.
Overall it will likely take several weeks for your hens to get their feathers back.
Disease and Poor Nutrition
Most diseases in chickens do not necessarily cause feather loss however the feather loss is because the hen is ill or has poor nutrition.
So in effect it is not a cause but a symptom.
You will see some feather loss in diseases such as fowl pox, cutaneous Marek’s, polyomavirus, malnutrition and gangrenous dermatitis.
The good news is that many of these diseases are uncommon. If you suspect any of these common diseases (cutaneous Marek’s and Fowl pox) then make sure to get them diagnosed and treated.
However if you suspect malnutrition there could be a couple of reasons for this.
- Inadequate nourishment from the current feed. You should switch the feed brand and make sure it is a complete nutrition.
- Sometimes folks will make their own feed mix – this is fine as long as it contains all of the vitamins, minerals and trace elements that your birds need.
If a chicken has been severely malnourished for a while then it is possible she will never grow all of her feathers back.
The annual molt usually occurs around Fall time.
It is a natural event and there is nothing you can do to stop it.
Chickens usually start their first molt sometime between 15-18 months (depending on when she was hatched).
She molts to shed her old and battered feathers (that no longer keep her warm) and replaces them with a new set of beautiful, shiny and warm feathers that will do the job for the next year.
Some people find their chickens start molting from the head and neck area first.
However others find their chickens lose body, wing or tail feathers at random times and in no perceptible order.
Some hens will have a soft molt – this is where you can barely tell if she is molting or not. Whilst others will have a hard molt looking like they have been through a chicken plucking machine!
The growing of new pin feathers can be painful.
So make sure to avoid touching her and keep an eye out for any bullying. Sometimes her flock mates may pluck out some of the blood quills and eat them – they are a good source of protein.
During their molt you should increase their protein intake to help them regrow feathers as quickly as possible. Use a higher protein feed (20% or better) and give high protein snacks or treats such as mealworms, cat food or a meager handful of fish pellets.
Lice, Mites and Other Parasites
Imagine having nasty little creepy crawlies walking through your hair.
Disgusting and irritating right?
That is what happens to your chicken when she gets lice or mites. These parasites will congregate in certain areas – usually the shafts of feathers and around the vent as it is warm and moist. They cause intense irritation and your chicken will scratch and pull out her own feathers in an attempt to be rid of them.
- Lice do not suck the blood of their host but live on the discarded skin scales and other detritus found on the chickens body.
- Mites will suck the blood of their host and in extreme cases this can lead to anemia, sickness and eventually death.
- The depluming mite is probably the worst of the lot since it actually burrows into their skin around the feather follicles and can be difficult to get rid of.
Checking and treating your chickens for external parasites is a task that should be done regularly to avoid finding an overwhelming infestation. Minor infestations can be treated with poultry dust – do not forget to treat the coop and nesting boxes too!
Once you have removed the parasites their feathers should start to grow back within a few weeks.
Your chickens will occasionally lose feathers when they preen.
This is where they take oil from the preen gland situated at the base of the tail and spread that oil over their feathers using only their beak.
The process helps to keep their feathers in great condition.
During the preening process the bird may remove broken feathers that are unsightly.
They do not usually lose a lot of feathers during preening so you probably will not see much difference in the hen’s feather covering.
Broody hens are easy to spot.
They are grumpy, bad tempered and look like they are ready for a fight.
Once a broody hen is settled into their nesting mode they will pluck feathers from their breast. This not only lines the nest with warm downy feathers for the chicks to rest on but it also ensures that the incubating eggs are right next to her skin.
This means her body temperature can easily keep the eggs at the right temperature for hatching and the chicks will be kept toasty warm after hatching.
The bald spot will appear somewhere near her keel bone. It will be difficult to see since she is not likely to let you pick her up. The plucked area will soon regrow some feathers as many broodies will go into a molt after raising their chicks.
Mating and Roosters
Hens that are frequently mated by the roosters can start to develop bald areas.
The area at the back of her comb can become quite bald by the end of the season because this is where he grabs her with his beak to give himself some stability.
You may also notice some bald spots on her back where he treads her with his feet.
During mating season you should check these areas often and carefully.
If the rooster is overly amorous he can tear up her skin with his talons causing pain and bloodshed. If you find any open areas they should be gently cleansed and then covered in antibiotic ointment. Deep tears may even need stitches so you will need to contact a veterinarian.
While these wounds are healing your hen should be isolated to give her time for her feathers to grow back.
To help prevent such injuries you can try fitting your birds with a hen saddle.
Pecking and Bullying
Chickens will pluck feathers from their companions for all kinds of reasons.
Sometimes you will find that your chickens bully each other and peck each other. You will need to pay close attention to this as it can lead to full blown cannibalism.
Any bullies should immediately be removed from the flock until the injured hen recovers.
Another cause for pecking is overcrowding.
Remember each chicken will need 4 square feet of coop space and 4 square feet in the run.
Chickens that are cramped will often peck their flock mates because they are stressed – when they peck they can remove their feathers which causes the feather loss.
The situation can be made worse by boredom.
Chickens are intelligent creatures and need some form of mental stimulation to prevent them from getting into mischief. Things like leaf piles, cabbage piñata, several perches, tree stumps, a quiet area and dust baths will help.
Insufficient nutrition will also make them pluck feathers.
If they are receiving feed that does not meet their protein requirements then they will eat feathers to get protein. Make sure your feed is at least 16% layer during most of the year and at least 20% during the molt.
Not enough feeders can cause the same thing.
Certain chickens will guard the feeders and this means some hens can not eat.
As a guideline you will need one feeder and one waterer for every ten chickens.
This will ensure they can all get food and water and help reduce feather picking and loss.
As you can see there are several causes of feather loss in your flock. Fortunately most of the time the cause will either be molting, mating or parasites.
The key to controlling many of these problems is good housekeeping.
Keep the coop as clean as possible, give them adequate feed and fresh water.
Also if you can, then let them free range. Whilst free ranging your hens will pick up many supplements for their diet – it also lets them dust bath which can help prevent feather loss.
Although there is no perfect solution to every situation we hope we have given you the necessary information to troubleshoot feather loss in your flock.
Let us know in the comments section below if you have any questions about feather loss in your flock…