When your chickens start molting it can be quite scary.
You may initially mistake this for some dreaded disease sweeping through your flock.
However chicken molting is a yearly occurrence.
Just as surely as the leaves will change and fall, those old and tatty feathers will drop out to be replaced by fine new feathers.
Molting is an unhappy time for your girls.
In this article we are going to talk about the molting process. How to identify it, when it will happen, how long it lasts and how you can help your chickens to get through the molt as quickly as possible…
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Chicken Molting Explained
Humans shed skin cells, animals shed hair, snakes will shed a skin and chickens shed feathers.
Each year chickens’ old feathers become worn out from sun bleaching, pecking by other chickens and fairly constant preening. The feathers start to look dingy and ragged.
Feathers are very important to chickens for a few reasons:
- The coloring and condition of the feathers is one of the ways a chicken selects a mate. Those who look good and have great feathers are much more likely to get a mate (much like humans).
- When the feathers get ragged they do not lock together as well. This means they lose their ability to insulate and keep the chicken warm. Good insulation for the winter months is critical for the survival of your chickens in very cold climates.
- Finally their ability to fly is impaired. This is not so important for chickens but critical for wild birds.
So it is off with the old and on with the new.
The new feathers will gradually replace the old ones giving the chicken a shiny new set of feathers. These feathers will see them through the winter months into spring, the mating season and summer.
Then they do it over again.
Chickens actually have two molts during their first year of life. The first molt is when they lose their fluff and start sprouting feathers around 6-8 days old. The second molt is somewhere between 7-12 weeks when they shed their baby feathers for their first full coat. This is the time when you will be able to spot the difference between a hen and a rooster.
This set will last them until their first adult molt which will be sometime between 14-18 months depending on when they hatched.
You can read more about this in our how old is your chicken article.
What To Expect
Every time they shake themselves there will be a blizzard of feathers flying around.
There will also be lots of dander and probably a bit of sneezing from all the loose dander in the air.
Watch out for these telltale signs and ask yourself what time of the year it is.
Their comb and wattles will appear faded or washed out and perhaps a little shrunken in size.
During the molt they will go through not only physical changes but behavioral changes too.
So your chickens might be a bit lethargic, subdued or become skittish for no good reason. They may hide away in dark corners to avoid contact with others and you. They may also be quieter than usual.
As their new pin feathers start to grow in you should try to avoid handling them at all. These pin feathers contain blood vessels and stimulate follicle nerves, so it is painful for them when these new feathers are touched. If pin feathers are broken they can bleed a lot.
Once the pin feathers have fully grown in the blood supply will stop.
You may also notice mounds of dandruff-like substance underneath the perches. This is the remains of the waxy coverings that all new feathers begin with – nothing to be worried about it is perfectly natural.
All in all you should expect the entire molt to be finished within 12 weeks.
As a side note once all the feathers have fallen it is a great time to clean your coop for fall.
Molting Times (When and How Long)
So, when do chickens molt?
Chickens will start their molt in the fall as they slowly wind down for the year.
The reducing daylight triggers the molt and you will start to notice more feathers than usual on the ground.
It is said that those who molt fast are the best layers and those who molt slowly are poor layers.
Some of your flock may experience a hard molt (this is where she drops all her feathers over a very short period). Whereas others will have a soft molt and lose a few feathers here and there over a longer period of time. It may be so subtle that you barely notice it.
The severity of the molt will vary from chicken to chicken, and each chicken will experience a different molt each year.
How long do chickens molt?
The molting period will last for 4-12 weeks depending on the chicken. On average it will take 7-8 weeks.
If you watch them carefully you will notice that the molting process happens in a pre-designated manner. They will start losing feathers on their head and neck first. It will then spread down to the breast and back, to the wings and finally the tail.
Molting Care Guide
During the molt you need to watch your flock carefully for any signs of illness.
They are more susceptible to health problems like coryza and other viral illnesses during the molt.
You should give them high protein feed during this time to help them to fight off any infection that might be on their way (more on this later).
Now is also a good time to visually check their skin. You should be able to see patches of skin quite clearly while the pin feathers are growing in. You should check for any signs of infestations (lice or mites) and treat if found.
If your chickens start molting later into fall then hypothermia (low body temperature) can be a very real issue for them. To help them stay warm make sure there is lots of straw or bedding to snuggle into at night. The straw holds a little heat and will insulate them a bit better.
You can also consider getting a chicken coop heater.
Under no circumstances should you put chicken sweaters or other types of clothing on molting birds. During this time their pin feathers are extremely sensitive so putting a sweater on them would cause unnecessary pain and discomfort.
Keep a very close eye out for the hens that are low in the pecking order. Those pin feathers are full of protein and the larger chickens may decide to pluck and bully the more timid members of the flock.
Once blood is shed it will become a pecking frenzy and your hen could be seriously injured.
If the problem is severe you may have to isolate the more timid girls until they have grown in their feathers.
When you reintroduce the injured chicken make sure you do it correctly – the complete guide to introducing new chickens to your flock.
This type of pecking does not happen very often, but it is a sign that they need more protein. So make sure to increase their protein intake accordingly.
What To Feed During The Molt
During the molt your chickens need lots of protein.
Feathers are about 85% protein so the protein needs of your chickens increases a lot in order to maintain good health and grow new feathers.
You can help by increasing the protein content of their feed from 16% to 20% during the molt. You can even feed game bird food (28%) for the molting period if you wish but remember that long term high protein can cause health problems, so make sure to stop the high protein feed as soon as they have finished molting.
They can also eat high protein treats and snacks too. Things like canned tuna, scrambled eggs and cat food all contain good amounts of protein. Treats such as mealworms, black oil sunflower seeds and fish pellets will all help.
A note of caution with fish pellets – they contain very high amounts of protein (up to 35%) so use them in moderation as a treat.
Some folks even sprinkle cod liver oil on their feed and mix it in. About two tablespoons per 5lb feed once every two weeks – too much oil will taint the taste of their eggs!
If you want to give them something warm then the occasional treat of fresh baked corn bread with nuts and seeds is always a big hit.
Lastly, make sure they have lots of fresh water.
You can also add some powdered vitamin or electrolyte solution to the water to keep them in good shape.
My Hens Have Stopped Laying During Molting
The molt is incredibly demanding on a chicken’s body.
During this time egg laying will slow dramatically and stop altogether for a while. They simply cannot molt and lay eggs at the same time as it is far too energy intensive for them.
Also as the molt is during fall the number of daylight hours is typically reducing quickly.
If you read common reasons why chickens stop laying eggs, you will know that the reduced daylight hours also causes your chicken to stop laying eggs.
When the daylight falls below a certain amount the hens’ body starts to produce prolactin. The prolactin triggers a slowdown of their reproductive machinery.
Egg laying will get back to normal just as soon as the molt is finished and the required amount of daylight arrives.
If you want them to start laying eggs sooner then you will have to add a light to the coop.
5 Top Tips For Helping Chickens Get Through The Molt
- Make sure to give them good quality feed with a high protein percentage (20% or better).
- Give them clean water with vitamin and electrolyte powder added.
- Inside the coop make sure there is lots of clean and fluffy bedding.
- You should keep stress down to a minimum. This means no visitors, no changes and no additions to the flock.
- For an extra boost give them high protein treats like cat food, tuna, scrambled eggs and sunflower seeds.
FAQs About Chicken Molting
How long does the molt last?
The length of the molt will depend on the individual chicken.
You can expect it to last from 4-12 weeks, with most chickens taking around 7-8 weeks. Chickens that are good layers are said to molt quickly while poor layers molt much slower.
What does a molting chicken look like?
Molting chickens are a sad sight.
It is a time when their body is undergoing a very stressful period and they are quite vulnerable to all manner of problems. Even those that have a soft molt seem very unhappy about it. You can look through the molting pictures in this article to get an idea of what it looks like.
What is stress molting?
This happens when chickens become overly stressed about something.
Whether it is the addition of new flock mates, a change of location or a lack of food or water. All of these things can cause a stress molt. You should try to avoid any sudden and dramatic changes in their routine.
How can I stop them from molting?
Chickens will molt as surely as the sun will rise. It is a product of the evolution of the bird and cannot be stopped or prevented.
All in all the molting process is fairly miserable for chickens.
Your chickens can be subdued, sitting off to the side hunched up and shivering if the weather is cold.
They look and feel awful.
The fact that they pretty much stop laying eggs too reminds us that winter is the time for rest and regeneration for all living things.
It is important for your girls to take a break from egg laying.
The good news is that once the molt is done they will look very spiffy in their new glossy feathers and will be back to their usual chatty and happy selves.
All that remains is for the days to start to lengthen so they can get back to laying those delicious eggs again!
Are your chickens molting now? Let us know in the comments section below…