Chickens & Molting: What to Know
Twice each year, mature chickens lose their feathers so new, fresh plumage can grow in. This process is called molting and is the natural way for chickens to keep their feathers looking shiny and healthy. It’s also a way for chickens to refresh their feathers before cold winter days. During this time, chickens can look a little strange and decrease egg production, but it is all part of their life cycle and completely harmless. But as natural as chickens molting is, any time an animal loses its protective covering chicks become more susceptible to injury and disease. Backyard chicken keepers must pay close attention to their birds during this time to keep them comfortable and healthy.
Chickens go through two types of molts – hard and soft. This is largely determined by a chicken’s genetic makeup. Commercial chicken farms typically want chickens that molt quickly so egg production is not interrupted. A soft molt is a more natural process that takes place over the course of a few weeks. For most chickens, this usually begins as summer turns to fall and the days get shorter. Changes in the amount of available light are a chicken’s signal that winter is coming and it’s time to replace their feathers. A lighter molt also takes place in the spring as the amount of light changes again.
During molting, the majority of a chicken’s energy stores are used up through losing and replacing feathers, so egg production falls off dramatically or stops altogether. Increased artificial light during the winter months can help improve egg production after molting, as a chicken’s molting and egg-laying internal clocks are directly regulated by the amount of light available. Providing artificial light in the coop in the mornings can help encourage cold-weather egg laying and is safe for hens. Molting can be a painful process, so most chickens don’t like to be held at all while losing and regrowing their feathers. This is because newly formed feathers have a vein-filled shaft that will bleed if injured or cut. That makes these pin feathers very sensitive when touched. New feathers grow through the vein-filled shaft, which is covered by a waxy coating. As the feathers mature, the waxy coating falls off or is removed as the chicken preens itself. The new feathers unfold and the vein dries up over time. A typical molt is approximately 7 to 8 weeks long, but anywhere from 4 to 12 weeks is considered normal.
When chicks hatch, they have no feathers and are covered with a soft down. Chicks go through four stages of molts before they reach adulthood. These typically happen at 1 to 6 weeks, 7 to 9 weeks, 12 to 13 weeks, and 20 to 22 weeks. A chicken's tail feathers are the last thing to grow in after the 20 to 22 week molt. After this process, adult chickens will molt twice each year – in the spring and the fall – depending on the amount of available light. Roosters and hens also molt.
What to Expect
Molting can be a stressful time for both chickens and their caretakers. Below is a quick list to explain what can be expected during a normal molting process:
- Feather loss and growth
- Lower egg production
- Weight loss
- Mood changes, chickens tend to be grumpy during molting
- Skin sores or injured feather shafts pick at exposed skin. This can cut down on sores and other skin damage.
Because molting takes so much out of your birds, it’s important to create an environment that helps chickens through the process. On The Grit.com, the Chicken Chick suggests the following to make your flocks’ next molt a healthy one:
- Reduce stress level. This includes not moving them to new living quarters or introducing new members to the flock.
- Increase daily protein intake. A diet that is 20-22 percent protein keeps chickens healthier and happy during molting. Commercially prepared chicken feed should offer this amount.
- Limit handling. As mentioned, molting can be painful as skin and pin feathers are sensitive, so limiting handling of any kind can help reduce stress.
Putting these best practices into place can make your flock’s molting as stress-free as possible. Tractor Supply Co. is here to help. Our full line of chicken feed, supplements and treats can provide the added protein necessary to give your chickens full and shiny feathers after each molt.