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The definition of molting is to shed part or all of a coat or outer covering. Such as feathers, cuticle, or skin, which is then replaced by new growth. In this case, what does molting mean for chickens? Simply put, it’s a time where they lose their feathers. There are a few reasons chickens can lose their feathers. But to know the answer why correctly depends on where the feather loss occurs and the time of year. Is it affecting all the birds or just a few? In this post I’m going to cover the subject of molting and how to care for the backyard flock during this time.
WHAT is MOLTING, and WHY do CHICKENS EXPERIENCE it?
When I talk about my birds going through their molt or losing their feathers to friends or family, I refer to it as ‘the ugly’. If you have chickens that have gone through molting, then you know what I mean.
I already mentioned how molting is simply where the bird will shed its feathers. It’s somewhat like a snake shedding its skin, however the reasons snakes and chickens molt are completely different.
Chicks will molt roughly about 4 times before they reach adulthood, when their tail feathers come in and they’re ready to lay eggs. But then they won’t molt again until the following year. So what is molting? I already mentioned that the birds lose their feathers, but why, and what are the other symptoms?
When we first noticed our birds losing their feathers, at the time we didn’t know that’s what it was; we just thought something was wrong with them. Our boss hen Fives was sitting down a lot, resting. She just seemed so tired. The birds also started eating a lot more and voraciously, like they were starving. And then they got ‘the ugly’, where their feathers started coming out, but it wasn’t evenly distributed among the population. Some birds just looked raggedly, while others were completely bare.
I talked to my mother-in-law about it, who told me her birds were experiencing the same thing. She was the one who informed me what it was: Molting. Now I had a name to go with what I was seeing in my birds. I learned that, depending on the bird (or breed), they could molt twice a year, lose their feathers, and stop laying eggs for up to 12 weeks.
When chickens molt, it’s a time for them to rest and recuperate from the work they’ve done all year round. That’s why our boss hen was sitting down much of the time. They lose their feathers only to grow in more and look absolutely fabulous when the new ones come in. It’s also a time for them to replenish their feathers, to prepare for winter. Typically our birds start molting the end of summer/beginning of fall, and it lasts about 3 months. Egg production starts trickling down until all of the birds are in various stages of shedding their feathers. The youngest ones recover the fastest. By the time all the birds are molting, egg production is at a stand-still. Unless we have new hens. Egg production doesn’t start back up until all have recovered.
When the backyard flock goes through the molt, their dietary needs are different. Hens that are laying eggs need more calcium in their diet, because eggshells are primarily made out of calcium. However, when they molt, because their feathers consist mainly of protein, that is what hens need to recover and get back to laying eggs.
At the first sign of your chickens molting, which will more than likely be feathers coming out around the end of summer, switch them to a high protein feed with 20% protein. You want to keep the stress low, with clean, fresh water, proper air ventilation, and avoid adding new birds during this time. While chickens are losing their feathers, they can be sensitive, so avoid handling them.
Some backyard flock owners install lights in the coop to encourage egg laying during this time. That’s completely up to you, however as a reminder this is a time for the flock to rest and recover. When your flock starts producing eggs again, switch back to their layer feed by mixing it with the high protein feed to make sure there aren’t any digestive issues.
Molting isn’t only restricted to hens; roosters will also molt, though not as aggressively as the hens. They tend to lose tail feathers from what I’ve witnessed, again only to have them grow back in more beautiful and fuller than they were previously.
I hope this answered any questions you might have had. If you have any others I didn’t address, please feel free to ask.