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Chickens can and do lose feathers from time to time. And most of the time it’s nothing to worry about. However, it’s always a good idea to inspect your flock to determine where the feather loss is coming from. Are all of the birds affected? Is it general feather loss? Or is it only in one spot on a few birds? We’ll cover all of these questions, but specifically why chickens lose feathers on their backs.
Chickens Missing Feathers on their Backs Due to Molting
In another post I covered the topic of molting in detail. But I’ll go over some quick points. If your backyard flock is molting, it typically affects all of the birds. It also can affect any part of their bodies. Some chickens completely lose all of their feathers, while others might only lose the ones around their faces and tails.
Also, molting usually occurs in late fall and lasts about 3 months. There are some breeds that can molt in the spring as well. However, it isn’t as drastic as the fall molt. So, if your birds are losing feathers at some other time, chances are good that it isn’t molting causing the feather loss.
If your backyard birds are molting, the most important things you can do for them are
- to feed them a higher protein feed with 20% protein.
- don’t handle them much, because they are sensitive due to feather loss and new growth.
- keep the stress low and don’t add new birds during this time.
- and be sure to have plenty of clean, fresh water daily and proper air ventilation in the coop.
Feather Loss on a Chicken Because of a Broody Hen
Another common reason for feather loss is when you have a broody hen or hens. A broody hen is a hen that stops laying eggs and instead stays on a nest of eggs all day, several days to weeks long until she hatches some chicks.
With a broody hen you will not see a lot of feathers all over your yard. Because, it’s restricted only to that one hen. Or hens, if you have more than one broody hen. The feather loss will also be confined to the coop, since the broody hen won’t leave her eggs. And the feathers will usually be missing from the hen’s chest, where she plucked them out herself, to make a proper nest for her clutch.
If you have a broody hen, and don’t want to break the broodiness, the most important things you can do are to
- separate her from the rest of the flock by putting a partition wall made of chicken wire in the nesting box she has chosen.
- provide fresh, clean water and food daily.
- and give her access to frequent bathroom breaks.
If you don’t want your hen to be broody, then you can break it by completely separating her from the flock. You don’t want her to be able to see them, or vice versa. And try to keep her in a room or area that is well lit.
Chickens Missing Feathers on their Backs Because of Parasites like Mites or Lice
Another cause of feather loss in chickens is from external parasites like mites or lice. Usually it presents on the bird’s back where they have been over-preening and plucking in order to get relief. There will be other symptoms if mites or lice is the cause of feather loss, like reduction in egg production. And the birds will also have pale combs and wattles.
If you suspect that external parasites are the culprit, you can check the bird’s vent area for scabs or signs of inflammation. Many people claim that you can’t see mites. However, that’s not entirely true. Sometimes you can see them on the feather shafts or on the undersides of where your birds roost at night.
Lice also can typically be seen on feather shafts. However, they also migrate toward the vent area as well. If you pull back your bird’s feathers from her vent, often lice will be seen, trying to hide.
If you have verified that you have a bird with lice or mites, then the most important things you can do are to
- treat your whole flock immediately or as soon as possible with Ivermectin. (0.2 – 0.4 mg per kg topically at their shoulders where they can’t reach and once more in 2 weeks.)
- you can also use petroleum jelly on your birds’ legs to smother leg mites and prevent eggs from hatching. However, this will need to be done a few times to make sure the parasites are all gone.
- finally, you can prevent external parasites by keeping the coop and run clean and by providing your birds areas where they can dust bathe. We also add food grade diatomaceous earth to the coop and dust bathing spots.
Predator Attacks that are Causing Feather Loss on a Chicken’s Back
Sometimes predator attacks will leave no evidence of the crime. And others will leave behind feathers. At times that might be all you see. In one of my other posts I described how one of our Ameraucana hens was attacked by a hawk. More often the hawk doesn’t leave behind its prey. Although, in this particular case, the hawk dropped our hen.
Another time our neighbor’s dog got one of our broilers. We didn’t have feathers in our yard; they were scattered all over his. If you suspect an animal attack, first inspect your birds for missing feathers on their backs or tails. They will act scared and could be in their coop hiding, if there was a predator attack. Also, check for any injuries and open wounds.
Once you’ve determined that your bird was attacked by a predator, and it’s still alive, the most important things you can do are to
- separate her from the rest of the flock in a safe and comfortable environment with fresh, clean water and food.
- keep stress to a minimum, because she is scared or even possibly in shock.
- clean the wound by flushing with warm sterile salt water or 0.05% chlorhexidine.
- and, if your bird was bitten by a predator, call a veterinarian to get an antibiotic.
Feather Loss Due to Aggressive or Over-mating by a Rooster
The final cause of a chicken losing feathers on its back is aggressive, or over mating, by a rooster. Thus, you will not see feather loss in roosters if indeed mating is the cause. Because, only the roosters get on the hens in order to mate.
Sometimes this type of feather loss can start out in a small patch near the tail feathers. However, if left untreated, the spot will only grow. It can get so bad that the rooster pulls the hen’s skin, and then the hen is in danger of infection.
Most of the time, when I’ve considered this type of feather loss in our flock, it has usually been the hens on the bottom of the pecking order. Not always, but most of the time. And then there are the times when the roosters will have a favorite hen. And consequently, she will get entirely too much notice.
You can determine if over breeding is the reason for the feather loss just by whether or not you have any roosters. And if you do, then observe your backyard flock. Or, more specifically, your rooster. Watch how he interacts with the hens. Does he have a favorite? Is he rough? Does it always seem like one hen is getting way more physical attention than the rest?
If you have a hen with feather loss on her back caused by over mating, the most important things you can do are to
- examine your hen for broken skin. And, if there isn’t any, you can invest in saddles for your hens or make some yourself.
- if your hen has broken skin, clean the area with warm sterile, salt water, and add either Battles Gentian Violet spray or Blu-Kote to the wound. Both treatments look similar when applied.
- assuming the wound is large and in danger of infection, rather than using Blu-Kote or Battles Gentian Violet spray, you need something stronger. Povidone-iodine is an over the counter, broad spectrum anti-microbial that’s recommended in these cases. Which you can find at WalMart or on Amazon.
- in case you have to treat your hen for a wound that requires an anti-microbial due to broken skin, you need to keep the rooster away from that hen. You can accomplish this by keeping her in a separate spot, not entirely isolated from the flock. But possibly where you keep your broody hens. This way she can heal without continually getting re-injured.
- monitor her progress and call a vet if she doesn’t show signs of improvement.
- to prevent feather loss on your chicken’s back due to over-mating, make sure you have the proper hen to rooster ratio. Most people agree that no less than 10 hens per rooster should be the absolute minimum.
- and, safely trim or file your rooster’s claws.
Sometimes you will have the proper ratio of hens to roosters, and still one of your hens might get feather loss on her back. We currently have 20 hens with 2 roosters. And 7 adolescent chickens with 3 chicks.
Our second rooster, Baby Nay, has torn up the back of one of our younger hens who’s about 2 years old. The only thing we can attribute it to is that he’s afraid of the boss rooster. Baby Nay is aggressive, because he’s scared. And in a hurry, which hurts this particular hen. I suppose she’s his favorite, because she’s slower than the others.
So, if after trimming his claws and using the saddles, he still manages to do damage to the hens, we have to make a decision. About whether or not we should keep him.
I hope you enjoyed this post. Please feel free to comment or ask questions!