Chickens Losing Feathers…

“My chickens are losing their feathers, they seem healthy otherwise because they are still running around and eating and drinking. Is there a disease I should be worried about? Should I be giving them medicine? I’ve never had chickens before and I’m worried and could use your help, thank you.” ~ Mary Katherine Kellogg

Mary Katherine,

I believe that you are seeing signs of moulting (or molting) in your flock rather than disease.

Moulting is a natural, normal occurrence.

It is the process of shedding old feathers and growing new feathers.

It is also a time for your hens’ reproductive tract to rest and rejuvenate as egg laying slows, and often stops altogether for the period of the moult.

Typically, a moult is an annual occurrence. The shorter daylight hours of autumn and winter stimulate the onset of the moult. The duration will vary from breed to breed and from individual bird to individual bird within a breed.

A hen that lays many eggs will usually moult rapidly. One day she’ll be fully feathered, then next day you’ll see what seems to be piles of feathers everywhere. Good layers seem to be all about getting the job done; when they’re laying, they’re laying a lot.

When it’s time to moult, they drop those feathers quickly and often times come completely through the process, fully feathered and back up to a high rate of lay in just 2-3 months. Many will continue to lay all throughout the moulting process but the frequency will diminish greatly.

A hen that is not a very good layer will usually moult very slowly. She’ll loose a feather here and there. She’ll stop laying or lay very infrequently early on in the process. By the time she is fully feathered again, up to 7 months may have passed. In other words, if you’re looking for some hens to cull from your flock, these slow moulters should be first on your list.

Most chickens will moult once each year, in the fall / winter. Very rarely, a particular chicken will molt once every 2 years.

In our situation, our chickens moult twice each year. We live in an area where it is very hot in the summer. The stress from the heat causes our flock to drop it’s feathers every year. It’s frustrating to have our egg production drop twice each year but that’s just reality for us.

To make our chickens more comfortable, we have installed a “misting system” in their run and make sure they get plenty of shade. It doesn’t seem to keep them from moulting but they are outside more often when the mister is running so I think it does help to keep them more comfortable.

This brings me to a point about management of your flock as it pertains to moulting. Often times we can inadvertently bring on a moult through poor management. Any circumstance that causes stress or fatigue to your flock can trigger an early moult.

If a predatory animal gains access to your flock, you may very well see an early moult in the survivors.

If your birds have to go for any length of time without water, you might see an early moult.

Even a change in feed can cause problems.

For some birds a very loud thunderstorm is enough to start their feathers to drop.

Most breeds are hardy and can survive adverse conditions but any stressful situation may have the effect of bringing on a moult. Obviously we can’t control every circumstance but it is in everyone’s best interest that we control the things that we are able.

If you’re wondering if your chickens are moulting or if there is something else wrong, watch the pattern of feather loss. A moult will start on the face and head. It will then progress to the neck, breast and body, followed by the wings and finally the tail. There will be some variances.

If you’re seeing bald spots on the head and back only of your hens and you have a rooster, moulting is not the problem. When the rooster mates with the hen, he holds on to the back of her head with his beak and climbs onto her back. It he is too aggressive or he’s “paying a little to much attention” to her, you’ll see this pattern of feather loss.

Either get him some more hens or separate them for a bit to give her a chance to recuperate.

Remember that moulting is hard work.

Your flock might be less active and quieter during the process.

If you have birds that moult rapidly, thereby leaving bald spots, watch that the other birds don’t peck at the bald spots too badly and cause a significant wound. Remove any wounded birds to your infirmary if necessary until their feathers have returned fully if you are concerned that mortality is possible.

Since feathers are made up mostly of protein, adding protein, high in amino acids to their diet will aid in the growth of the new feathers.

By giving your flock good nutrition, great living conditions and time, they‘ll be fully feathered and back to laying shortly.

Thanks again for the question.