Moulting In Hens and Chickens

Free Ranging and Training Chickens...

I have a chicken that has molted and has stopped laying but is very skinny. She eats and drinks but she still looks very scraggy what do you suggest? ~ Anne Hubbard

Thanks so much for the question Anne.

I have a friend who is raising broilers. The other day we were discussing this very subject and she commented… “It always surprises me how much bigger they look before they’re in the pot.” It’s true that we don’t realize how much bulk the feathers add to our chicken’s appearance.

So Anne, without seeing your hen, I can’t give you a definitive answer but chances are, she’s fine since she‘s eating and drinking normally.

You might want to check her feet, eyes, undercarriage, crop and bottom to make sure everything is normal. If so, it’s very likely that you are just seeing how small she really is under all those feathers. Do not handle her if new feathers (quills or pins) are coming in, applying pressure to the nerve endings and blood vessels near the surface of her skin will cause her pain.

This gives us an opportunity to talk about moulting; it can be a frightening sight if you’ve never seen it before.

A moult (or molt) is the process of shedding old feathers and growing new ones. During this time, your hens will stop laying, giving their reproductive tract time to rest and rejuvenate. They will also build up their nutrient reserves.

Under normal conditions, the moulting process will occur typically once a year for adult birds. Some individuals will molt twice a year. Rare individuals will molt once in a two year period. Pullets, or immature hens, go through one full and three partial molts prior to coming into lay.

After your chicken has moulted, you will see a reduction in egg production but a higher quality to the eggs. Each year her egg production will diminish, many farmers keep their hens for only a few seasons and then they become dinner. This is strictly a personal preference as they will continue to lay for years, depending on the breed and individual bird. Note that molted birds are hardier and not as prone to disease.

Good layers and poor layers moult differently.

A poor layer will typically moult early, after only a few months in production. Early moulters will shed their feathers slowly and in turn, replace them slowly. You’ll start to see a tell tale feather here and there on the ground. This process can last for up to 7 months. You can often tell a poor layer by their appearance; their feathers are softer and they look well groomed.

Feathers are made up mostly of protein, if the hen is not using protein to make eggs, you will see that in her beautiful coat. If you are considering culling your flock, this would be a good place to start.

A good layer is a late moulter. Often these birds will lay for 12-15 months before going into their molt. Late moulters seemingly shed their feathers all at once; you’ll find piles and piles in their favorite spots and under their roosts. It is a quick process as they shed and re-grow feathers at the same time.

Often this will take place in only 2-3 months, allowing her to return to full production sooner. Some super layers will actually lay well into their molt, although the frequency of eggs will significantly diminish. For the same reason a poor layer has a well-groomed appearance, a good layer will have a more tattered look, due to the use of protein. She is using that protein to make eggs, not pretty feathers.

The order of feather loss is the same for both a slow and a quick moult.

The loss will begin on the face and head, followed by the neck, breast, body, wings and tail. A good layer may continue to produce as her feathers drop from her head and face but by the time she is shedding her wing feathers, egg production will most certainly have ceased.

If you see balding spots on your hen’s head and back only, and you have a rooster, this is not a moult. While mating, the rooster holds her head feathers with his beak and puts his feet upon her back. If your hen is only showing balding in these spots, the rooster is getting too aggressive with her; you may need to separate them to give her a chance to recover.

Because good layers shed their feathers so quickly during a moult, they may likely have some bald spots. Watch closely to make sure the others in the flock are not pecking at her. If they draw blood, a separation would again be in order. Chickens get very excited over blood and will continue to peck at the poor wounded individual until she bleeds to death.

Also try to keep stray feathers picked up. Remember that feathers are made up mostly of protein. When chickens are experiencing a protein deficiency, they will pluck feathers from each other, or themselves, to eat. It’s an important indicator to you that they are experiencing the deficiency so you can takes steps to correct the problem. If you leave feathers lying around, they will eat them and may then pluck feathers because they enjoy this new addition to their diet. You will have lost an important indicator of a problem because they have developed a bad habit.

Moulting is a stressful and tiring process.

Your hen might be quiet, not very active and seem almost shy or embarrassed by the process. Don’t be alarmed; give her time to come through it. There are some things you can do to help the process along though; add extra protein, high in amino acids, to her diet. This will make it easier to grow the new feathers. Feeds high in oils will help the new feathers coming in as well. Using artificial light to extend daylight hours to 14 or so will also help as it is the daylight hours that slow production and induce the molt, not the cooler autumn weather.

Moulting is a natural process. However, sometimes we can inadvertently bring on a moult early. Stress, fatigue and poor management can cause an early moult so take good care of your flock but know that sometimes it can’t be avoided.

Give your hen good nutrition and good light and she’ll come through it just fine.

Thanks again for the question Anne.

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