It's late summer/early autumn and the floor of the coop looks like a pillow fight broke out overnight. Assuming the flock is healthy with no external parasites or other problems, they are most assuredly molting. Let's discuss what molting is, when it occurs and what can be done to help get chickens get through it.
Molting is the natural shedding of old feathers and growth of new ones. Chickens molt in a predictable order beginning at the head and neck, proceeding down the back, breast, wings and tail. While molting occurs at fairly regular intervals for each chicken, it can occur at any time due to lack of water, food or sudden change in normal lighting conditions. Broody hens molt furiously after their eggs have hatched as they return to their normal eating and drinking routines.
This is Phoebe, my bantam Frizzle Cochin in October 2010.
This is Phoebe in September 2011. She has always been my most severe molter.
First Juvenile Molt
Chickens experience two, juvenile or "mini molts" as I like to call them, before a their first annual molt. The first mini molt begins at 6-8 days old and is complete by approximately 4 weeks when the chick's down is replaced by its first feathers.
This is a 7 day old Olive Egger chick. She is losing her yellow down, which is being replaced by her first feathers.
This pic shows the same 7 day old Olive Egger chick as she replaces her down with feathers.
Second Juvenile Molt
A chicken's second mini molt occurs between 7-12 weeks old when its first feathers are replaced by its second feathers. It is at this time that a rooster's distinguishing, ornamental feathers will appear.
These Black Copper Marans & Ameraucanas were 11 weeks old at the time of their second mini molt.
There is little doubt when chickens are going through their juvenile molt as evidence abounds in the coop.
Oprah (Buff Orpington)
All chickens will molt annually, their first annual molt generally occurring around 16-18 months of age. During a molt, chickens will lose their feathers and grow new ones. Feathers consist of 85% protein and feather production places great demands on a chicken's energy and nutrient stores, as a result, egg production is likely to drop or stop entirely until the molt is finished. On average, molting takes 7-8 weeks from start to finish, but there is a wide range of normal from 4 to 12 weeks or more.
Both molting and egg production are controlled internally in response to lighting changes. When daylight hours decrease, egg production may slow down or stop completely and chickens will shed their feathers and grow new ones. When spring approaches and daytime lengthens, egg production will pick up again. To encourage egg production, supplemental light may be added to the coop during the fall and winter months with no negative effects on the hen.
These are photos of a few of my chickens undergoing an typical molt:
Lucy (Easter Egger)
This is Phoebe, my White Bantam Cochin Frizzle, who is the poster chicken for a rough molt. She has molted in this most undignified manner for the past two years. She's a trooper though, I have yet to hear her demand a sweater.
Newly emerging feathers have a vein-filled shaft which will bleed if cut or injured. These pin feathers are very sensitive and chickens generally prefer not to be handled while molting as it can be quite painful.
Feathers emerging through the vein-filled shaft, which is covered by a waxy coating (aka: the epitrichium).
An injured shaft is visible in this photo as a black spot of dried blood on top of the feather shaft.
Windy is a Blue Splash Marans hen who had injured one feather shaft, which bled profusely even though the injury was minor. A bird with a bleeding pin feather should be removed from the flock for treatment and their own safety; if not removed from the flock, other birds can pick at the wound, making it worse and endangering the bird's life. The injured area should be washed and assessed. If the bleeding has stopped, soaking feet in a tub or sink of warm water, then clean with Vetericyn Wound & Infection spray or antibiotic ointment and keep the bird separate from the flock until fully healed.
If the bleeding will not stop, the pinfeather should be removed with tweezers by grasping it at the base close to the skin and pulling quickly. Apply light pressure to the area until bleeding stops. Apply a little Vetericyn Wound & Infection spray or antibiotic ointment to the area and keep the bird separate from the flock until healed, usually a day or two.
This was the source and extent of the injury on the Marans, above.
A waxy-type casing surrounds each new feather and either falls off or is removed by a preening chicken. The feather within then unfurls and the inner vein dries up (the shaft is then known as a quill).
Lots of shaft casings are visible on the droppings board in this photo:
This is one night's worth of pin feather coatings.
This picture shows the new feathers on the back of Rachel's neck are losing the last of the waxy casings.
How to help Chickens Weather a Molt
& Return to Egg Production
1. Reduce their stress level as much as possible. Try not to move them to a new living quarters or introduce any new flock members during a molt.
2. Increase their protein intake by switching to a feed containing 20-22% protein. This is easiest to manage with commercially prepared chicken feeds (eg: switch from layer feed to meat bird feed for a month or so).
3. Limit handling to avoid inflicting pain and to keep stress to a minimum.
Rachel's neck feathers are just beginning to emerge. It looks painful and it is painful.
Alfalfa Cake Protein Treat recipe here.
Caution should be exercised when supplementing the diet with protein- everything in moderation. Large amounts of protein can lead to diarrhea and other, serious problems. "Incorrect diets that contain excessive levels of protein causes wetter droppings since the extra protein is converted into urates. This causes your chicken to drink more therefore you will see an increase in urates leading to wet, damp bedding."
*NOTE about cat food: cat food should only be given to chickens in moderation for a limited period of time due to the potential for ingesting excessive amounts of methionine, which can result in Heinz-body anemia and death.
Remarkably, within a few weeks, dull and balding turns to shiny and voluminous.
September 11, 2011 (above) November 11, 2011 (below)