Winter’s firmly here in my zone 4 backyard, even if the thermometer tries to lie and say it’s not. 8 degreesC in February? What is that?! Thermometer be damned because I know it’s winter, even if I swear some of my shrubs have buds about to burst, and the ground is soggy and muddy and so not snow-covered. Not even a little bit. I know it’s winter, because my chicken coop looks like a bird crime scene. There are feathers are everywhere. EVERYWHERE. Even though it happens every year, I am still amazed that one chicken can lose so many feathers and not be completely naked. It’s kind of like when you clean your hairbrush and you’re amazed that there’s still hair on your head: there’s that much hair in the brush. Winter in my yard is dictated by the moulting of my hens. More accurately, it’s dictated by my girl Lucy, who lets me know winter has arrived by shedding her feathers. She has always been the most dramatic moulter. Lucy starts later than the other girls and she goes from a glorious autumnal rusty hue to a splotchy white and red mess with bare patches of skin. The moult hits her particualry hard, and she is tired, grumpy and definitely doesn’t like to be touched. Last moult, she slept separately from the other girls for a full month, even on the coldest of cold nights.
The first time you see it, it can be pretty scary. One night you usher your girls up to bed, and the next morning, they emerge, looking as if they’ve spent the night in a wind tunnel. Moulting is the natural shedding of feathers and regrowth of new ones. It happens cyclically, typically once a year, although other factors like stress, broodiness, severe weather and diet changes, may trigger a moult. Every chicken is different and will lose varying amounts of feathers. Both roosters and hens experience moults. Like egg production, moulting is triggered by lighting conditions. As the days grow shorter, and egg production slows, most chickens will begin the process of shedding their feathers and growing new ones. The moulting process is usually completed as spring approaches and the days grow longer. Because each chicken experiences moulting differently, you may not even notice your hen has moulted.
Some will look like this:
And some may look like this:
All chickens do lose some amount of feathers, and most will stop laying during the moulting period to divert that energy into feather production. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since it gives their reproductive systems a break. Once the moult is over, egg production will resume.
Even though the moulting process is different in each chicken, they do tend to follow the same sequence of feather loss: starting at the head and neck, then moving down the back, across chest and ending at the tail.
The moulting should take about 6 weeks, but can take longer in some hens, especially as they age (Rosie’s last moult lasted months!). The new feathers grow in the same sequence they were lost. When the emerge, they look like little shafts, and are called pin feathers. As the chicken preens itself, they pick off the waxy coating on the pin feather, which releases the feathers plume trapped inside. You will probably find these tiny casings on the chickens’ poop board as evidence of the amount of time they spend picking their feathers
How To Help Your Chickens Through A Moult
While you can’t prevent a moult, you can help your chickens through it with a few simple tips:
Supplement their food with healthy proteins.
Making new feathers is hard work! Feathers are 85% protein, which means that chickens will need more protein in order to grow new healthy feathers. You can help them by increasing the amount of protein they eat. I have heard that cat food makes a good protein source, but my girls won’t touch it with a ten foot pole. Instead, I’ve had good success supplementing with black oil sunflower seeds, cooked eggs and by adding some ACV to their water. Be careful though, protein should not act as a replacement to their regular feed, just as a supplement.
Handle them less.
Sometimes you’ve got to pick up a chicken. But try not to do it, unless absolutely necessary. The moulting process is pretty uncomfortable for them, and their new feathers are tender to touch. Even if your chickens love to be scratched and held, the moulting period probably isn’t the best time for a great back scratch.
The moult can be so exhausting that stressors can exacerbate the experience. Try to keep the stress level low. Don’t make any big changes, like moves to a new coop, or introducing new birds, during a moult if it can be helped.
The moult in inevitable. Don’t stress if your coop looks like a pillow fight gone wrong! Chickens have been moulting for as long as there have been chickens. They know what they’re doing. You’re part is to help them get through it as painlessly as possible!