Ask the Expert: Feathers

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A Dominant Hen

I have a Dominique rooster and hen that I have a question about. The hen torments the rooster, plucking his feathers. She eats them. I want to know if that is normal or is she in need of some kind of vitamin that she is not getting? I get your magazines in the mail and really enjoy reading them.

Anna Wise

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Hi Anna,

It sounds like you have a very docile rooster and it also sounds like your hen is not playing nicely. We don’t think it’s a nutritional issue, but if protein is lacking, you can try feeding her some scraps of meat, mealworms and scrambled eggs. They are good chicken treats anyway, so your whole flock will probably welcome them.

It’s most likely that your hen is bored. You can hang a cabbage or a bird toy in the coop to distract her. Good luck with your flock!

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Feather Questions

What is the sequence for young chickens to feather? Do they get more new feathers at about four months of age and shed older feathers?

Cleo

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Hi Cleo,

As early as six days old, you’ll start to see some small feathers on your chick’s wings and tail replacing the downy fluff. By week five, your chicks will have lots of new feathers and look more like adult chickens. Then between seven and 12 weeks old, your chicks will lose their first feathers and get their second feathers. Chickens molt yearly in the fall so they are prepared for the winter. This process starts at the head and works back to the tail. Young chickens will usually experience their first molt around 16 to 18 months of age.

We hope this is helpful!

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Help With Feather Regrowth?

I am a fairly new subscriber, but I have a question for you. We have had chickens since the spring of 2012, when I was in third grade. I am now going into seventh grade, so that makes it four years, because they turned four in the spring. But, here is my question: The Pearl White Leghorns that turned four started to molt last year, but never finished it. They went a whole winter with broken feathers. Snowflake has completed her molt this year, but the other two, Peekaboo and Daisy, still have shabby feathers and aren’t showing many signs of molting at all. I am concerned  that they will be cold this winter if they don’t get their new, silky soft, insulating feathers. Is there some kind of supplement that is all natural that I can give them to help them molt? They are free range, and happy, healthy and get plenty of treats. I think that introducing some new members to the flock with a separate coop (who are currently just under a year old) just around molting time could have done something, but I don’t know. We live in West Texas, on the very tip of the Rockies. I hope you can help.

By the way, I love your magazine, and I plan on entering a lot of cover photo contests.

Clair

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Hi Clair,

Molting can be hard on hens. It sounds like you’re doing everything you can for them. But we do have a feed recommendation that can help. We like to use

Nutrena’s NatureWise Feather Fixer. It’s a feed that can be given year round and it helps to support feather re-growth and strong eggshells. It has really been helpful with my flock and we hope you find it helpful too.

Combining flocks can also stress out the hens a bit. But if they are not acting aggressive toward each other and you don’t see signs of pecking, then you can probably eliminate this. Otherwise, it could be timing. Allowing the flocks to adjust to each other will decrease stress and, hopefully, increase egg production.

Good luck with your hens! And we can’t wait to see more of your pictures!

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Feather Picking 

I have four hens nearly 12 months old. Their run is about 10 meters x 4 meters with a swing, perches, mirror, and a dust bath. They have plenty of food and water and regular treats. Every afternoon, they are let out into the garden to have some grass. Even though they are very spoiled, I have one hen that is persistently feather pecking. They are all featherless around their bottoms and just above their tails. They look terrible. I have bought anti-feather-pecking spray, hasn’t worked, now we have painted Stockholm tar over the bare areas but Margot the speckled hen won’t leave the others alone and pulls out a feather every time she walks past them. I just don’t know what to do! 

Philippa Ballistat 

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Hi Philippa, 

It sounds like you’ve covered all your bases! They have plenty of room, they have a great diet, they aren’t bored, and you’re covering the wounds with the right products. Margot still hasn’t stopped. Some hens are just like that; they won’t stop bullying other hens, or they won’t stop eating eggs, no matter what you do. It sounds like Margot won’t stop while she is still in your flock 

A hard part of the chicken world is knowing when to cull. Remember this just means removing her from your flock in whichever way you choose. I’ve rehomed egg-eaters, giving full disclosure to the future owners about the problem, but when in a new flock and new coop layout, the hens stopped eating eggs. Margot may stop picking on the hens when she’s thrown into a different pecking order. 

Though it can be difficult saying goodbye to a beloved hen, sometimes it has to be done for the wellbeing of the others. 

Good luck! 

Marissa

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Rooster Plucking Hens Feathers 

My rooster is constantly plucking the hens’ feathers out of their backs. What is the solution to this? 

Ruth Mudd 

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Hi Ruth, 

My first question is: do you see him actually plucking, or do you just see hens with bare backs? If you just see the bare backs, he’s probably ripping them out with his feet as he tries to stay on while mating. And if you see him plucking them out with his beak, it’s probably because he has discovered that the feathers are blood-rich, and blood is tasty to chickens. 

Some chicken owners choose to dress their hens in chicken saddles, which cover the backs, to protect them from roosters. These are most often used by people who breed and show high-quality hens and can’t have the feather destruction. Others decide whether they need that rooster, since he’s necessary for fertile eggs but not egg production in general. Whichever you decide, of course, is your choice for your own flock. 

I hope this helps! 

Marissa  

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Yes, this did help. Thank you very much! 

Ruth Mudd 

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Hens Scratching

I have chickens that are scratching and their feathers are out. What herbs can they eat to help this problem go away?

Summer

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Hi Summer,

Some scratching of their bodies as chickens go about their day is normal. Something can get on their skin, something can be lodged in a feather, a feather can be out of place — these are normal scenarios where you might witness your chickens scratching and grooming themselves.

Feather loss can also be caused by molting. Molting is a normal process that happens in the fall yearly after a chicken is a year old. During molting, chickens lose their old feathers and replace them with new. This process can take several months. Some chickens molt hard losing a lot of feathers. Others molt soft and the feather loss is barely noticeable.

There can be other reasons for feather loss. Pecking by other chickens, mites, lice, mating damage, and self-pecking are common problems for backyard chicken keepers.

There are different solutions to each of these problems, so it’s best to do a little detective work so you can address the correct problem effectively.

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Chicken Eating Feathers

I have a flock of 11 hens — 10 layers and one retired. Several of them are in a molt so there are feathers everywhere. Today, I observed my Ameraucana hen inside the coop picking up feathers and seemingly trying to place them on herself. She did this with a few pieces of shavings too. This hen’s name is Holly and she is a little less than a year old. She is not molting. She’s healthy and has turned out to be very tame. In all my years of raising chickens, I’ve never observed this kind of behavior. Have you ever heard of chickens doing something like this? 

M. Booth, California

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Hi,

That’s quite unusual behavior. A guess is that it may have been a type of dust-bathing/preening behavior, but it’s hard to know for sure. She may have been trying to eat the feathers and was twisting her head to try to get them down her throat. But that would be less likely with the shavings, however.

Chickens certainly have some interesting behaviors sometimes!

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Weird Feathers

I recently noticed that our Welsummer has some fine, thready feathers along her haunches/fluff area, like human hair. Is this normal? What’s the cause? I’ve never seen it before! It’s on both sides and most definitely attached to her body. She’s about a year old.

Tamara Rothenberg, Los Angeles

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Hi Tamara,

Thank you for the pictures! That is very interesting and unusual! There is a reference to some work done at the University of Wisconsin by a poultry geneticist, Dr. McGibbon. He reported a genetic condition called “long filoplumes,” causing “filoplumes in the fluff area of the body that were one to 10 cm longer than the adjacent feathers.” He reported that this was an autosomal (not sex-linked) dominant trait. It was also reported at the University of Connecticut at about the same time. That was back in the 1970s, and Dr. McGibbon has been deceased for a long time. This sounds very similar to what is in your pictures.

Thanks for sharing!

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Not Able to Regrow Feathers

The picture is from Lily-Rose, an Isa Brown hen. She’s 37 months old and she seems like she’s having some kind of issue with molting. She lost her feathers before the winter of her first year, but they never grew up again. Since then she sleeps inside our home so she doesn’t get cold. We already supplemented her diet with extra protein, but her feathers simply don’t grow. Some of them start to grow in the back of her neck, but they just fall out before completely growing. She also has some laying problems, but I guess it’s because she’s an old Isa Brown hen. In the extremely rare occasions that she lays, her eggs are weird and the shell is always thin, although she eats balanced layer feed and oyster shell. Do you have an idea what is the matter? Thank you, 

Renata Carvalho, Brazil

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Hi Renata,

Thanks for the pictures. The picture of the egg appears to be an extra shell membrane over a previously formed egg. The egg was most likely nearly complete in the shell gland, and then reversed direction and was pushed back up into the isthmus of the oviduct. The membranes are formed in the isthmus, so when this egg arrived there, a new membrane formed over it. It must have passed back through the shell gland fairly quickly, or another shell would have been added.

Of course, the bigger question is why this might have happened, and that can’t be explained so easily. There are muscular contractions that force the egg through the oviduct, and these contractions must have reversed direction for some reason. There could have been some temporary blockage, or possibly a physical trauma to the hen. It’s really difficult to know what might have happened.

As long as this is doesn’t continue to happen, don’t worry too much. If it continues, you might want to think about having the hen checked by a veterinarian.

The feathering on your hen is a little more difficult. Some would say it is not terribly unusual if a hen is in good egg production for that long. Hens that are laying well put their nutrients into eggs, and don’t usually grow new feathers. Seen from the other direction, hens that are molting and growing new feathers usually don’t lay. It does seem like a long time for this hen to stay in production, however, so there may be more to it.

She appears to be healthy in other aspects — nice, red comb and wattles, bright eyes, etc. Since you mentioned that her egg production is inconsistent, this might point to some chronic health problem that is causing the poor feathering, although you would expect she would show other signs of poor health. In hens of that age, some other problems occur somewhat frequently. Lymphoid leukosis is a viral disease that often affects hens that are a couple of years old and can cause internal tumors. Other cancers, especially of the ovary, occur somewhat commonly, too. Infections of the oviduct (salpingitis) can also occur. The incorrectly formed eggs might fit with one of these problems, too. It’s difficult to know if she might have something like this, simply by looking at a picture of her.

One option you could try would be to force her into molting. To do this, you’d need to have a light-tight room and keep her in total darkness for about 16 hours per day. Short day-lengths (eight hours per day) will usually cause hens to go out of production and molt. About two weeks of these short days should do it. Then you can increase the day lengths back to longer days. By the end of the two weeks, she should stop laying and be losing feathers. Within about a month, she should grow a new set of feathers. Certainly, this won’t be something everyone wants to try, but it would be an option.

There are a few other possibilities to check. External parasites could cause poor feathering. Look for mites or lice crawling on her skin, especially under the wings or around the vent area. Other hens might be pecking at the feathers, though you would have noticed that. She could be pecking at her own feathers, but then the feathers on the back of the head should not be affected.

Sorry, there isn’t a clear answer to this!

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Molting Concerns

I have four chickens: two Jersey Giants and two Golden Sex Links. The black ones molted six months ago but the Golden Sex Links haven’t. What should I do and should I be worried?

Harrison

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Hi Harrison,

There’s probably not a lot of cause for worry at this point. There are a few different possibilities about what’s happening. From your question, it’s hard to tell the age of your chickens so a lack of molt could be age-related. Adult molting usually happens around 18 months of age. If your Golden Sex Links are young, they won’t molt until they are older. It’s also hard to tell when the Jersey Giants molted. If it was last fall, then they’ll be due for another molt this fall. If they molted in the spring, that’s ok, but it’s not as common as a fall molt. It’s good to make sure they don’t have any other issues like stress, lack of water and food or signs of illness.

It’s also possible that your Golden Comets did molt and you didn’t know it. Some birds will go through a hard molt and you’ll see dramatic feather loss and regrowth. Others will go through a soft molt and you’ll hardly notice a feather out of place.

Unless you see other problems, then it’s probably not something to be concerned about, just something to watch in the future.
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Missing Feathers

This is a photo of one of my black sex link chickens. She is a one-year-old that is losing her feathers from her head and neck area. This started about a month ago. Now a second chicken of the same breed and age has also started with the same problem. I have 10 backyard chickens. They are different breeds. They are my pets and each has a name. I am hoping that you will give me a medication name and a cure for them. I live in Gerlach, Nevada, a small rural town and live two hours away from the nearest veterinarian that might deal with chickens. Molting season is over.

Thanks for any help you might give me.

Marian Gooch

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Hi Marian,

This certainly looks like pecking damage from the other chickens. If you have a rooster, it could be that he is causing this while mating. You can check them for external parasites (lice or mites), but that’s probably not the problem.

You could try clipping the tips of the beaks on the rest of the flock. This can be done with a human nail clipper or a dog nail clipper.

There are also several things you can try that may help cut down on pecking. If you’re feeding extra scratch grains, it’s good to stop. Just feed a complete ration, which should be balanced nutritionally. Sometimes, an excess of energy in the diet can cause pecking. Providing them other things to peck at (esp. high fiber feeds) can be good. Bales of alfalfa hay can be very good. Root vegetables, squashes, and other plant materials are also good options, depending on what you have available. This helps reduce the energy level in the diet (by providing higher fiber, and more protein in the case of the alfalfa), and gives the birds an outlet for pecking.

There are reports out of Europe that providing large stones can help. Supposedly, the chickens peck at these and it helps blunt their beaks.

Providing more space and/or more places to hide can sometimes be helpful, too.

Pecking can be difficult to stop once it gets started, however.

Good luck with them!

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Rooster with a Permanent Molt

Have a question and don’t know whom to ask. My rooster has lost all his main feathers late Nov and still has not got new ones. He is only covered in down, I also checked him for bugs or lice and nothing plus my girls look fine.

Richard VanDeFlier

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Hi Richard,

It sounds like your rooster made it through the winter without his main feathers! Since you’ve checked for parasites, we can probably rule them out. Other than that, it’s hard to know what’s causing the lack of feathers. It’s probably best to start with his diet. Is he getting a well-balanced commercial feed for most of his rations? If not, that may be the place to start. There is a commercial feed by Nutrena called Feather Fixer. This formulation contains extra protein to help with feather growth and does have a mite inhibitor. It’s safe to feed to your entire flock, year-round if you’d like. That would be a good place to start and see if the new feed stimulates some feather growth.

Hope this is helpful!

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Does She Look Unusual?

answerman-1
answerman-2


Your input please. I bought two Rock Red sex-link chickens from a feed store two months ago. This odd little girl seems so round. Her tail is not growing much. Her sister has a tail but less than my other breeds. The round chick also comes up to me and is usually in the way when I work in the co-op. She likes to be picked up. Does she look unusual?

Allie

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Hi Allie,
I think it’s great you have such a friendly chicken! I can’t tell much from the pictures except to say that she is missing her tail feathers. Without knowing more about her prior situation, it’s hard to tell why they are missing.

However, it does look like some are growing in. It’s also hard to tell her exact age but she’s not a young juvenile. I would make sure to give your new chickens lots of attention plus water and a good layer food. With time and care you should be able to see their full potential.

Good luck with them.

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A Changing Rooster

I have 11 Buff Orpington chickens, 10 hens and a rooster that I’ve had since December 6, 2014. They all came from the same place and have always been around each other. They free-range during the day and are locked up in the coop at night. Twice in the last month, I’ve seen the rooster attack one of the hens, although I haven’t seen how it starts. The hen is laying on the ground with her neck stretched out and her head on the ground and the rooster pecks her repeatedly in the back of the neck. He pecks her repeatedly, then stops, pecks her repeatedly again and stops, and this last time, when he stopped pecking her, he jumped up in the air, flapped his wings, and when he landed, he started pecking her again. I don’t think this has been going on for a long time, because where he pecks her has just started to get bald. I don’t know if this is relevant, but she has no feathers on her back, which I think is from the rooster rather than from molting, because she’s been that way for quite a while and none of the other hens have looked like that. Can you tell me why he’s doing this, and other than getting rid of one of them, is there anything I can do to stop this? Thank you.

Donna Putzier, Missouri

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Hi Donna,

We’ll eliminate the obvious possibility first. We assume the hen is not just squatting to be mated? Hens will lower their body, extend their head and spread their wings when they are ready to be mated. The rooster will then grab the back of their head with his beak and mount the hen. He will often flap his wings after a successful mating.

Assuming this is not the case, we suspect the hen may be the lowest hen in the flock pecking order. Chickens are pretty mean to each other, and the lowest bird often gets bullied. This can be difficult to change.

You could try getting a saddle for her, which would likely protect her back so new feathers have a chance to grow in. You could try giving the chickens more space (if that’s an option) or more hiding places. You might also try providing some hay bales, or something similar, which will break up the area and also give the chickens something else to peck at. If you’re feeding scratch grains or extra grain, we’d suggest stopping that, at least to see if it makes a difference. Sometimes, extra grain can cause an imbalance between energy and protein, and the chickens are more likely to peck each other.

You could also try clipping their beaks. This can be done by using a nail clipper, and may decrease the damage they do when pecking.

Finally, we wonder if the hen may have a health problem that causes her to stretch out on the ground? If that is the case, the chickens will likely attack her at that time. This is a normal chicken behavior, and if that is the case, removing her may be the best solution.

Hopefully, one of these solutions will help.

Good luck!

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