Tips for Helping Your Poultry Flock Through A Spring Feather Molt
By Jen Pitino, Idaho
Conventional chicken keeping wisdom dictates that annual molting occurs at the end of summer or the early fall, when daylight hours shorten and temperatures drop. Despite this prevailing belief, you should remember that your flock cannot read a calendar and will be contrarians if it suits them. This spring might just be the season in that some or all of your flock members decide to drop their feathers for a new coat of plumage.
A springtime molt may be connected to when the chicken was hatched. The end of an egg-lay cycle is one of the most common causes of a molt, which is tied to the age and maturity of the hen. Chicks hatched in certain months may simply be more likely to molt in springtime rather than fall.
Springtime molting is also commonly caused by another springtime issue — broodiness. The stress of hatching out a clutch of eggs will cause the hen to molt afterwards. Spring chicks may be cute, but can also cause balding in their mothers.
Another possible cause for unseasonable molting may be stress. Common stressors, which can result in a molting include predator attacks, malnutrition, lack of water and extreme heat. And remember, there may be no identifiable cause for your chickens to molt in the “wrong season.”
While you may never know the root cause of springtime molting in your flock, some knowledge of molting basics will help you get your birds through this stressful and draining experience.
Most backyard flock owners know that chickens will go through an annual feather molting to replace old and damaged feathers with new plumage. But did you know that your chicks will undergo multiple molts before reaching full maturity and their first annual molt?
A chick begins molting when it is only 6 to 8 days old. This first juvenile molt is when the chick loses its natal down and grows in its first set of feathers. The second juvenile molt occurs when the chick is 8 to 12 weeks old. During the second molt, the chick’s first feathers are replaced with its second set of feathers and male ornamental feathers are grown in (e.g. long saddle feathers, sickle tail feathers, etc.)
The chick will partially molt twice more before reaching the point of lay. The first adult molt will typically occur when a chicken is about 18 months old. Thereafter, chickens, both male and female, will molt annually.
Molts come in two varieties — hard and soft. A “hard molt” is marked by a bird suddenly and dramatically losing a vast quantity of feathers, giving it a nude appearance. Chickens that are going through a hard molt are often described as looking “oven ready.” A “soft molt” on the other hand, is when the bird loses small patches of feathers at a time. The effect of a soft molt is often so subtle that the untrained eye might not realize that the chicken is losing and replacing feathers.
All About The Feathers
A feather is essentially a “dead” physical structure similar to human hair or nails. However, unlike human hair or nails, feathers do not continuously grow. Rather, once feathers have fully grown in, each feather will remain in its individual follicle regardless of wear or damage. Consequently, a damaged feather must either be removed or fall out naturally in order to stimulate new feather growth.
The old feathers are replaced by “pin feathers,” new feathers aptly named for their appearance. Pin feathers break through the bird’s skin wrapped in hard, waxy-feeling cylindrical tubes made of keratin protein. This protein covering protects the integrity of the new feather (keeping the barbs of the feather held tight to the feather’s main shaft) until the new feather’s growth is complete. This protective casing will remain on the new feathers for several days until the chicken removes it by preening itself.
Pin feathers are also commonly called “blood feathers” because if broken they can bleed rather profusely. The formation of new feathers requires a supply of nutrients to grow. These nutrients are delivered up through the bird’s follicles and into the growing feather shaft from an open vein. Once the new feather has reached full growth, the follicle closes and the blood supply found inside the feather’s shaft dries up, leaving it hollow and with an opaque appearance afterwards.
If a blood feather is broken during your chicken’s molt, you may need to remove it using needle-nosed pliers in order to close the vein up. If you do pull out a broken blood feather, apply pressure to stop the bleeding and apply a little cornstarch or styptic powder to keep the wound clotted.
Chicken feathers are comprised of approximately 85 percent beta-keratin (the same protein found in the bird’s beak and nails), 8 percent water and 1 percent waterinsoluble fats. Eggs are comprised of 13 percent protein.
A molting hen’s body simply cannot support both feather and egg production simultaneously. Consequently, egglaying will usually come to a full halt until the hen’s new feathers are fully grown in. Roosters suffer loss in fertility while molting and can even become permanently sterile if they lose more than 25 percent of their body weight during the process.
Considering that during the course of a year, your chickens will systematically replace virtually each and every one of their 8,500 feathers through the molting process, this is a physically exhausting process for your birds. There are, however, several steps you can take to help aid your birds through their spring molts.
Five Strategies For Helping Your Molting Flock
1. Handle with your molting birds with care. The vein-filled shaft of pin feathers and their respective follicles are extremely sensitive. It actually causes a molting chicken discomfort to have pin feathers touched. As previously discussed, these tender new feathers are susceptible to bleeding and injury if broken. Help your molting flock by giving them some physical space and time away from your hands-on affection.
2. Reduce stress for your flock. A chicken’s personality may change during a molt. A molting bird often behaves listlessly and more shyly. A molting bird commonly will retire to the coop much earlier than the rest of the flock. Don’t add emotional stress on top of their physical stress. Strictly avoid moving molting birds to a new coop, or introducing new birds to the flock. These are upsetting changes to even the healthiest of birds.
3. Keep an eye open and prevent pecking and bullying. Exposed skin is a common invitation for pecking. If you have a chicken that is molting in spring, while all of its flockmates shed their old feathers in fall, this singular bird could become a target for bullying. Once pecked and wounded, any injured skin revealed will bring additional attacks. Watch for pecking of molting chickens by others in the flock. Remove a pecked bird until its injuries heal or cover the wounds (if possible) with a chicken saddle.
4. Boost their immune systems. Molting chickens are more susceptible to illness and other health problems during this stressful time because their immune systems are also under pressure from this physically taxing process. Many flock owners boost their flock’s immune systems by adding unpasteurized apple cider vinegar to their water supply. Raw (unpasteurized) apple cider vinegar is renowned for being full of necessary vitamins, minerals and trace elements. It additionally acts as a natural antiseptic and helps to lower pH levels in the stomach, thereby aiding digestion. Remember that the apple cider vinegar found in grocery stores is typically pasteurized and therefore devoid of its palliative properties. Also, never use apple cider vinegar in galvanized waterering containers as it leaches toxins from the metal.
5. Fine tune their diet. Nutrition is of the upmost importance during a molt, as this process causes an increased demand for protein, calcium, iron and essential fats by your birds. Feather growth requires a tremendous amount of protein, so supplement it in your molting flock’s diet. The simplest way to accomplish this is to switch from a typical layers feed (which will be about 16 percent protein) to a broiler blend of feed (which will be 20-25 percent protein) instead. If you are disinclined to switch feeds, provide protein-rich snacks, such as cooked eggs, cooked peas or beans, pearl millet, nuts,meat, fish meal, bone meal or insects. Be aware that freeze-dried mealworms sold at any feed store are typically 50 percent protein, but can trigger kidney failure if too many are provided. Should you choose to feed your chickens mealworms, then allow them no more than one teaspoon per day.
Less discussed than the need for additional protein when molting is the need for essential dietary fats. Dietary fats are important for healthy skin and aids in the emergence of new feathers. Dry skin during a molt can cause ingrown feathers and result in painful infection and cysts around trapped feathers. Dietary supplements of hulled raw (unsalted) sunflower or pumpkin seeds, flaxseeds, and cod liver oil are just a few examples of extra snacks that can help provide necessary dietary fats to your molting chickens.
Additionally, be sure to limit low protein treats during a molt. Chickens prefer scratch grains, oatmeal and veggies to their protein enriched feeds. Avoid having your flock fill up on these snacks when they require more protein in their diet.
Lastly, continue to fine-tune your flock’s diet after the spring molt is complete. Too much protein after the molt can cause obesity, digestive problems and reduced egg production. So do not forget to adjust your chicken’s feed back to normal following the molt.
With some extra attention and care, you can help your spring molting chickens transform into happy birds again within a matter of a few weeks. Your efforts will be rewarded by bringing your hens back into lay more quickly.
1) Beyer, R. Scott. “Molting and Other Causes of Feather Loss in Small Poultry Flocks.” Kansas State University Agricultural Experiment Station & Cooperative Extension Service. Published Jan. 1998. Web. 30 Nov. 2014. http://www.ksre.ksu.edu/bookstore/ pubs/MF2308.pdf.
2) Butterfield, Mavis. “Chickens – What is Molting?” One Hundred Dollars a Month RSS. Published on March 7, 2014. Web. 30 Nov. 2014. http://www.onehundreddollarsamonth. com/chickens-what-is-molting/.
3) “Chicken Loosing Feathers? Managing Your Flock’s Molt.” Backyard Poultry RSS. Published on December 11, 2012. Web. 30 Nov. 2014. http://www.backyardchickens. com/a/chickens-loosing-feathers-managingyour- flocks-molt.
4) “Chicken Molting Questions.” Raising Chickens RSS. Web. 30 Nov. 2014. http:// www.raising-chickens.org/chicken-molting. html.
5) Clark, David. “Even More Answers to Questions About Chickens.” Mental Floss RSS. Published on February 16, 2009. Web. 30 Nov. 2014. http://mentalf loss.com/ article/20883/even-more-answers-questionsabout- chickens.
6) Daniels, Tim. “Apple Cider Vinegar-ACV.” Poultry Keeper RSS. Web. 30 Nov. 2014. http://poultrykeeper.com/healthsuppliments/ apple-cider-vinegar.
7) Daniels, Tim. “Chicken Moulting.” Poultry Keeper RSS. Web. 30 Nov. 2014. http://poultrykeeper.com/general-chickens/ chickens-moulting.
8) Ellis, M.R. “Moulting: A Natural Process.” The Poultry Site RSS. Published on September 26, 2004. Web. 30 Nov. 2014. http://www.thepoultrysite.com/articles/217/ moulting-a-natural-process.
9) Golson, Terry. “The Molt.” Hencam RSS. Web. 30 Nov. 2014. http://hencam.com/ faq/the-molt.
10) Ly, Linda. “Helping Your Chickens Grow Back Beautiful Feathers.” Garden Betty RSS. Published August 15, 2013. Web. 30 Nov. 2014. http://www.gardenbetty.com/2013/08/ helping-your-chickens-grow-back-beautifulfeathers/.
11) Meggitt, Jane. “Why Do Chickens Lose Their Feathers?” Paw Nation RSS. Web. 30 Nov. 2014. http://animals.pawnation.com/ chickens-lose-feathers-5013.html.
12) “Molting.” The Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds RSS. Web. 30 Nov. 2014. http://www.birds.cornell.edu/ AllAboutBirds/studying/feathers/molting/ document_view.
13) “Molting in Birds.” VCA Animal Hospitals RSS. Web. 30 Nov. 2014. http:// www.vcahospitals.com/main/pet-healthinformation/ article/animal-health/molting-in-birds/966.
14) Mormino, Kathy Shea. “Molt Muffins for Chickens During Molting Season.” The Chicken-Chick RSS. Web. 30 Nov. 2014. http://www.the-chicken-chick.com/2013/08/ molt-muffins-for-chickens-during.html.
15) Mormino, Kathy Shea. “Molting – What is it and How to Help Chickens Get Through It.” Grit Magazine. Published on July 7, 2012. Web. 30 Nov. 2014. http://www.grit.com/animals/molting-what-isit–how-to-help-chickens-get-through-it. aspx#axzz3KWpNaeRA.
16) Murtoff, Jennifer. “Molting or Pecking Problems?” Urban Chicken Consultant RSS. Published on February 19, 2012. Web. 30 Nov. 2014. http://urbanchickenconsultant. wordpress.com/2012/02/19/molting-orpecking- problems/.
17) Nicholson, Heather. “Managing the Molt.” Scratch Cradle RSS. Published on November 4, 2012. Web. 30 Nov. 2014. http:// scratchcradle.wordpress.com/2012/11/04/ managing-the-molt/.
18) Read, Gina. “Bleeding-Blood Feathers- Chicken First Aid.” Keeping Chickens Newsletter RSS. Web. 30 Nov. 2014. http:// www.keepingchickensnewsletter.com/site/pin-feathers-blood-feathers-chicken-first-aid.
19) Steele, Lisa. “Molt Meatloaf: Much- Needed Protein for Feather Regrowth in Chickens.” Fresh Eggs Daily RSS. Published on July 14, 2012. Web. 30 Nov. 2014. http:// www.fresh-eggs-daily.com/2012/07/moltmeatloaf.html.
20) “Uses for Bragg’s Apple Cider Vinegar.” Bragg RSS. Published on March 15, 2013. Web. 30 Nov. 2014. http://bragg.com/blog/index.php/all-natural-organic-whole-live-foods/bragg-apple-cider-vinegar-featured-in-blog/.
21) “What is Molting?” My Pet Chicken RSS. Web. 30 Nov. 2014. http://www.mypetchicken.com/backyard-chickens/chickenhelp/What-is-molting-H107.aspx.