Caring for Molting Chickens: Understanding Your Flocks Needs

 

Molted feathers from Polish Hens (1)

A few years ago, I opened up the back of the chicken coop and found feathers everywhere. I immediately thought two of our hens got in a fight overnight and panicked. All the chickens looked okay, but there were a few chickens missing feathers.  

What is molting? Molting is when chickens lose their feathers and replace them with new feathers. It usually happens in the fall and is the process by which chickens’ bodies prepare for the colder winter months. Molting can also occur when chickens have a diet that’s low in protein. 

Some chickens may look naked (or bullied), and new chicken keepers need to differentiate between molting, feather picking, and parasites. 

Here’s an incredible fact. Feathers are high in protein – between 80 – 90%. So with that in mind, extra protein is what your birds need during their molt. Let’s dive into molting and what you need to know.

Understanding the Molting Process

Molting most frequently happens in the fall as daylight hours shorten. 

This shedding period takes about seven weeks to complete, but I’ve seen it take as long as eight weeks. Your birds shed old, broken, and dirty feathers. All of these feathers are replaced by new ones just in time for winter. 

I have a silver-laced Wyandotte that goes through a hard molt every year and loses a lot of her feathers. While some of my hens go through a hard molt, others hardly lose any feathers at all. The age across our flock varies as some are just one year old while others are enjoying retirement. 

Chickens typically stop laying eggs if they’re molting as it takes energy and protein intake to grow new feathers. Chickens usually start molting on their heads. The loss of feathers continues down the chicken’s body until it reaches the tail. While some hens molt all at once, others molt in a less noticeable event and you may not realize your hens are molting.   

The molt always occurs in the same pattern. After the head and neck, the feathers on the saddle, back, breast, abdomen, wings, and the tail are affected. Some of my chickens only lose feathers on their head, back, and breast. Other chickens only lose tail feathers! 

  • Wings: hens lose primary flight feathers before secondary flights feathers 
  • Late molting hens: chickens lose primary feathers in groups of two or more feathers, and early molters lose feathers individually
  • Replacement feathers: new feathers begin to grow in shortly after the old feathers are shed
Feathers from a molting chicken (1)
Feathers from a molting hen

Hard Molt Versus Soft Molt

Molting is typically a matter of genetics. There are three types of molts so you can use this terminology when talking with other chicken keepers. 

  • A hard molt means all the feathers are lost almost at once, so molting is over relatively quickly.
  • A soft molt means the feathers are lost and regrown gradually. Sometimes you may hardly notice a soft molt, except as a reduction in laying.
  • A series of molts occur in the first year of a bird’s life, as they’re growing in their adult plumage. We talk about this below. 

Reasons Chickens Molt

Chickens molt in preparation for the colder winter months. New feathers help protect them from chilly nights and higher precipitation. They can also molt when there are extreme temperature swings. 

  • Even in the summer, chickens can molt if their diet doesn’t have enough protein. Supplying your hens with adequate protein will help to prevent premature molt and help to lessen the impact of a fall molt. Summer passes, and shorter days arrive
  • New feathers trap warm air during colder winter months 
  • Extreme heat or extreme temperature swings 
  • Poor nutrition overall with low protein ingredients
  • Predator attack or predators (air or ground) stalking the birds 
  • Using artificial lighting during the winter season and turning it off mid-season
Extra protein snacks help feather growth (1)
One of my Easter Egger chickens enjoying mealworms as a topper

Molting And Chicken Age

Molting can affect chickens differently, depending on their age. 

When do chickens molt? Chickens usually start molting around 18 months and will molt annually in the fall. Some chickens also molt in the spring, especially when the weather is volatile. Molting takes between 3 weeks and as long as 7 or 8 weeks. Older hens take longer to molt than younger chickens. Molting is also affected by diet.  

Age plays a large role

There is a difference between the typical juvenile molt and when an adult molts for the first time. Young chickens before 18 months have already experienced several “mini molts’ and the first juvenile molt is when a chicken sheds all the cute chick fluff. During this period the young hens gain actual feathers! Before they gain an entire set of true feathers that go through a few sets of smaller molts until they’re five months of age. 

When chicks have a complete set of feathers they can leave the brooder and start a life outdoors!

Molting, Sick, or Bullied Hens: Proper Identification 

It’s tough to tell the signs of molting. That’s because molting has the appearance of distressed, sick, or bullied chickens. Some molting chickens that typically love to be picked up and touched on a normal day may shy away or even run away from you! There are feathers known as ‘pin feathers’ that are extremely sensitive as they contain blood-filled veins and these are painful if touched. 

  • Some hens lose weight
  • Many have pale combs and wattles 
  • Hens may look downright ‘embarrassed from losing so many feathers 

Parasite Sick Chicken 

If your hen is missing feathers around its vent area, it’s likely suffering from a parasite infestation. Parasites feed on a chicken’s blood or its feathers. Chickens anywhere can suffer from issues with parasites. You’ll often see chickens preening their feathers but also excessively scratching and missing feathers as a result. 

A mite infestation may often look like molting. Your chicken may have missing feathers near their vent and the hens look miserable. It’s important to look for mites near a chicken’s vent as this nasty parasite may be causing harm to your birds and this area is where they typically are seen causing issues. The red mite is a common cause of feather loss. 

Feather Picking Equals Feather Loss

Sometimes you’ll see feather picking among your chickens. If your birds are molting and deficient in protein, you may discover they’re pulling (and eating) each others’ feathers. 

Some breeds have top knots, or head plumes, so it is worth watching your flock to make sure other birds aren’t picking out those special head feathers if you notice they’re missing those feathers. This is a common bullying tactic, too, so observe your birds to rule out feather picking. 

Bullying

​​When you birds have exposed skin, another chicken may see this as an opportunity to bully another chicken by picking at their feathers. You almost cannot believe it until you see the behavior first-hand. This is especially true with chickens with plumes. 

My wyandotte chicken will walk right over to our polish chickens and peck them on their heads. She does this if she doesn’t like what they’re up to, including eating!  Always watch your chickens for a bit when you know they cannot see you and you’ll see what behavior is happening with the ladies. Many times I know it’s part of the pecking order. I don’t tolerate bullying of any kind within my flocks. Bullying article

Ease the Effects of Molting in Chickens 

During molting, take the time to provide for your flock’s unique needs. Always continue to feed their regular layer feed but add in higher protein snacks. This will help during the molting season. Remember that feathers are composed of between 80 and 90 percent protein. 

Mealworms make a great protein snack for molting chickens (1)
My Rhode Island Red chicken enjoying dried mealworms

Add High-Protein Treats 

Your hens will benefit from additional protein treats during molting season. Many high-protein treats can quickly provide added nutrients. Some high-protein treats include sunflower seeds, nuts (raw and unsalted), and peas. Add soybeans, meat (cooked), cod liver oil, or bone meal. Canned tuna is a favorite of my hens. Some experts aren’t a fan of cat food but I’ve used this successfully for birds going through a hard molt. 

  • Crickets
  • Scrambled eggs
  • Broiler chicken feed 
  • Mealworms (mealies)  
  • Soldier Fly Larvae 

 

Lessen Stress 

Stress is a big reason chickens may molt during the year. For example, if birds between six months and 18 months are molting this may be due to stress caused by poor nutrition or a predator issue. There are ways to minimize stress for your chickens during molting season. 

  • Hold off on your urge to add new chickens to your flock. Wait until spring to add a few chickens as this pecking dynamic may cause a lot of stress. 
  • Don’t add new coops or anything structurally that may cause stress as hens like a simple routine. 
  • Make sure the area is predator proof as owls and coyotes are often looking for a weakness in a fence or ways to crawl under a coop’s outside enclosure. 
  • Heat causes stress in chickens and if your region experiences a very unusual hot period towards the end of summer this can trigger a molt. 

Let’s talk herbs

There are many herbs you can grow in your garden over the summer to help boost immunity. The healthier your birds are before they molt, the easier this natural process will be for their bodies. 

This is especially true with older birds. One of my wyandotte hens around the age of four years old passed away shortly after a hard molt and we noticed she looked skinny towards the end of the summer season that year. 

According to Lisa Steele, chicken expert and author of Fresh Eggs Daily, the benefits are endless. She rarely if ever has an unexplained death in her flock. Check out her list! 

  • Basil – antibacterial, mucous membrane health
  • Garlic – laying stimulant, anti-fungal, benefits circulation system
  • Lavender – stress reliever, increases blood circulation, highly aromatic, insecticide
  • Marigolds – stress reliever, increases blood circulation, highly aromatic, insecticide
  • Marjoram –  laying stimulant, anti-inflammatory, decongestant, improves blood circulation, detoxifier
  • Mint –  insecticide and rodent repellent, antioxidant, aids in respiratory health, digestive aid, lowers body temperature naturally.
  • Nasturtium –  laying stimulant, antiseptic, antibiotic, insecticide, wormer
  • Oregano – combats coccidia, salmonella, infectious bronchitis, avian flu, blackhead and e-Coli, strengthens immune system
  • Parsley – high in vitamins, aids in blood vessel development, laying stimulant
  • Sage – antioxidant, antiparasitic, general health promoter, thought to combat Salmonella
  • Calendula: great insect repellant and makes yolks orange (who doesn’t love orange yolks!)

I grow lavender in my coop area, which repels flies and insects, and mint, which repels rodents and bugs. I frequently add these as dried herbs directly in the chicken coops.

It’s easiest to add dried herbs to nesting boxes and areas where the chickens spend the most time outside the coop. You can also gather fresh herbs and add these as bundles tied to the roost bars so they hang upside down. Bee pollen and rose petals work too!

You may select any herbs from the above list as the health benefits help your chickens stay out of the hen hospital.

Summary

I feel awful for the chickens that are molting, and one of our Polish hens looks miserable when her top knot feathers come back in every fall. I think she knows her head feathers are so beautiful, and molting is rather embarrassing! Be patient with your birds and make sure they have plenty of protein. 

The exhaustive list above of reasons to keep your hens healthy leading up to molting season should be on the list for every chicken keeper. Always check for mites, watch for bullying and take note of how old your birds are when you are struggling to tell if losing feathers means some chickens are molting. 

Christine Caplan

I moved to Washougal, Washington five years ago and our house "came" with chickens! I've since added a second flock after falling in love with my new role as a chicken keeper. I also live with two senior hounds and I'm a certified vet technician which helped prepare me for a life with hens and a rooster. I'm also a writer specializing in animal health and wellness and you can find my other stories in Animal Wellness Magazine and Business Insider. I have a blog called Wag and Cluck that dives deep into my life with chickens and senior dogs.

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