Table of Contents
- 1 OVERVIEW
- 2 WHAT IS MOLTING
- 3 THE FEATHER MOLTING PHASES/PROCESSES
- 4 TYPES OF MOLTING
- 5 EGG PRODUCTION AND MOLTING
- 6 COCKERELS MOLT TOO
- 7 MOLTING ROOSTERS
- 8 IS MOLTING PAINFUL FOR THE CHICKEN
- 9 HOW TO AID THE MOLTING PERIOD
If You see your chickens’ feathers getting a bit raggedy and seem to be losing them don’t worry it is probably just time for them to molt. This is when they lose their feathers in order to grow new ones to ready them for the harsh cold or summer heat.
WHAT IS MOLTING
Molting is the process whereby an animal will shed its fur, skin, exoskeleton and in a chicken’s case their feathers.
It usually takes place about once or twice a year for an adult bird. For chickens, it is usually at the beginning of the autumn months where they will shed their older feathers to make room for new warmer ones.
Basically, the chicken sheds older feathers whilst growing newer replacements ones.
This takes up a lot of energy, so the chicken will not produce many if any, eggs during the process.
Most of them will not be as active and may shy away from others until such time as they are feeling comfortable again.
This is a slow process even for the faster feather shedding breeds. It can take anywhere from 4 weeks to 20 weeks for them to complete the cycle. NOTE that is for natural annual molts that most if not all chicken breeds go through.
Younger chickens go through what is called a first molt where they will lose their baby feathers to get their adult ones. They generally lose their feathers for their first molt at 18 months of age and the molting period lasts up to 12 weeks until their adult feathers are all fully grown.
THE FEATHER MOLTING PHASES/PROCESSES
Chicks generally go through about 3 different molts during their early months and then 1 complete one as they go into adulthood.
They will have a complete molt at 1 to 6 weeks of age.
They will undergo partial molts at approximately 7 to 9 weeks, 12 to 16 weeks of age.
They then reach maturity at 18 weeks of age and will start their first adult molt from 18 weeks to 22 weeks old. This molt will last up to 12 weeks and the bird loses all its baby feathers to be replaced by its adult ones.
Even if hens are not exceptional layers after 18-week-old they are considered as such.
After the chick has become an adult they will molt again a year or so later when the season change. This is usually just after mating/breeding season and or when the Autumn is in the air.
As molting takes up a lot of energy the hen’s reproductive systems shut down to accommodate the feather shedding and growing process. As discussed above it is expected for egg production to stop completely during this time.
This molting period does take quite a long time.
THE MOLTING PROCESS:
Molting looks like it come in patches and it usually does. This is so that the chicken does not lose too many feathers at once. Their feathers, after all, are there to protect them against the elements and regulate their body temperature.
As the body loses feathers these will be replaced by pin feathers. The pin feather is protected by a little wax-like pocket. The pin feather is filled with blood and nourishment that helps the feather grow and because of a full one. As the feather grows the waxy coating will eventually pop open so the feather can emerge and once it is fully grown the blood flow to it dries off.
You may find these little casing that looks like plastic tubes in the bird’s dust bath, roosting and or nesting boxes during molting season.
As the pin feathers mature the next lot of feather to molt will start to fall out and the process will start all over until the bird has undergone its full/partial molt.
There tends to be an order to the molting process:
- Feathers are usually lost from the head and neck regions
- The next feathers to go will come from the chicken’s saddles area
- Then the breast area will molt
- The abdomen usually molts with the breasts or very near to that process
- The second last place to molt is the wings. This is done so that during the longer molting process most birds are not left completely flightless
- The last place to molt is usually the tail feathers
It is good to note that some of the hybrid breeds or known prolific egg layers usually continue to lay right up until their wing’s molts. You may not get as many eggs from them as you are used to but these breeds may still give you a few.
TYPES OF MOLTING
There are different types of molting that can occur for chickens. These are caused mainly by various factors other than seasonal molting.
A vacation molt is when a chicken stops laying during the spring and summer season for some reason. If she stops laying because she may have become sick or is broody she will lose some of her primary featherings. Usually on the head and or neck areas.
Once she starts to lay again during this season the molting will stop and then when her annual molt comes along will take up where the vacation molt left off (she will not start from her head and neck again)
Neck or Partial Molt
Some chickens experience a neck molt for various other reasons during the spring or summer season but continue to lay as normal. This is called a neck or partial molt and is usually accompanied by pin feathers.
If molting occurs at any time during the year it is usually due to some factors of stress on the chicken.
It can come on at any time of the year but usually, a stressful condition for a hen during the summer months will bring about a drop-in egg production. Which usually brings on a molt.
Stress can affect a hen in the autumn/winter months as well and she will drop feathers.
Here are some common stress factors that can/have been known to cause molting in a chicken:
- Poor lighting
- Being bullied/agitated by other flock members
- Overcrowding of the coop
- Low Pecking order
- Illness/loss of weight
- Parasites such as lice, fleas, ticks, etc.
Forced molting is a common practice that is used by the commercial poultry farming industry.
They induce various stress factors so that their hens start to molt. This is done to regulate the egg laying production and to ensure their hens are all productive again at a certain time of the year.
This is NOT a practice that backyard coops, homesteaders or normal farmers partake in.
EGG PRODUCTION AND MOLTING
After the Pullets first year of molting you can expect their egg production to drop by up to 30%.
After the Hens second molt egg production may drop by another 30% so by the chickens 3rd year of laying eggs they may only be producing 70 to 80 percent of what they did in the first year of laying.
COCKERELS MOLT TOO
Yes, the males of the species also lose their beautiful plumage. Especially the young cockerels.
It is important to note that for either sex molting is an uncomfortable process and can be painful. So even the placid males may become aggressive.
The males usually become infertile during molting as their reproductive system shuts down to allow for the creation of new feathers.
They may stop eating so you will have to watch that they do not drop too much of their body weight as prolonged molting and too much weight loss may render the cockerel completely infertile.
Just like Pullets, hens and cockerels if you have roosters they will molt at least once a year too. The process is much the same as that of the females.
They will molt when it is heading into the fall season and will lose most of their feathers as the hens do. This will make way for their warmer feathers for the colder months ahead.
As with the chickens, they may become a bit listless and their reproductive systems shut down as the cockerels do.
They may become a bit more aggressive and snappier as it is an uncomfortable process.
IS MOLTING PAINFUL FOR THE CHICKEN
No, the molting itself is not painful as the feather is dead. You can liken the loosing of the feathers to that of hair falling we do not feel it.
What can be a bit tender and a little sensitive is the growing of the pin feathers. The pin feather when it is still coated is growing and has blood flowing to it at this stage. If touched it can hurt the chicken it may even damage the new feather.
When a chicken is molting you should never try to handle/pick it up. This will cause the chicken pain, stress and may even damage the new feather(s).
HOW TO AID THE MOLTING PERIOD
CHICKENS PECKING AT FEATHERS
During the molting process, chickens tend to become very vulnerable.
Chickens can get hurt a lot easily a pin feather or two could get damaged and cause a wound.
If you notice blood on the chicken during the molting period it is very important that you remove the bird until the wound is healed.
Chickens love to peck at a bloody wound especially during the molting period.
If chickens are lacking in protein, they will start to peck at and eat other chickens in the flock’s feathers.
This may damage and cause harm to the chicken being pecked at.
If you find this happening remove the bird(s) being pecked at and increase the flock’s protein intake.
FEEDING THE CHICKENS DURING THE MOLT
Reduce the amount of scratch (a corn mix) and use it only as a treat during the molting process.
Scratch is a chicken preferred food source and it is not very high in protein.
During the molting period, chickens will need their protein intake increased.
Their diet will need to be supplemented additional protein. There is various feather grow foods specifically developed to aid with this process.
Check with your local vet on the best vitamin supplements that may also help your flock through their molt.
SOME TIPS TO FOLLOW TO HELP YOUR FLOCK
Ensure that they have their feed readily available to them during the day to ensure they are getting enough protein, minerals and vitamins.
Do not pick them up or try to handle them unless absolutely necessary during the period.
Try not to stress the flock out during this time. For instance, during the molting period is not a good time to add new chickens to the flock. Or add to, move or do repairs to the chicken coop or run.
Ensure that the coop is well ventilated but also insulated for when the temperature drops during the night.
Ensure that there is enough space in the coop and run for your flock.
As best as possible the flock is not agitated or frightened.
Remove ill or hurt chicken from the flock and isolate them for their own wellbeing and safety.
If you are new to owning chickens, looking to starting out before making a choice of chicken breed it is best to have a clear vision as to what you are wanting to get out of owning chickens. Are you looking for fresh eggs, a pet, etc? For advice on keeping chickens see our “The first-time chicken owners starter guide”.