The shorter days heading into fall will usually find the backyard chicken keeper with a flock of molting chickens. Less daylight signals your chicken’s bodies that it’s time to molt, that is, to drop their old feathers and regrow nice, new feathers to get them ready for winter. Chickens fluff their feathers up when they’re cold, thereby trapping the air warmed by their body heat in between their bodies and the outer layer of feathers in order to protect them and provide a buffer against the cold winter air.
Throughout the year, feathers can get broken, worn, dirty and otherwise in less than tip-top condition, so growing in a new set of feathers is essential for helping your flock stay warm in the winter. Chickens losing feathers during autumn should be no cause for concern. The molting period can last for weeks or even months in some cases. Each molting chicken is different. Some molt extremely fast, seemingly losing all their feathers overnight, while others molt so slowly that it’s nearly impossible to even detect any feather loss.
Chickens molting always follows the same pattern: the feather loss starts at the head, then travels down the neck, to the breast and back area, then finally the wings, abdomen, and tail. The new feathers will actually push the old feathers out, so you likely won’t see bare patches on your chickens. You should already see the new feather shafts pushing through the skin in places where the old feathers have dropped.
Molting chickens generally stop laying partway through the molt, since growing in new feathers requires loads of energy and nutrients. You technically don’t need to do anything different during the molting season, although you should take care when handling your molting chickens because the new feathers contain blood, so you don’t want to break them, and because the area where new feathers are growing can be tender. You might notice your molting chickens being less friendly, even hiding under bushes or in the coop. It’s almost as if they know they look terrible and are embarrassed! But more likely it’s because they are extremely uncomfortable and not feeling great or full of their normal energy.
Because feathers are almost entirely made up of protein, adding a bit of extra protein to your molting chickens’ diet during the fall isn’t a bad idea. Some people like to switch back to a grower feed since it has more protein than the layer feed. Others will supplement their molting chickens’ diet with meat scraps, mealworms or other dried insects, scrambled eggs or fish.
Help for Molting Chickens
But what if your family doesn’t eat meat? Or if you aren’t comfortable feeding your chickens meat (although by nature chickens are omnivores and will happily gobble down all kinds of “meat” including mice, lizards, snakes, and toads.) Fortunately, there are lots of sources of plant-based protein that your chickens will love and will help them grow in beautiful, glossy new feathers. Many herbs and weeds contain lots of protein — and even grass is packed with it.
Anyone who grows mint knows that you’ll have way more than you bargained for! So you can add chicken smoothies to your list of peppermint plant uses. And think about growing sweet basil for your chickens this year as well. If your chickens free range, likely they’re getting enough plant protein on their own. If your chickens are penned up, of course, you can offer your chickens fresh herbs and weeds free-choice or dried mixed into their feed.
Or you can whip up a protein smoothie for your chickens! I don’t really follow any set recipe; I just put handfuls of whatever I’ve got on hand into my food processor with a bit of water and then puree it all together. If you have leftover vegetable cooking water, you can even use that in place of the plain water.
Protein Smoothies for Molting Chickens
These protein-packed veggies, weeds, and herbs pureed into a smoothie will help molting chickens. Choose as many sources of plant protein from the following list as you have available. I like to harvest all of my herbs from my raised bed herb garden just before the first frost, drying some to add to my chicken’s feed through the winter and making smoothies out of the remaining fresh herbs!
|Plants for a Molting Smoothie|
Puree the fresh herbs, weeds and/or veggies in a food processor, adding water (or vegetable cooking water) until the consistency is soupy. Offer free-choice to your molting chickens in a bowl, garnished with some black oil sunflower seeds, if desired. They’re a wonderful source of protein as well!
What are your techniques for helping your molting chickens get through their molt? Let us know in the comments below.