By Jen Pitino – Many people wonder when do chickens molt? Molting, the chicken pundits tell us, is supposed to happen in either spring or at the end of summer as we slip in to fall weather and shorter days. According to the experts, the molting bird will lose and replace its feathers in a matter of a few weeks.
But what should we do when molting does not occur in the “normal” manner? A few days before Christmas, I found my favorite hen, Frida, in the coop suddenly looking quite bedraggled and partially naked. She is a singularly minded hen who routinely chooses not follow conventional wisdom (even chicken wisdom). Frida began her molt approximately seven months earlier in mid-summer.
Unbeknownst to me, back in early June, Frida began her first adult molt. She quietly lost the feathers down both sides of her torso. I hadn’t noticed that she was molting right away because you could not see the missing feathers. You had to pick her up and feel nude chicken skin under your hand to discover that she was shedding plumage. Also at that time, she was enjoying the life of a free-range chicken every day, so the coop was not filled with tell-tale feathers. Consequently, when I did discover Frida’s nude side panels I was shocked and distressed.
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Frida continued to lay regularly. She also failed to grow in pin feathers in the appropriate time range according to the experts. It simply did not appear to be a molt to me. I worried that she was diseased or parasite ridden; maybe chicken mites? Much to her chagrin, I checked and rechecked her and the coop for lice and mites. When I failed to discover any I gave her a delousing bath anyway and treated the coop heavily with diatomaceous earth for good measure. I decided to let nature take its course after that.
I was stunned when I found Frida tailless and bare chested one day in the coop on a snowy and cold winter day. I could not understand why Frida would choose such an inopportune season to chuck her feathers in a massive molt. Worried for her well-being, I began a deeper study on molting and looked for ways to help her through the process. The following is what I learned.
Molting is a natural and necessary process by which chickens lose old, broken, worn out and soiled feathers for new plumage on a regular basis. It is important that a chicken grow new feathers from time to time because the integrity of a bird’s feathers affects how well that bird is able to keep itself warm in cold weather.
Chickens will go through several molts during their lives. The earliest, juvenile molt occurs when a chick is only six to eight days old. The chick loses its downy covering for actual feathers in this first juvenile molt.
The second juvenile molt occurs when the bird is about eight-12 weeks old. The young bird replaces its first “baby” feathers with its second set at this time. This second juvenile molt is when a male chicken’s ornamental feathers begin to grow in (e.g. long sickle tail feathers, long saddle feathers, etc.) The second juvenile molt is where some backyard chicken keepers make the disappointing discovery that the “sexed” chick they bought is a rooster that they will have to rehome.
When do chickens molt? Chickens typically go through their first adult molt at approximately 18 months old. Usually, adult molting occurs in the late summer or fall and the replacement feathers are fully in within eight-12 weeks. As demonstrated by Frida, not all chickens conduct their molts in a conventional manner and will drag out the process upwards of six months.
Additionally, new chicken owners should be aware there are two different styles of molting – soft and hard. A soft molt is when the bird loses some feathers but the effect is such that the untrained eye might not realize that the chicken is losing and replacing feathers. Conversely, a chicken going through a hard molt will suddenly and dramatically lose a vast quantity of feathers giving it a nude appearance.
The most common trigger for molting is a decrease of daylight hours and the end of an egg-laying cycle, which typically coincide with late summer or early fall. However, there are several less innocuous molting causes as well. Physical stress, a lack of water, malnutrition, extreme heat, hatching a clutch of eggs and unusual lighting conditions (e.g. owner has a light bulb in the coop emitting light all night and then suddenly removes the constant light source) can all be at the root of an unexpected or untimely molt.
Sadly, it is common in commercial egg-laying factory farms to force a molt of its flock for efficiency and enhanced egg production. In order to force a unified molt, the farm withholds any feed from the birds for seven-14 days to stress their bodies into molting. It is a cruel practice that is already outlawed in the United Kingdom.
Helping Your Molting Chickens
Feathers are comprised of 80-85 percent protein. A molting chicken’s body simply cannot support both feather and egg production simultaneously. At first you may wonder why have my chickens have stopped laying. Molting causes either a significant reduction in egg productivity or, more commonly, a full hiatus from egg laying until the hen has fully replaced its feathers.
Chicken owners wonder what to feed chickens during a molt that can help them through the process. Providing more protein is key. Typical layers feed is 16 percent protein; during a molt, switch to a broiler blend of feed which is 20-25 percent protein instead. Protein rich treats should also be provided. Some examples of high protein treats that can be easily provided include: sunflower seeds or other nuts (raw and unsalted), peas, soybeans, meat (cooked), cod liver oil, bone meal or even soft cat/dog food (I’m not a fan of this last choice)
For my flock and Frida in particular, I have been baking protein-rich corn bread for them. I use a basic corn bread recipe found on the back of the corn meal package and supplement it with nuts, flaxseed, dried fruit and yogurt in the batter. The added ingredients boost this snack’s protein levels and will help Frida get her feathers back in quickly. As an added bonus, the flock seems to enjoy that this treat is served to them warm on these snowy, wintery days.
There are a couple other molting issues to keep in mind. It is uncomfortable for a bird with pin feathers to be handled. Additionally, a bird going through a hard molt with bare skin can be more susceptible to pecking and bullying by other flock members, so keep a close eye on the molting bird.
Now that you have an answer to when do chickens molt, learn more about helping your chickens through the process in Episode 037 of the Urban Chicken Podcast.