So, at eighteen months of age, Sophia has finally started to molt and what an unsettling experience it's been for all of us! (She's hiding her head in shame in the picture to the right)
Why do the chickens molt? Courtesy the fine crowd over at Wikipedia:
The process of moulting in birds is as follows: First, the bird begins to shed some old feathers, then pin feathers grow in to replace the old feathers. As the pin feathers become full feathers, other feathers are shed. This is a cyclical process that occurs in many phases. In general, a moult begins at a bird's head, progresses down the body to its wings and torso, and finishes with the tail feathers. It is usually symmetrical, with feather loss equal on each side of the body. Because feathers make up 4-12 percent of a bird's body weight, it takes a large amount of energy to replace them. For this reason, moults are frequently timed to occur right after the breeding season, but while food is still abundant. The plumage produced during this time is called postnuptial plumage.
Our first clue the molt was coming to our was Sophia's starting to look a little threadbare around the neck and we could see some small feathers littering the mulch in and around the coop and run. Then, egg production dropped to one a day and we had our first zero-egg day in I can't remember how long.
And then it happened: Sophia lost all the feathers on her back and from her tail, from between her wings down to her tail bump (not the technical term, but you know where I'm talking about).
While I'm sure she's as mortified by her looks as a chicken can be at her state, I have to admit I am intrigued by the feel of a chicken's bare back: the skin is warm and a little clammy, quite a change in temperature from the carcasses we get from the butcher.
But the bareback phase lasted only a day, as pinfeathers (seen at left) are sprouting up all across her back. I'm amazed watching how quickly these things grow. In the picture, you can see the newest are on the left and the oldest are on the right. Evidently, our Barred Rocks are "late molters" and this shedding/re-growing is going to last 2-3 months total and then Sophia will be back in full production, per Mississippi State University Extension's info on molting of laying hens
Each year chickens molt, or lose the older feathers, and grow new ones. Most hens stop producing eggs until after the molt is completed. The rate of lay for some hens may not be affected, but their molting time is longer. Hens referred to as "late molters" will lay for 12 to 14 months before molting, while others, referred to as "early molters," may begin to molt after only a few months in production. Late molters are generally the better laying hens and will have a more ragged and tattered covering of feathers. The early molters are generally poorer layers and have a smoother, better-groomed appearance. Early molters drop only a few feathers at a time and may take as long as 4 to 6 months to complete the molt. Early molters are usually poor producers in a flock. Late molting hens will produce longer before molting and will shed the feathers quicker (2 to 3 months). The advantage of late molters is that the loss of feathers and their replacement takes place at the same time. This enables the hen to return to full production sooner.
Things we need to pay attention to as the molting progresses are to keep the protein intake high so as to make regenerating the feathers easier on the girls. I'll try and toss in some dairy, too. Although I've read in some other chicken blogs
that the owners have given their girls raw meat, I'm a little squeamish at the thought of my chickens being meat eaters.
For those of you who've been through a molt or two, what experience can you share to help us first timers make it to the other side with our wits about us (and fully feathered chickens, too)?