Monday, November 24, 2008

molting chickens are ugly chickens

re-feathering the back 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.

close-up of the new feathersBut 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)?


Steven Walling said...

My girls finished moulting a couple days ago, having started in late September (you can see their egg production stop on my wiki egg log).

They were a little stressed for sure, and some moulted more completely than others (one hardly had any patches where I could see the pin feathers at all). I tried to make it easier on them, and fed them extra scraps and treats.

If it is already getting cold when they're moulting (like it does here in pdx), I'd feed them some cracked corn in their ration. It decreases productivity, but helps them keep warm, ostensibly.

Now I'm wondering if they'll start laying again at all before spring...

Linda said...

My hens have also started molting, although not as dramatically as Sophia. Maisy is the worst right now: her underside is basically bare. And with temps in the dropping as low as 18F some nights, I feel very sorry for her. But, she seems to be doing OK. All I can say about the lot of them is they look...raggedy! Although this has affected egg production, it hasn't been so bad. I've had one day this week where I got only 1 egg. On all the other days I've continued to get 2-3 from my 3 ladies. They are super stars!

Laura said...

I only have one hen who is seriously molting, and she's lost most of the feathers on her head and neck and all but two of her tail feathers. Other than that, she's completely feathered, no bare patches. She looks awfully strange, though, kind of vulture-ish. Poor thing.

I haven't had a single egg for the last month. Last year they started up again pretty early, though, so I'm hoping I won't have to keep buying eggs for that long. (shudder)

Crazy Chicken Lady said...

I love your blog! When my girls molt I throw in some small sized dry cat food for them. They need to get as much protein as they can get. A little scrambled egg will help too.

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yl said...

black oil sunflower seeds are good for protein as well and my chickens love them!

xben said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
xben said...

Hi, you said egg laying dropped to 1 per day, do you have more chickens then 1? cause chickens will only lay one per day even when put under a light, they will only lay about 1.5 a day. Just wondering cause I keep my 15 hens on free range and get about 8 to 10 eggs a day. You wont get more then one egg a day per chicken.

Unknown said...

Hi xben, we've got two chickens and only one is molting. So, egg production is cut in half around here (is weird buying eggs at the store again). Can't imagine what it'd be like to have 15 chickens laying... you must be flooded in eggs!

Kim said...

I am very much a chicken-newbie. I raised some in the fall of '07 for 12 weeks for meat. Currently I have 21...a mix of Speckled Sussex and Partridge Rock. They came to me a day old from a hatchery in March '08, so are now 10 mos old. They started laying in mid-September, and I get a dozen eggs a day, more or less. I have been so consumed monitoring legs and feet for cracking in this extremely cold upstate NY weather that I just noticed yesterday that a few of them are bald on their necks under their chin. I read on the original post that molting usually starts on the head and works it's way back. This was my exact question I was looking for the answer to when I googled on this site! Is it normal that they molt now, in the dead of winter? Is there any "normal" time it is supposed to occur?

Cindy said...

My Rhode Island Red Hens are about one year's old. I noticed yesterday that half of them have lost their feathers on top of their heads. Also, there is a couple of black spots on their heads too. Are they molting or do you think they have mites?

Unknown said...

Hi Cindy, I'm not an expert at this (I welcome others to weigh in with their own advice), but I'd keep an eye on the black spots on their heads... these may be the pin feathers forming under the skin (see those in the picture on this post). If the feathers don't grow back, and the black spots are moving, well, you just might have mites.

Anyone else have something else to offer?


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