For many of us, the days are getting shorter and nights longer. This is a signal to living things that summer is over and winter is approaching. For chickens, the shortened days trigger the molt. They lose their feathers and regrow their plumage to keep them warm in winter. In part because feathers are made almost entirely of protein, less protein is available to produce eggs, and so you will also see a steep decline or halt in egg production during the molt. Oestrogen is a hormone which stimulates egg production in the hen and also retards feather growth: When chickens molt, levels of oestrogen decrease, greatly reducing egg production to allow feather production. Male chickens also molt and will be less fertile during this time.
While there are a number of juvenile molts, the first major molt you will see occurs in autumn when chickens are 16 to 18 months old. If you have a small flock and plan to breed, pay attention to the order in which your chickens molt and the rate at which they shed and regrow their feathers. Chickens who begin to molt earlier will generally take longer to go through the process. For this reason, they produce fewer eggs per year. Chickens who begin to molt later will molt more quickly, regrowing feathers at the same time they are being lost. These are the chickens who produce more eggs in a year. Select late-molting hens and roosters to increase this trait in the next generation. If you see a naked chicken running around your yard, you can be sure that she is a hard, fast molter and a good hen to breed.
Generally, chickens will molt in a predictable order: from head to tail and the primary wing feathers, from the axial feather towards the wing tip, followed by the secondaries. The process may take anywhere from 2 to 7 months with 3 to 4 months as the norm. The late, fast molter will only take 2 to 3 months in total. An early, slow molter could take more than half the year!
Mississippi State University explains a method for identifying late/fast and early/slow molters. Gently extend the wing of a molting chicken. Locate the axial feather and primary feathers. The axial feather is the shorter feather between the group of secondary feathers closer to the body and the primary feathers closer to the wing tip. Look at the primary feathers nearest the axial. How many of the 10 primary feathers are missing? If there is only one missing, it means that the bird is molting slowly, losing and regrowing one primary feather at a time. If two or more are missing, it means the bird is molting quickly. This quick-molting/late-molting bird is a keeper! To see what this looks like on a real wing, look at this 4-H page for pictures.
It is also important to note that some exceptional hens may not lose any wing feathers and will not replace these until their second year. These hens are squarely in the late/fast category of desirable breeders.
When you are checking the primary feathers, be extraordinarily careful about how you catch and handle your bird. The regrowing feathers are called blood feathers and are very sensitive. The growing feather needs a supply of nutrients to grow. These nutrients are delivered by the blood, so all growing feathers are full of blood. When the feather is finished growing, the area formerly full of blood will be the thick, hollow base of the feather, called the quill or calamus. Pressure on these blood feathers can be painful for a bird, so you should avoid handling molting birds as much as is possible.
If a blood feather does break, you may notice some bleeding. Check your bird and make sure the bleeding has stopped. The blood feather is actually holding a vein open, so it is possible that there will be a lot of blood or continued bleeding. If this is the case, you will need to pull the base of the broken feather out with forceps or needle-nosed pliers and apply pressure until the bleeding stops. A little cornstarch or styptic powder over the area should help to keep it clotted. You can read more about this here and here.
While molting, chickens will not only stop laying but will behave differently. They will seem shy and retiring. They may stay closer to their coop and roost much earlier. They will be somewhat tired, itchy, and uncomfortable and require more food and rest. Therefore, this is not a time to stress your chickens in any way. Moving them to a new coop, introducing new birds, or catching and handling them often are all potential stressors that could increase their vulnerability to injury or illness.
Give them time, space, and extra nutrients. Molting birds need more protein and calcium. This is a great time for sunflower seeds, meal worms, tuna fish, and crushed hard-boiled eggs with the shells. Keep low-protein treats, such as scratch, veggies, or oatmeal, to a minimum. You can also increase protein by mixing their regular laying ration with a higher-protein grower or gamebird feed and providing ample additional calcium free-choice.
The new feathers, also called pin feathers because of their appearance as they first emerge, are covered in a coating of a protein called keratin. Fitting like a fabric cover over a new umbrella, the keratin coating keeps the barbs of the feather tight to the rachis until growth is complete. The chicken will preen herself to remove the keratin when the feather is grown.
As mentioned earlier, chickens experience several molts during adolescence. According to Australia’s Department of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Forestry:
The chick goes through one complete and three partial moults during its growth to point of lay. Generally, complete moulting occurs from 1-6 weeks of age, and partial moulting at 7-9 weeks, 12-16 weeks and 20-22 weeks. During this final moult, the stiff tail feathers grow.
After these adolescent molts, chickens will molt each fall. The year following each molt, hens will lay fewer eggs, but these will be larger and of better quality. In their second year, they will lay 70-90% of the number of eggs they laid in their pullet year. Following their second molt, in their third laying year, they will lay 60% of the eggs they laid in their pullet year.
There are sometimes additional molts and partial molts. You may see a small molt in some of your flock, accompanied by a dip in egg production, in late spring or early summer. Intense stress, resulting from traumatic encounters with predators, insufficient feed or water, extremes of temperature, or illness, can also trigger a partial or full molt depending on the time of year. Commercial egg producers take advantage of this response and withhold food or water to induce molting and get back to laying in all birds on the same schedule, a practice which is illegal in some countries. This is not something we want to reproduce in our backyards, intentionally or inadvertently, where the health and longevity of the flock is important. Proper husbandry helps to ensure health and productivity and prevent extra molts resulting from undue stress.
To read more about molting and other causes of feather loss, see this excellent article by Australia’s Department of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Forestry. If you are in the Northern Hemisphere, keep in mind that Australia’s summer months are our winter months.Watch your flock, note molting patterns in roosters and hens, and provide extra protein and calcium during the autumn molt. Their dense, refreshed plumage will keep them warm without artificial heat throughout the winter if they are provided with a draft-free, appropriately insulated and ventilated coop. Within a few months, you will be rewarded with a glossy, sleek-looking flock and the return of some egg production which will increase significantly again with the return of the sunin the spring.