Chicken Health / Chickens / Management

Managing the Molt

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.

Lady, an EE pullet, in the spring.

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.

Lady’s pin feathers or blood feathers

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.

During the molt, Lady is shyer than usual.

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.

Parts of a contour feather: (1) Vane, (2) Rachis, (3) Barb, (4) Afterfeather, (5) Hollow shaft, Calamus

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.

With her feathers growing back in, Lady is feeling better.

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.

Nearly done! Lady’s feathers are growing in a bit darker than her 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.

Flock with molting rooster who has lost his tail feathers

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.

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21 thoughts on “Managing the Molt

    • Molting is a great thing to watch. I also did a post on breeding for type you may want to read, but the #1 source, if you haven’t seen it already, is American Livestock Breeds Conservancy’s (ALBC) breeding information at http://albc-usa.org/EducationalResources/chickens.html. They are the ones who resurrected the Buckeye. In their resources, they give detailed information and pictures about how to keep records, what to pay attention to, and what valuable and undesirable traits look like. It’s a must-read if you are breeding!

      • I love the ALBC’s Buckeye info! I’m also hoping to buy the chicken color genetics book out of the Netherlands. It’s about $120 US so not an impulse purchase 🙂 We’re getting into olive-eggers as s ideline to the main laying flock, so there are a lot of genetic variables with egg color, beard & muff, comb shape, etc. I’ve read over some of your genetics posts and really appreciate the hard work you put into them.

      • I’ve seen that book! I really want it, too, but it is definitely something to be saved up for. I’ve read all of the previews that they offer – excellent information. I think the photos are the best part. The illustrations make the concepts so much clearer. (For anyone following along, we are talking about this.)

        Thank you, also, for your comment on the genetics posts. They were definitely a labor of love and a lot of work, and I appreciate your appreciation. 🙂

  1. We are very fortunate that our chickens don’t go thru a total molt all at once. For us the sunshines (except for the cloudy days) just about the same 12 hours year round. We’ve more of a molt with the newer to us, black general purpose bird than the ones raised for egg production. I won’t know just how much it will affect our birds till next year. Just like today, the sun was shinning at 515AM then it clouded over till about 10AM now the sun is shinning which may last till sundown around 545PM. It may cloud over later which may or may not remain till sundown.

    • That is a fascinating difference! Thank you for pointing this out. It absolutely makes sense that, so close to the equator, there would be no clearly recognizable time for everyone to molt. So, do individual birds molt at various times throughout the year? Do they molt based upon their age, for example, at 16 months, 28 months, 40 months, etc? Do chickens hatched together tend to molt together? Sorry to ask so many questions, but that is quite interesting!

      • So far it seems like we have found feathers right along. One brown hen left a rather large amount of feathers in one night in a nest box but she really didn’t show much visible loss. Most of the hens we have now we’ve only had them for part of a season but they were laying when we got them. I really don’t know their ages as the fellow that had them spoke no English and my Spanish is very little. The black chicks that I am raising for replacements will be studied in detail as I want to raise my replacements right along. Not havening a source of information on these chickens it will be up to us to do the documenting as we go, good for a retired person’s busy work (not work at all, just plain enjoyment). The chicks are coming up on 4 weeks so it is time to get the scale out and start collecting data. They have been on FF from the time they were put into the brooder area along with some dry feed to make sure they got enough nutrition. They are in an area about 6’X10′ on wood shavings over dirt and as of yet very little odor. As near as I can tell we should have more pullets than cockerels, that would be a very nice boon.

      • More pullets than cockerels would be excellent! I’ve had that ratio when hatching from my own flock, but never when hatching shipped eggs. Strange! I would definitely be curious to see when your chicks molt next year. It’s great that you are keeping such close track of them. I’ve read that a dirt floor is the best for the deep litter method because the natural microorganisms can come up into the litter and the litter can drain more easily and not become too moist. I plan to have a dirt floor in my next coop. I love the FF. It does make for such shiny, healthy chicks, and the layers love it, too. Your flock sounds great. You’ve got a lot going on!

  2. Excellent post! We were fortunate to have a “mild” molt this year, as we only have 2 hens of molting age, and the others all about a year old. But my game roo did lose his beautiful grey tail feathers and looked wonky for a bit…LOL.

    Lady is STUNNING! I am in LOVE with her coloring. My Bella (a “lavender” EE) hatched 8 babies in september and they are all quite interesting as far as coloring goes. But the daddy is our game rooster of course. I can’t wait for my Marans to mature. I plan to put them with some of my true Ameracaunas to get some OE’s (just for the fun of it).

    • That is a nice, mild molt. I have only been getting one or two eggs per day! Everyone of age is molting except one hen who is laying every other day or so. My Leghorn pullet is laying, and a Basque Hen pullet in the older group had begun – but she had a bad scare and was almost taken by a hawk. No injury, but she hasn’t laid an egg since! I have 5 other pullets which should be approaching point of lay. I do wish they would hurry up a bit to fill in for the older ladies!

      I like Lady’s look, too. I have two other EEs, both of which are a basic golden duckwing. Pretty, but Lady stands out. Marans/Ameraucanas make for great olive eggers! I bought eggs from a friend who has that same mix, and they were dark and lovely. Lady actually lays a fairly dark green egg, but nothing like those Marans mixes!

      • We’re getting started with OE’s now. Hatched some from my black copper marans roo x EE’s, and some shipped 1st gen OE’s and marans cross eggs. I have cuckoo marans and welsummer hens too. I’ll be going nuts in the spring, trying to figure out which I want to cross with which 🙂

      • That is the fun part! It’s just like planning a garden – you can replan it a million different ways, and each plan has it’s own attractions! Mix and match is fun. 😀

  3. @Seven Trees,

    I also want that book! have been spending too much $ on chickens these days to buy it though…lol. I have 5 eight week old Black Copper Marans from show stock, and it turns out I have 3 roo”s, 2 pullets. I purchased 15 fertile Ameracauna eggs and unfortunately, only 4 hatched this weekend. I called the breeder, and he said he set 24 on the same day I did & only had 6 hatch, so he is going to put 2 more roo’s in with his 12 hens and test fertility again. He said if it is better, he would sell me another dozen eggs at 1/2 price. And out of 8 Welsummer eggs, I only had 1 fertile (bummer)! So, I may just have to buy some Ameracauna pullets in the spring ans possibly some Welsummers (but Welsummers are VERY scarce around here).

    I set 15 Delaware eggs today (I would like to focus on them since they are on the ALBC’s critical list)….I am anxious to see how many hatch! I also threw a few of my white EE X game roo eggs in the incubator today. I love how crossing these two gives a pullet with super FUNKY coloring, plus blue eggs!

    Then there are my Coronation Sussex!! My roo, Tyson is 8 months old and already tipping the scales at 10 pounds!!! He is absolutely perfect! And his pullet, Tilly is 5 1/2 months old…so, I am patiently waiting! When I am confident that Tyson is completely sexually mature, I am going to put my 20 month old Light Sussex hen in with him (really eager to see the split ratio). I am on a waiting list to buy a dozen Coronation eggs from Greenfire this month.

    @scratchcradle…you are absolutely right about the garden comment! LOL My chicken habit is as addicting as my soap habit…hahaha. But I just love them! I just bought sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, and some dried fruit on Monday for “extra treats”. oh….and the local stores have all their pumkins marked down 4 for $1….so…guess what my guys have been going crazy for? LOL

    P.S…your Basque hens are so beautiful….I find myself becoming more and more intrigued with them each time I read about them…hahaha!!! I smell a new breed in my near future…maybe…LOL!

    Kelley

  4. Stopping by from Tilly’s Nest! I enjoyed reading your post. Our girls – 6 of them – are going through their first molts. (They’re 16 months old.) We haven’t gotten a single egg in 6-7 weeks! We’re missing them! 😦 We have 2 that started a little earlier and look “done”. When should we expect eggs again? We’re in Maine so I know the shortened days are really going to effect them not too! (We don’t use lights in the coop.) Our poor girls are usually so friendly and stick to each other like best friends, but since molting they have been very grumpy! Poor things! I think the worst is over though!

    • Hello, Jessy! It’s hard to say when you’ll get eggs again because it varies so much by individual chickens, diet, light, and all of that. If they are looking done, it could be anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of months before they start laying again, and when they do, it will be fewer than the winter of their pullet year. I’m sorry I can’t be of more help! Make sure they are still getting plenty of protein and can roost each night with their crops full of food. If it makes you feel any better, I am in the same boat! Good luck!

  5. We have a small flock just for eggs, so I don’t pay much attention to their molting schedule, but this is good information for those that want to breed their hens. 🙂

  6. We have feathers EVERYWHERE! I still count heads every morning to make sure everyone’s ok. They look so embarrassed…

    Found you at Tilly’s Nest – thanks for all the great information!

  7. Pingback: Why No Eggs? « Scratch Cradle

  8. Great post. I really needed to get some info about our chooks. I’m a little concerned that we haven’t had any eggs from our pullets – they are now well over 6 months old, though they are rarer breeds. What’s the usual time for young ones to start laying?

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