If you have never kept birds before, seeing your beautiful chicken’s feathers falling out could look alarming. But in most cases, chickens losing feathers is a perfectly normal and important part of being a chicken.
Like dogs shed their fur, chickens regularly shed their feathers (called molting in birds). As adults, chickens usually molt once a year, most often in Autumn. Some of our chickens molt in Summer as soon as the days start getting shorter, and others wait until Winter, but the majority of ours molt in September and October.
A Time for Rest and Renewal
During this time of year, chickens lay very few eggs. The shortening days are already signaling it’s time to rest for the season, and replacing all those feathers takes a lot of energy. Even with over thirty hens, it’s not unusual to have days where we get no eggs at all when the ladies are molting and the hours of daylight are short.
Artificially lighting your chicken enclosure can trick your chickens’ systems into laying throughout the majority of the year and may prevent molting, but this high-production technique should not be used for pet chickens that you plan to keep long term. Worn-out feathers lose their ability to retain heat and repel water, and to remain healthy, chickens need a well-deserved break from laying.
Different Molts for Different Birds
Some chickens drop feathers over an extended period and replace them more or less as they lose them. With these chickens, you may notice the feathers lying around the coop more than you notice your birds looking scraggly. Other chickens can nearly instantly go from luxuriously feathered to looking like plucked chickens, and some switch between heavy and light molts.
Our red Cochin, Lucy, tends towards the plucked-chicken style of molting. Red isn’t actually a color of Cochin recognized by the American Poultry Association…and probably with good reason. Lucy isn’t particularly red. There are truly red Cochins, but it’s not unusual for the hatchery-bred red Cochins to tend towards red-tinged buffs or other color variations.
Her body structure and high energy level aren’t typical of a Cochin either, but she is a beautiful bird with a super sweet, outgoing personality. She may not fit the breed standard, but if there were a breed developed around her, it would be a lovely one. Usually, Lucy is at the front of the flock, greeting anyone who passes by the run and posing for the camera.
This is a photo of Lucy taken earlier this summer when she was fully feathered. And that’s our eldest Brahma, Maia, photo bombing directly behind her.
The following photo was taken a few weeks ago. She actually looks far better in this picture than she did a couple of weeks earlier. Lucy molts so heavily that she can end up with exposed skin covered in pin feathers (narrow quills that protect the forming feathers).
Moody Molting Chickens
Some chickens can become moody or less active when molting. The photo of Lucy molting took over half an hour to get. Her usually outgoing personality tends to become shier when she is in full molt, and she tries to avoid the camera. She seems to know it’s not her best look.
Our first rooster, Clarance, also tended to shift to a more subdued, less outgoing personality during molts and would look longingly at his missing tail. He tended to lose all his tail feathers at once, and when they started to come back in, he would briefly look like a hen. He wouldn’t resume his daily dancing until his long, graceful tail feathers returned.
Most chickens happily go through molts without seeming to notice, but it certainly is the chicken’s version of the ultimate bad hair day!
Other Causes of Feather Loss in Chickens
While most chickens aren’t fazed by molting, for those who are, the loss of feathers, lack of laying, personality shifts, and sitting puffed up in cold weather can all resemble symptoms of a variety of ailments.
It’s also not unusual for chickens who are molting, or simply not laying, to have pale or even shrunken combs. Sally, one of our Welsummers chickens, has a large comb during the spring and summer that shrinks by at least half in the winter to the point that she almost looks like a different chicken.
If multiple chickens in your flock have patchy feathering during a usually non-molting time of the year, or if any of your chickens have irritated skin, poor feather quality, or deformed feathers, you may need to check your flock for parasites. If an individual bird is missing patches of feathers but otherwise has a good covering of feathers, watch to make sure that chicken is not being harassed by other birds in the flock.
Anytime your chicken is acting stressed, even if it is a normal time of year to molt, watch for any other symptoms that could indicate respiratory distress, digestive, or reproductive issues. Anytime a chicken is stressed, even if the cause is obviously molting, underlying issues may have an opportunity to gain a foothold.
In the absence of other symptoms, your chicken is most likely just getting herself a beautiful new set of feathers.
Caring for Molting Chickens
In most cases, chickens molt without any problems, and you don’t need to do anything (aside from avoid taking their pictures) to help your chickens through this natural part of being a chicken.
The few chickens who are stressed by molting may need protection from the elements if molting heavily during cold or wet times of the year. The same is true of ex-battery hens or other rescue chickens who have yet to molt into new feathers.
Also keep an eye on free-range chickens, who can be more vulnerable to predators without their flight feathers. Depending on your fencing, predator population, and birds, it may be best to keep some of your usually free-range chickens enclosed when not supervised if they are grounded by a heavy molt.
All molting chickens can benefit from some protein-rich treats and extra love. While chickens may look dreadful while molting, once they are finished, they will be back to strutting their stuff and looking better than ever.