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What Is Molting in Backyard Chickens?

Each fall, chickens lose their feathers and regrow new ones to help them stay warm in the winter. It's called molting and it's perfectly normal.

The first time your chickens go through a molt, dropping their feathers all over the coop and run, you'll likely do a quick headcount, sure some predator got in.

While it seems that some chickens lose their feathers all at once, while others barely show any signs of molting, the first molt will be triggered by the shorter days in the fall, when your chickens are about 18 months old.

And there's no need to worry, it's perfectly normal and in fact gets the chickens ready for winter.

What is Molting in Backyard Chickens?

Molting is the process that chickens (and other birds) go through to replace old, broken and dirty feathers with new healthy ones.

This is not only for aesthetic reasons but also for health reasons. Healthy new feathers help trap warm air through the winter better than old feathers.

Chickens fluff their feathers when they get cold to trap air warmed by their bodies between their skin and feathers and create a buffer against the cold. 

If their feathers are old, broken or dirty, they don't fluff as well, so by growing in a whole new set of feathers just before winter, chickens ensure they'll have nice new feathers to keep them warm.

When Does Molting Occur?

Late summer to mid fall, your yard and chicken run will start to look like there's been a huge pillow fight, with feathers everywhere. 

The shorter days of fall normally trigger the molt, ensuring the bird will have nice new feathers to keep them warm through the winter.

What Causes Molting in Backyard Chickens?

While normally it's the fewer hours of daylight that trigger the molt, other stresses such as heat, overcrowding, predators or poor nutrition can also cause a hen to start molting.

Adding supplemental light in the coop and then changing your mind and deciding not to add light midway through the winter can also trigger a molt,  so be consistent with your supplemental light if you choose to add it. (I don't recommend it personally)

The first adult molt generally occurs at about 18 months of age and then will occur annually after that, usually in the late summer or autumn.

How Long Does the Molt Last?

The entire process can take weeks or sometimes even months. It varies chicken to chicken.

Good layers tend to molt more quickly (taking 3-4 months, between 14-16 weeks generally) while poor layers can sometimes take up to 6 months to complete the entire molting process.

Hens generally stop laying while they are molting since all their energy and nutrients need to be concentrated on growing new feathers, although good layers may continue during the initial part of the molt.

Roosters also molt and lose fertility while they are molting, even becoming permanently sterile if they lose enough body weight (more than 25%).

A chicken can go through a mild molt and barely look as if she's missing any feathers, or look really awful with huge chunks of feathers missing.

molting chicken

Will my Chickens Act Differently When They're Molting?

My girls seem almost embarrassed, as if they know how horrible they look while they're molting, and tend to hide behind bushes while they are molting.

They act listless and unhappy. You might even think they're sick.

This is normal.

They will bounce back to their perky selves once the molt period is over and they have their gorgeous new glossy, healthy feathers.

Egg production most likely won't return to the same levels as before the first molt, but eggs will generally be larger and of better quality.

Molting Follows a Pattern

While the length of each hen's molt can vary widely, the pattern of the feather loss is always the same. It starts at the head and neck, then moves to the saddle, breast, abdomen, wings and finally the tail. Every single time. The same pattern.

It's fairly easy to recognize a molting hen versus one who is being pecked or the victim of feather pulling.

The main difference is that during a molt, the new feathers literally push the old feathers out, so new shafts or quills can be seen where the old feathers are missing.

You'll rarely see completely bare patches like you would if one chicken was pulling feathers out of another.

If there are bare patches around the vent, it's most likely mites, lice or other parasites, not a molt.

If you notice a hen with a bare breast or abdomen, she's not molting, she's broody.

Growing in New Feathers

While the chicken is growing in new feathers, they are covered in a waxy coating. This helps to protect the "pin" feathers that are filled with blood, which nourishes the growing shaft and feather.

As the feather grows, the wax casing breaks and falls off to allow the new feather to emerge.You might see the cast off casings in your nesting boxes or floor of your coop.

How Can I Help my Molting Backyard Chickens?

Since chicken feathers are about 90% protein (actually they are made of keratin, the same protein fiber that makes up hair, fingernails and the hooves of other animals), 8% water and the rest water-insoluble fats, adding a bit of protein to your flock's diet during molting season can help them grow their new feathers in quicker to prepare for the winter cold.

And growing in new feathers can be uncomfortable, so make sure that your chickens are as comfortable as they can be.

  • ensure there's adequate roosting bar space for your chickens to roost without touching each other. A minimum of 8 inches is recommended, but more is helpful during the molting season.
  • Don't handle your chickens any more than absolutely necessary. 
  • Put out extra feed and water so that everyone is able to get enough hydration and nutrition during this time when they're expending all the energy they have to grow in new feathers.
  • Be sure your chickens have a dry, draft-free coop as well as a covered area outside where they can get in out of the elements and cold, since they won't have a nice layer of feathers protecting their bare skin.
  • Keep an eye out for bullying or pecking issues between flock members. New pin feathers have blood running down the center shaft that can attract chickens to pull out the new feathers and eat them.
  • Add some additional protein to their diet. During a molt, extra nutrition is extremely beneficial to your hens.

Protein Sources for Molting Chickens

Feathers are made of approximately 80-90% protein, 8 percent water and 1% water-insoluble fats, so providing your molters extra protein during their molt is critical.  

Some people like to switch to a higher protein chicken feed during the molting season. 

Other good protein sources include:

  • meal worms 
  • sunflower seeds
  • scrambled eggs
  • meat scraps 
  • fish scraps
  • herbs
Note: some people suggest feeding canned cat food, but I don't advocate that. It is formulated for cats, not chickens, and canned fish such as mackerel, sardines or tuna is a far better (and cheaper) bet.

Many herbs also contain high levels of protein and can be fed free-choice, fresh, or added to your chickens' feed in dried/crushed form.

Some of the best include basil, chervil, coriander, dill, fennel, garlic, marjoram, parsley, spearmint and tarragon.

Apple Cider Vinegar for Molting Chickens

In addition to providing some extra protein in their diet, when your chickens are molting, it's helpful to add apple cider vinegar to their water (1 Tablespoon per gallon of water), at least a few times a week. 

Apple cider vinegar helps with nutrient absorption and also provides overall health benefits and an immune system boost. 

While they're molting, chickens can be more susceptible to a host of illnesses since they're in a somewhat debilitated state, working overtime to grow in new feathers.

molting chicken

Making Molt Meatloaf for Molting Backyard Chickens

I have developed an easy recipe for Molt Meatloaf that I like to feed to my hens while they are working hard to grow back their feathers. 

They love it - and the eggs, oats and ground beef provide protein while the milk product provides added calcium, both of which help their molt go faster and more smoothly. 

Molt Meatloaf for Molting Chickens

3 eggs, lightly beaten 
3/4 cup water 
2 tablespoons molasses 
2/3 cup old-fashioned oats 
2/3 cup layer crumble (or pellets moistened in a bit of water) 
1/4 cup wheat germ 
1/4 cup powdered milk 
3 cloves garlic, chopped 
1/4 Cup fresh or dried parsley 
1 tablespoon each fresh or dried basil, dill, marjoram and tarragon 
1 1/2 pounds ground beef 

What you Do |
  • In large bowl, combine eggs, milk and molasses.
  • Stir in oats, crumble, wheat germ, powdered milk, garlic, brewers yeast and herbs.
  • Add meat and mix well.
  • Pat mixture into a small casserole or loaf pan.
  • Bake at 350 degrees for one hour.
  •  Cool, slice and serve.
  •  Leftovers can be frozen and then defrosted as needed.
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