When our first batch of Barred Plymouth Rock chicks grew from little yellow puffballs to fully-fledged birds, they were a wonder of black and white feathers. By 6 months old, they were in full production, delighting us with a steady succession of deep-brown eggs, which continued with little drop in production into the next summer and autumn.
Then, their second winter hit, and just when I was rejoicing that they had all those fluffy feathers to protect them from the growing chill, they started to lose them. Every day, they dropped feathers like confetti: head, neck, body. “Moth-eaten” was a kind description of their appearance.
Egg production was virtually nil. I suspected disease or mite infestation, but outside of looking like they’d been run through my granny’s wringer washer, they seemed healthy. A little research indicated that our flock was molting, one and all.
All birds molt, from the tiniest hummingbird to the biggest eagle. In “The Basics: Feather Molt,” experts at The Cornell Lab of Ornithology say, “A feather is a ‘dead’ structure, analogous to hair or nails in humans and made of the same basic ingredient, the protein keratin. This means that when they get damaged, feathers can’t heal themselves; they have to be completely replaced.”
Many birds not only gain fresh new feathers in their molt but also take on new patterns or colors, which can indicate age, sex or the time of year. For example, immature bald eagles lack the distinctive white head they will gain as fully mature birds. A male cardinal is the well-known bright red while its mate is a much more demure blushing brown. Ptarmigan take on snowy plumage to herald the onset of winter. However, no matter how often chickens molt, once they’ve gotten their adult feathers, their coloring doesn’t deviate from molt to molt.
Actually, chicks go through a couple of juvenile, or mini, molts on their way to being fully feathered. “When a chick hatches, it has virtually no feathers,” writes Scott Beyer, an extension specialist in poultry science at Kansas State University, in “Molting and Other Causes of Feather Loss in Small Poultry Flocks.”
“It is covered with down except for the wings and tail where some early feather growth is evident,” he says. “Soon, the down lengthens and the shaft of the feathers erupts. The first begins about a week after hatching, and takes about four weeks, at which time the chick will have lost all its baby down. By the time they are 4 to 5 weeks old, the chick is fully feathered.”
Just when they’re looking good, this first set of feathers falls out (molts) and another set grows in—usually by 8 to 10 weeks of age. As the bird becomes sexually mature, its third set of feathers is complete. Beyer adds that it may take up to several months for the specialized feathers of fancy breeds to be fully-grown.
At this point, the birds are ready for their first laying season, which lasts roughly 12 months. Depending on the time of year and the breed, when pullets reach 5 to 6 months old, they begin producing eggs, reaching peak production six to eight weeks into their cycle.
Production then gradually declines to about 65 percent after 12 months of lay. I can’t say I blame hens; that’s a lot of laying! As mentioned before, feathers are predominantly protein—85 percent, to be exact. Laying eggs and growing new feathers are both protein-demanding activities and seem to be mutually exclusive; most breeds will decline in egg production as they start molting and stop laying at the height of their molt.
Even though roosters aren’t producing eggs, they molt, too, replacing old feathers with fresh new ones. The first molt as a mature chicken happens around 16 to 18 months old.
Feathers are pretty amazing structures, and understanding a bit about that helps explain why molting is a process. There are seven broad categories of feather types, including wing, tail, down, contour, semiplume, bristle and filoplume. Each type is related to function, and the basic parts are the same: the shaft (rachis), the barbs that branch off the shaft and the barbules that branch off the barbs.
According to The Cornell Lab Bird Academy: “Each new feather grows from a small outgrowth of skin called the papilla. As feathers mature, their tips get pushed away from the papilla, where the newest parts of the feather form. Like human hair, feathers are youngest at their base … As the feather grows, it stays curled in a tubular shape around the papilla until it is pushed away from the growth area.”
Each feather remains furled within a protective waxy sheath as it grows. This sheath, about a 1§2-inch long or so, begins to deteriorate near the tip as the mature part of the feather emerges. Ultimately, this protective covering falls off naturally or when the bird preens its feathers. Once the feather is fully-grown, the blood source dries up and the shaft of the feather is no longer alive.
Pinfeathers, the pinlike tips of newly emerging feathers appearing when a chick first feathers out and again whenever it undergoes a molt, are “of significance primarily because they can invite cannibalistic picking and because they make meat birds more difficult to pluck,” writes Gail Damerow in The Chicken Encyclopedia: An Illustrated Reference (2012). “Pinfeathers contain a supply of blood to nourish the growing feather (hence their other name, blood feathers) and therefore invite cannibalistic picking, especially around the tail and along the back, at a time when molting chickens crave additional protein. Once the feathers are fully formed, the blood supply is cut off, reducing the desire of chickens to pick one another’s feathers.”
Earth is full of cycles: new moon to full moon and then waning once again; rainy seasons; dry seasons; spring, summer, fall and winter. As summer slides into fall and edges toward winter, the days grow shorter, initiating changes in everything from hair growth to hibernation in the animal kingdom. It’s no surprise, then, that as daylight hours diminish, a chicken’s internal body clock signals them to drop in egg production and begin their molt.
The bird’s hormones control this process of dropping and regrowing feathers, and the length of daylight, or artificial light, that the birds receive each day regulates those hormones. Not only does molting give hens a chance to replace old and damaged feathers, it helps rejuvenate the hen’s oviduct. “It is nature’s way of providing laying birds a rest period prior to the stimulus for maximum reproductive performance in the spring,” writes Dan Cunningham, extension poultry coordinator at The University of Georgia, in “Feather Loss in Chickens”
A typical molt lasts around six to eight weeks, but a lot of factors can affect this process. Some breeds of chickens molt faster than others. Beyer says that older or fancy breeds may be in molt for three to five months.
Another factor that plays into molting is the age of the bird itself. As is the way of all life, the older you are, the slower it goes, so expect older birds to take more like 10 to 12 weeks or more to fully molt and start laying again. “The longer your birds are in molt, the fewer eggs you will get over the laying season,” Beyer says. “However, when the birds return to production, they often lay more eggs in a given time period. Also, the eggs usually have better shells and interior quality.”
Stressed birds or ones with low body weight/poor health may start molting even though the days haven’t shortened significantly. In fact, large poultry operations often cause forced molts by withholding food, water and reducing light until they begin dropping feathers; it’s a controversial practice allowing a more predictable laying season across the board, but one that many animal activist groups are seeking to outlaw. The lesson here for hobby farmers is to maintain a stress-free environment with quality food and water so that chickens can molt on their own terms.
Many chicken owners choose to delay molting for a time by augmenting diminished daylight hours through use of an artificial light source.
The avian reproductive cycle, which is how a hen produces eggs, is stimulated in poultry by increasing day length. As day length approaches 14 hours per day during early spring, chickens begin laying eggs, gradually increasing their production as the day length increases. They will reach their maximum egg laying potential when the day-light reaches approximately 16 hours per day. Nature utilizes this characteristic so that chicks will hatch in the spring and have the warmer months of summer and fall to mature before the harsher winter season arrives. By providing artificial light, growers can manipulate this natural cycle to their advantage and increase the egg-laying potential of their flocks.
“Approximately 14 hours of light per day is required to stimulate a hen to lay an egg,” writes Sheila E. Scheideler, extension poultry specialist, and Chad Zadina, extension poultry assistant, at the University of Nebraska in “Proper Light Management for Your Home Laying Flock.”
“Anything below that will cause her reproductive cycle to shut down, triggering the hen to cease egg production until spring when the natural day length will increase to sufficient levels once again,” they write. “Artificial light needs to be applied when the day length approaches 15 hours per day, which happens in September. Any supplemental light should be added during the morning hours, as sudden darkness can cause chickens to panic and pile up in a corner, which can consequently cause them to suffocate each other.”
If you do opt to extend the laying season for your hens through the fall and winter, be aware that in colder climes they will still need to reroute a certain amount of energy into keeping warm, so egg production will not be peak. Also, a chicken does need to molt every 12 to 18 months to give it time to replenish bone, pigment and fat stores; build new feathers; and put on more muscle. Giving extra light just allows you to be more in control of when that happens.
During a molt, not all the feathers fall out at once, thank heavens, or we’d have a lot of naked, chilled birds running around. Also, there is a distinct progression to the process. It starts at the head, moves down to the neck, progresses to the body—back, breast and abdomen—then on to wings and tail.
Sometimes a bird will only partially molt. Other times, every feather is eventually replaced. Furthermore, primary wing feathers are replaced before secondaries, starting with the innermost (axial) and progressing one at a time to the outermost. Secondaries succumb in the same order from center to body edge.
In addition to feathers dropping out, you will also notice during a molt that combs and wattles will lose some of their bright red color. Don’t worry. This is normal, as is the gradual returning of pigment to feet and legs, beak, eye rings and vent (only observable in breeds that are not white-skinned). This is because as chickens lay, they give preferential pigmentation to the egg yolks, pulling the carotenoids from tissues that store them to give the yellow coloring we’re used to seeing in yolks. By the end of their laying cycle, they will have pretty much depleted these reserves. Interestingly, restoration of pigment to legs, etc., happens much faster than depigmentation, and a healthy hen consuming quality feed can re-pigment up to four times faster than she depleted.
Damaged feathers are replaced on an as needed basis throughout the year, so if, for example, a rooster loses one of his arching tail feathers, he doesn’t wait until he molts to replace it.
Except for high-production breeds or individuals that may not take a complete break from laying, molting hens will route protein consumption to feather production rather than eggs. This process uses a huge amount of energy as they replenish various body systems, rest their reproductive tracts and get ready for the next laying season. For this reason, if molting hens are stressed, the risk of disease is increased due to multiple challenges to their immune systems. Thankfully, there are many ways you can help your birds put out new plumage in optimal time and conditions.
However, feeding too much protein can cause diarrhea or other problems, so stick with a 20 to 22 percent protein feed designed for meat birds for a month or so. These premixed feeds include a balanced combination of nutrients, minerals and vitamins for optimum health.
Molting isn’t a pretty process, but no one is at their best all the time! So if your chickens stop laying eggs and start dropping feathers from head, then neck, body, wings and tail—but otherwise seem healthy and happy—just let them do their feather-growing thing. Though it may not appear so, most birds keep enough old feathers to stay warm in colder seasons. There’s no need to make them little sweaters—unless you have time and inclination (and an effective way of keeping them clothed!). Keep their protein up and their water supply plentiful and clean, and before you know it, your flock will be strutting around in their next year’s plumage, ready to turn their energies back to egg production.
This story originally appeared in the September/October 2017 issue of Chickens magazine.