One of the more worrying things to see as a new poultry keeper is chickens going through a moult, it can look like a fox has been at your hens and there can be feathers everywhere in the coop or run. Most chickens shed their feathers in late Summer or early Autumn and the process is normally all over by November. Moulting is a completely natural process which nearly all birds go through on a yearly cycle. The only treatment you need to provide is supportive care and monitoring.
This young barnevelder chick has lost a few feathers as part of it's natural growth cycle and looks a little tatty.
Chicks go through 3 partial and 1 full moult before the are fully grown but this happens gradually and the youngsters still carry plenty of feathers. and all hens replace some or all of their feathers every year.
Chickens that go into moult will lose their old feathers and new feathers will grow in the place of old. It can happen very quickly so the birds can look almost naked or oven ready. It can a little shocking because birds will often look very scruffy. A partial moult can sometimes take place earlier on in the year although this is usually just the head and neck feathers that are replaced.
Feathers that are lost or pulled out tend to regrow as needed. When the feathers regrow the first appear as a pin or quill through wich the feather emerges and this can be painful for the bird as well as annoying.
A dust bath will help no end and should be provided.
Feather pecking during the moult
The way feathers regrow during the moult can leave birds vulnerable to feather pecking, there are several reason why they peck feathers but sometimes it is out of boredom and in extreme cases if chickens are not getting enough protein, they will peck at other birds feathers and eat them in order to increase their protein levels. Birds are very vulnerable at this time with bare skin showing and since it doesn’t take much for a wound to appear and chickens love to peck at red blood exasperating the problem. You should always separate a bird if blood is visible.
Image above shows new pins growing
Feathers get damaged and look a little tatty over the course of a year, so it is perfectly normal for birds to replace them from time to time and look rather scruffy when they do! Most poultry will moult immediately after the breeding season: which in nature is autumn.
Remember if you have clipped a wing to stop your chickens from flying, you will need to do this again after the feathers have re-grown. Be very careful not to clip the feathers too early since there is blood inside the quill of a feather when it is growing and if it is cut too soon, it will bleed profusely and be very difficult to stop.
Feathers whose quills are full of blood will appear very dark almost black instead of clear / white. Read How to Clip a Chickens Wing for further information on how to do this.
Feathers require protein so when birds moult, replacing their feathers, laying hens will usually stop producing eggs. Eggs are made up mainly of protein and it is too much for a hen to produce new feathers as well as eggs. There is a calorie demand during the moult as well and birds will eat more especially if you are in a part of the world where Autumn is very cold.
This poor Andalusian hen looks like she sneezed and blew her feathers off.
Bad cases of the moult will require so protection from the elements, You can't help but feel a little sorry for birds like this Andalusian above that has lost nearly all it's feathers at the same time.
Pure breeds usually take longer to moult than hybrid hens. Occasionally hens will lay the odd egg during the moult but most will take a break. When a hen is going to moult, her plumage will take on a very dull appearance. It normally takes about 3 to 6 weeks for a young healthy pure breed hen to complete a moult. Older hens may take 2 months to complete. In nature, they still need to be able to escape from predators so they do not lose all of their flight feathers at the same time.
Some poultry keepers supplement their birds diets with additional protein. Amino acids, vitamins and minerals are the basic building blocks of protein, so using vitamin supplements or Apple Cider Vinegar during the moult will help. Yeast extract and sunflower seeds are an excellent addition to the died as is mixed corn or split maize depending on where you are from, it is easily digestible and quite energy dense. Suet pellets of the type you would feed to your garden birds will help with the calorie debt during the moult.
This bird is losing some of it's feathers and looks very tatty
I have seen a few things recommended ( I don’t recommend them) like dried cat food as a good source of protein and a handful of this a few times a week can help top up your birds protein levels. Dog food also contains protein but this comes from grains so is not suitable. Cat food protein comes from animals and is rich in amino acids. This additional protein will help them to get back into lay after they have finished their moult but most hens moult in the autumn and early winter so daylight hours will be short and they may not come back into lay until the early spring.
You need to bear in mind that there are laws in europe which govern what you can feed to your chickens. You are much better advised to buy a sack of turkey ration for use during the moult as it has a much higher protein content.
Apple Cider Vinegar can easily be added to their water to help them through this difficult time. Molasses can be bought from any feedstore and can be given in small quantities.