As we move into fall I thought I should post something on molting.

I often have chicks that I keep through their teenage stage and sometimes beyond. Looking at a chick’s down I always wonder what they will look like in adulthood. Their first molt, when their first feathers replace fluff, happens when they are about a week old. Other molts occur between 7-9 weeks, 12-13 weeks (sickle and saddle feathers develop in cockerels) and 20-22 weeks (tail feathers).

Adult chickens typically go through their first molt sometime in their second year, usually in late summer or fall when the days start getting shorter.

If you’ve had chickens for a bit you know what molting is: the occasional loss of a few feathers (soft molt) right up to the full-meal-deal blow-out (hard molt) leaving your hens looking patchy and bald. One day I thought there’d been a predator attack, but no, it was just the start of their annual molt.

We lose and regrow body hair continuously, but birds have seasonal molts where large amounts of feathers are dropped so new ones can replace them. Chickens do lose feathers throughout the year, but once a year they lose large amounts of feathers over a period of just a few weeks. It usually looks awful, but it allows them to replace damaged or missing feathers.

The process, involving the gradual loss and gain of feathers, is usually symmetrical with equal loss on each side of the chicken’s body. Molting starts at the head and neck, then down the back, across the breast and thighs and finally their tail feathers. New feathers,  called pinfeathers, return in the same sequence they were lost. Both hens and roosters molt, but in my experience the only feathers my boys drop all at once are from their tails.

Pin Feathers
Pin Feathers (Credit: Linda Hornby)

Shorter days signal birds to molt in preparation for colder weather. I often think their timing is a bit off when I see bald hens in November when it’s rainy and cold.

Molting is also sparked by disease or stress due to chilling, dehydration or moving to a new flock. That kind of feather loss is usually rapid, involves fewer feathers and doesn’t impact egg production.

As we all know feathers are required for repelling water, protecting skin and regulating body temperature. A side effect of hens molting is their laying slows down, or stops altogether, since protein is diverted from egg laying to feather production. The bonus of getting them through their molt quickly is we’ll start getting more eggs. Win-win for the hens and us.

How To Help Your Birds:

  • Feathers consist of 85% protein, so we’ll need to boost their protein intake to help with them through it
  • Feed them high protein foods: eggs: either scrambled or chopped, hard-boiled; meat: chickens are omnivores and do like meat (including chicken and turkey); fish (if canned, then no salt); canned cat food; pumpkin seeds; sprouted lentils; sunflower seeds; oats (if you’re feeling generous make them porridge, but don’t use quick oats that contain salt or sugar)
  • Feed 22% chick starter ensuring they are also offered calcium in the form of oyster shells
  • Avoid handling your birds –  new feathers are painful.
  • Reduce stress (e.g. very hot or cold weather, food or water deprivation, flock conflict, bullying, integrating new members to the flock)
  • Don’t be impatient and think of your birds as ‘slackers’ if they are taking a break. Relax, let nature takes it’s course. Things will be back on track soon enough

Infographic-1-Molt-Process_2

A Note On Forced Molting

I don’t know a lot about the workings of commercial egg farms – which I will term factories – but in doing some reading for this piece I came across information about the practice of forced molting in laying hens. The types of hens used in large scale farms are bred to start laying young, lay often and sadly, have short-lived lives. To extend a hen’s laying capacity the poultry industry artificially induces all their birds to molt simultaneously by not feeding them for 7–14 days and sometimes, also depriving them of water. Hens are triggered into physiological shock, causing them to molt whatever feathers they may have left.

Because those hens are starving they stop laying eggs and their reproductive tracts regress. After the molt, the hen’s egg production rate usually peaks slightly lower than the previous peak, but egg quality is improved. Forced molting increases egg production, egg quality, and profitability of birds in their second laying stage, by not allowing the hen’s body the necessary time to rejuvenate during the natural cycle of feather replenishment.

Induced molting allows the egg industry to pump a few hundred more eggs out of exhausted hens. This practice is banned in the European Union and uncommon in Canada, but widespread in the United States. I can’t even begin to express my abhorrence at the thought of what those birds are forced to endure. I encourage all of us to always place the welfare of our birds front and centre. For those who don’t have chickens, the practice of forced molting is one more reason to buy local and not factory-farmed eggs.

 

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