Our Easter Egger, Gisele, has only given us one egg this past week. She usually gives us six beautiful blue eggs. At first we thought she was hiding them, hunkering down on a new nest outside of the coop (which Kimora and Iman have been known to do). But after a few days of searching their favorite nesting and bathing spots, and even a few new ones under the oleanders, we realized there was no secret stash of eggs.
When we opened the coop, it looked like Gisele had broken out in a pillow fight overnight.
And that means molting season is upon us.
Last year, Gisele was the first in the flock to start molting as well. But she went through her molt quickly and by the time she grew back all her feathers, she was laying an egg a week all winter. The other two haven’t started yet and are laying normally, but we expect them to start shedding their feathers by October.
It might seem strange for a chicken to lose her feathers just as the season’s cooling down, but molting is a yearly process of replacing her features for better insulation and weatherproofing in winter.
A chicken starts dropping feathers in late summer to early fall, but some won’t even start molting until early winter. Various factors trigger the start of a molt, such as the breed and health, when the chicken started laying, how she is fed, and how much daylight there is. In general, all birds over a year old will go through a complete molt once a year
During a molt, a chicken begins to shed feathers from the head and neck, and then works her way down the body across the breast, back, wings and tail. Some ladies lose only a few feathers at a time while others look like they suddenly dropped their coats overnight. You’ll start to find feathers everywhere and it’s a rather messy time in the coop and the garden!
“Soft molts” happen when a new feather replaces the old feather right away, so you might not notice the sequence of molting at all. My chickens usually go through soft molts, with random rough patches on their bodies while the new feathers are growing in.
“Hard molts” happen when a chicken loses a lot of feathers at once but new ones take a long time to grow back, resulting in the poor thing being bald for the time being. Some chickens going through hard molts may look like they’re ready for the oven (and it’s kind of alarming if you’re experiencing your first molt as a chicken-keeper), but within a couple months, those bare patches of skin and spiky-looking pin feathers will give way to soft, full, beautiful plumage.
Feathers are almost purely protein. They contain about 85 percent beta-keratin, the same protein in bird beaks and claws. Since a chicken puts so much of her protein reserves toward replacing her feathers, egg production (another process that demands a lot of protein) drops temporarily or even stops completely during a molt.
Molts usually last around two or three months, but some chickens may take as long as four or five. By the time they’ve finished molting and are perfectly fluffed up for winter, the shorter days (and reduced light) signal them to rest their reproductive cycles. Which means that in the world of chicken-rearing, when I go from 12 eggs a week to 2, winter is most definitely my least favorite time of year… sigh.
Even though your chickens may not be laying as much, it’s more important than ever to make sure they’re properly fed and have enough protein to get them through their molts. When they lack sufficient protein, they may seek their own sources elsewhere… even if they have to peck and eat the other chickens’ feathers!
For hens going through hard molts, it might be helpful to amp up the protein in their feed to 20 or 22 percent. If you’re mixing your own feed, you can do this by adding more servings of high-protein grains and seeds, like triticale and sesame. Legumes like split peas and lentils are also excellent sources of protein, and can be served cooked for a hot treat on a cold day.
For hard or soft molts, it’s also a good idea to supplement your flock’s daily feed with high-protein treats in the form of black oil sunflower seeds or dried mealworms. Use common sense when spoiling your girls with dried mealworms; the ultra-high protein content (around 50 percent) means it’s easy to overfeed when you see them all excited and eager. A small spoonful per chicken per day is plenty.
Ease up on the extra protein as your chickens finish their molts. When they resume their energy over winter, try a few of these tips to keep them healthy and happy while we all wait for the arrival of spring!