Molting chickens can be a challenge for any chicken keeper. We can feel helpless as we watch our flock struggle through it. Learn why chickens molt, what to expect when they’re molting, and what you can do to help your chickens through the molting process. Let’s do all we can to have a happy, healthy, flock.
Three Types of Molting Chickens
Chickens undergo several molts throughout their existence. When a chick is only six to eight days old, it goes through its first juvenal molt. It loses its downy layer that is replaced with actual feathers.
The second juvenile molt occurs when the bird is about eight to 12 weeks old. The young bird replaces its first “baby” feathers with its second set. This is when a rooster’s ornamental feathers develop.
It is definitely easier to sex a chicken by sight at this stage than before. You may find some birds you thought were hens are not going to be producing any eggs in their lifetime, since you now know they will be crowing instead!
The third molt is known as an adult molt and happens around 18 months of age. Adult molting happens in late summer or fall, and the new feathers are typically completely grown in within eight to 12 weeks.
Soft and hard molts are two distinct types of molting. A soft molt is one where the bird loses only a few feathers. An unskilled eye may not even be able to tell the chicken is molting.
A chicken going through a hard molt will lose a large number of feathers all at once. It may seem it became naked almost overnight.
Why Do Chickens Molt?
Shorter days and colder temperatures typically send chickens into a molt, during which they shed their old feathers and acquire new, glossy ones.
In the fall, many backyard chickens will begin to molt. A chicken’s molt lasts 8 to 12 weeks and can cause a loss in egg production.
Their feathers become dull, frayed, and tattered with time. It’s a slow process that most chicken keepers may not notice right away.
Broken and ragged feathers will not be able to discard winter’s winds, rain, and snow. So it’s important that your birds discard their old feathers and grow new fuller and tighter feathers for the upcoming colder season.
When Do Hens Molt?
The molt is usually begun in the fall and completed by early winter, although molting birds vary by a few weeks.
Molting can occur in spring but normally it occurs at the end of summer/beginning of fall.
The old-timers used to say that if chickens molt early, it’s a sign of a harsh winter ahead.
The molting process takes several weeks, and not all of your flock members will start at the same time. The best layers are usually the first to molt so keep an eye on them to identify your most prized egg producers.
Why Chickens Molt Out of Season
The natural cause of molting chickens is the loss of daylight hours and the onset of cooler temperatures. This usually occurs at the same time as the end of the abundant egg season which happens every year in the fall.
However, there are a number of other molting causes. Here a just a few:
- Physical strain such as heat or a predator attack
- A lack of water
- Extreme heat
- Hatching a clutch of eggs
It’s also worth noting that if you use supplemental lighting in the chicken coop, removing it might trigger an unexpected or early molt.
To induce a molt in its flocks, a commercial egg-laying factory farm often uses dietary manipulation to force a molt. To stress the bodies of the birds and induce a common molt, the facility deprives them of any food for seven to fourteen days.
This cruel practice of big companies shows how stress can cause a hen to molt.
How Long Does the Molt Take?
The duration of the process depends on the bird. Every bird will have a somewhat different ‘timetable,’ but the entire procedure can range from 3 to 16 weeks.
If you have different breeds and ages in your flock you will have some that seem to do it in as little as three weeks and others that may stretch out to sixteen.
Age of course is one of the biggest factors in how long it takes for a hen to finish the molting process.
- The molt follows a distinct, predictable pattern. It begins at the top of the head and works its way down the breast and legs before reaching the tail.
How to Care for Molting Chickens
Chicken feathers are high in protein, about 80-85 percent. A chicken’s body just can’t sustain both feather formation and egg production at the same time. You might be wondering why your hens have stopped laying before you notice the molt has begun.
A hen’s molting can result in a significant decline in egg production, or more likely, a complete interruption of egg-laying until the bird has completely replaced its feathers.
During a molt, protein is essential.
If you are feeding your chickens commercial feed, switch them to a diet with at least 18% protein for the molting period and for two weeks after.
- The typical layer feed has a protein content of 16%.
- Most broiler feed is 22% protein.
- Gamebird feed is also around 22%.
- Some people use what they feed their turkeys and guineas to beef up the protein intake of their backyard chickens.
- Protein-rich snacks can also be provided.
- Sunflower seeds or other nuts (raw and unsalted)
- Meat (cooked)
- Cod liver oil
As a rule of thumb, snacks should be limited to ten percent or less of their daily intake.
When feeding a high-protein diet to chickens, it is essential that they are fed very sparingly in order to avoid harming their overall health in the long run. Increased protein must be provided to birds on a short-term basis only in order for them to maintain or rebuild their feathers and health.
As always, provide a constant source of clean water
You can always add supplements to the water to help them through the molting period.
- Mix one clove of finely minced garlic and 1 tablespoon of raw, organic apple cider vinegar in one gallon of water. You can leave the garlic out if you are adding it to their food.
- Offer this for two to three days at least twice a month.
- When the seasons are changing, offer it for a full week.
- If your flocks experience stress of any kind, like a predator attack, offer it for two to three days.
- At the first sign of illness offer it for a full week.
- We also recommend mixing quality granulated or powdered garlic in their feed a few times a month.
- I just sprinkle the top of the feed in the food bucket to ensure there is a good layer and mix it.
- For those who want an exact measurement, the recommended ratio is 2% garlic to however much feed you use.
If you have three waterers, you can add a vitamin supplement to one, ACV to another, and leave the third plain water.
It’s always interesting how the flock will devour ACV water sometimes in the year and then will leave it alone preferring the plain water at other times.
Your birds will create their own dusting places. We like to let them establish them in the places they like and then we add diatomaceous earth to the area. This helps kill and prevent lice and mites.
Molting and Aggressive Pecking Order
The pecking order can cause serious damage and infections during the molting period. You will want to keep an eye on the hens on the low end of the pecking order. They may need to be removed from the flock for their protection.
New pin feathers are vulnerable to attack from other birds. Because the pin feathers are fed with blood as they grow, when one of them is picked or plucked, it can bleed profusely.
If you come across any hens with bloody feathers or skin, remove them from the flock and thoroughly examine them to determine the level of damage.
- Clean the skin with 3% hydrogen peroxide
- Use Blu-Kote, iodine, or betadine on any wound
- Blu-Kote disguises the color red, which chickens are drawn to.
- If you make up your own coating, make sure to use blue or green natural food coloring.
Make sure to remove a hen that has pecking damage from the flock until she is fully recovered. If you allow it to go on she may be pecked to death.
If you do have to isolate birds to protect them, you may have to reintroduce them properly when the molting is done or when they have regrown enough feathers to protect their skin from the hens that are higher on the pecking order.
Help your chickens live in a peaceful pecking order
These tips may help you maintain a peaceful flock.
- Give your chickens free rein in their yard and make sure there’s enough room for the number of birds you have. I would recommend 40 square feet per chicken at a minimum.
- Increase the number of feeders and waterers to keep competition for food and water at a minimum.
- Don’t be afraid to let your birds eat as much and drink as much as they want. Fill their water bottles and waterers every 24 hours.
- Chickens are inquisitive creatures who may become bored if they have nothing to do. On rainy/snowy days, provide compost piles or hay to scratch through, toys, and snacks for your flock so they don’t get bored.
- Set up a radio and play music for your chickens. You may find out that playing classical music helps keep the hens calm and egg production high.
- To ensure that your chickens are not pecking due to an underlying health condition, check for lice, mites, and worms.
Frequently Asked Questions About Molting
1.Do chicks molt?
Yes, they do, but you don’t really notice their first molt. Around 6 to 8 days after hatching, the down is replaced by sparse feathers.
Their second molt, called the juvenile molt, occurs at around 8 to 12 weeks. They shed their baby feathers and grow their adult plumage.
2. How can I stop them from molting?
You can’t. It’s a natural process.
3. What is a ‘soft’ molt?
Your chickens will go through both soft and hard molts.
A soft molt occurs when the birds appear to lose very few feathers. They may appear tattered and ragged, with missing tail feathers, but little exposed skin.
A hard molt leaves your hen’s feathers puffed up and plucked, revealing areas of skin. Some birds are almost bald in a hard molt.
4. What is stress molting?
This is a molt brought on by something other than the natural seasonal changes. It’s usually due to a lack of food or water, although it can also be caused by illness or environmental changes.
5. Should I buy them chicken sweaters?
Sweaters are not required for chickens. The pin feathers that are developing are extremely sensitive to the touch, therefore a sweater would be unpleasant during this stage.
6. Have my chickens got dandruff?
No. This is the waxy covering of the pin feathers that have been discarded. It serves as a shield for new, soft feathers until they have fully developed.
7. How do you speed up a chicken molt?
While you can’t actually speed up the process, we believe these 5 things may help your hens grow new feathers more quickly.
- Keep stress low. Don’t add new birds, make routine changes, or do anything that would cause stress.
- Free-range the flock
- Offer mealworms
- Offer Black Soldier Fly larvae
- Separate hard molting hens from the rest of the flock for their protection.
- Provide them with plenty of dusting places. We add diatomaceous earth to their dusting places. This helps with lice and mites.
8. What month do chickens molt?
While there’s not an exact month, they typically molt in late summer/early fall. The molt lasts around 3 – 16 weeks. 8 weeks is an average molt.
The end of molting is a fantastic time to give your chicken coop a fall cleanup.
- Clean the coop walls with a water/vinegar solution in equal parts or you can use straight 5% vinegar as we do.
- Remove old bedding from the nesting boxes and under the roost
- Clean the nesting boxes with a water/vinegar solution or straight vinegar.
- Check for holes or other entrances for rodents and repair them.
- If you want to dust your coop with poultry dust, apply it once the coop is dry.
- Put fresh bedding in the laying boxes and under the roost.
Remember to watch for symptoms of the disease while your flock is compromised. They are vulnerable to bugs and diseases at this time.
Adding extra nutrients to their water, such as vitamins or ACV, will help a lot.
Attempt to create a low-stress environment for your flock. There should be no new birds, no changes in their schedule, and so on. Any stress at this time might cause the process to go longer.
Well, there you have it! Everything you need to know about molting chickens. As long as you provide your hens with food and water, plenty of space to spread out, and a little bit of TLC, they should come through their molt just fine.
How long does it take for your hens to molt? Let me know in the comments. In the meantime, happy hen keeping!
As always, we’re here to help.