What is a molt?

Molting is a natural and necessary process by which chickens lose old, broken, worn out and soiled feathers for new plumage on a regular basis. It is important that a chicken grow new feathers from time to time before the integrity of a bird’s feathers affect how well that bird is able to keep itself warm in cold weather.

A bird’s first adult molt is generally about 18 months old - usually in late summer or early fall and the replacement feathers are generally in fully within eight to twelve weeks, although some birds drag it out longer.

There are two styles of molting – soft and hard:

  • Soft molting birds lose some feathers, but the affect is such that the untrained eye might not realize a molt is even going on;
  • Hard molting will suddenly and dramatically lose a vast quantity of feathers giving it a nude appearance.

Some of the most common triggers for a molt are a reduction in daylight hours, stress caused by lack of water, malnutrition, extreme heat, hatching a clutch of eggs and unusual lighting conditions (such as a light bulb in the coop left on all day and then it suddenly goes out).  Any of these issues can be at the root of an unexpected or untimely molt.

Keep in mind that the replacing of feathers requires a lot of protein.  A molting chickens body simply cannot support both feather and egg production simultaneously.  As a result, molting generally causes either a significant reduction in egg productivity or, more commonly, a full hiatus from egg laying until the hen has fully replace its feathers.

There are things you can do to help your hens through this time. Providing more protein is key. Typical layers feed is 16 percent protein; during a molt, switch to a broiler blend of feed which is 20-25 percent protein instead. Protein rich treats should also be provided. Some examples of high protein treats that can be easily provided include: sunflower seeds or other nuts (raw and unsalted), peas, soybeans, meat (cooked), cod liver oil, bone meal. You can also feed them protein-rich corn bread – using a basic corn bread recipe and supplement it with nuts, flaxseed, dried fruit and yogurt in the batter. The added ingredients boost this snack’s protein levels and will help molting hens get her feathers back in quickly. As an added bonus, the flock seems to enjoy that this treat is served to them warm on these snowy, wintery days.

There are a couple other molting issues to keep in mind. It is uncomfortable for a bird with pin feathers to be handled. Additionally, a bird going through a hard molt with bare skin can be more susceptible to pecking and bullying by other flock members, so keep a close eye on the molting bird.

A rapid feather loss by the entire flock is usually a sign that something serious has happened (such as a lack of water). To prevent molting, you can provide artificial light for 16 hours a day. One 40 watt light mounted 6-8 feet above he flor in the centre of the pen should be sufficient for our purposes. The light can be turned off during the day, but if you forget to turn it one even once, your hens may start to molt. If you think you might forget, set a timer to turn the light on at 4:00 a.m. and shut off at 8:00 p.m., allowing a slight overlapping of artificial and natural light in the morning and evening.