It came as somewhat of a surprise to us during our “novice chicken-keeping phase” to discover that it wasn't just our dogs that liked to part with the warm clothes that nature gave them! In fact, it was quite a pleasant surprise, bearing in mind our first thoughts that a fox had probably had a party in the coop! Chickens (well certainly ours!), when in full thrown moult, really don’t hold back in shedding those feathers and you could be forgiven for thinking something more sinister was afoot!
Most chicken breeds, hybrids and even Heinz 57 varieties will experience a period of moulting. Occurring from about 1 year old, this annual (sometimes more often) event really is no more than an attempt to replace any old feathers and it usually happens over a 4-6 week period around about late summer/autumn time. For the chicken, it’s no big deal. However, for the back garden chicken keeper or smallholder who may be reliant on a perfectly formed, deliciously-tasting egg for breakfast – there are consequences.
Most chicken keepers will report that during the period of moulting, egg production may reduce or even stop altogether. The science behind this behaviour is quite simple in that the process of moulting and replenishing of new feathers is very energy-demanding on the chicken. The chicken, in an attempt to conserve its’ strength and have enough reserves to cope throughout the moult, may put its’ egg-laying on hold.
If you are unlucky enough that all your chickens stop laying, it may be worth considering introducing some new stock at Point of Lay (at about 20 weeks old) so that all your chickens are not moulting at the same time. Usually, though, most chickens will keep you ticking over with a few eggs each week – maybe not at their normal rate but enough for a family cooked breakfast at the weekend!
It can be quite alarming to see the effect of moulting on individual birds – some can become almost bald and many look like they've had a fight with a pair of shears – and lost! Hybrid chickens are, reportedly the worst examples. Be assured, it is temporary and, providing that the chickens are given a well-balanced diet to support feather renewal, come the winter they will be the proud owners of a lovely set of new warm feathers!
Not all chickens undergo a complete moult. We were surprised and concerned to see that our elder bird, Chocky, was only bald around her neck region. This type of moult, known as a partial or neck moult is not uncommon and does have the advantage in that the chicken may continue egg-laying. Our concern was not misplaced however, as it is not always safe to assume that the loss of feathers from a chicken is only due to moulting.
There are a range of reasons as to why a chicken may be loosing its feathers and whilst some are completely innocent, it is worth bearing in mind that there are conditions that can have serious repercussions. If you aren't convinced that the annual moult is the cause or, if you are concerned that your chickens are moulting for an excessive period of time, then it may be worth considering:
Bullying - Other chickens may be targeting one of your brood, either physically attacking them or causing them stress-related feather loss.
Poor conditions e.g. overcrowding, lack of fresh, clean water or adequate nutrition, poor hygiene.
Stress as a result of fright - is there a predator on the loose or something that is causing unnecessary anxiety for you chickens.
Temperature and lighting - the cooler temperatures and shorter days of winter are well recognised in reducing egg production. However, extremes of heat and light may affect moulting and cause stress to individual birds or flocks.
Disease - Feather loss could be a symptom of disease or parasitic infection e.g. de-pluming mites.
Poorly enriched environment - can lead to boredom. Chickens may pluck out their own feather or those of the other birds in the coop. This may be accompanied by feather eating, again symptomatic of boredom or maybe a lack of green vegetation.
An over-affectionate rooster - may be “ruffling” the feathers a little more energetically than it should!
Fortunately, most chickens go through their moult problem-free and emerge newly kitted out in a desirable little feathery number ready to take on the harsh winter chills. It’s just nature doing what it does best!