Winter is coming, well, okay, it’s here. But you know one of the ways I know? I know because some of my hens are naked. Asking yourself what a naked chicken looks like? I’ll tell you, it looks like a chicken that someone started plucking, got bored, and walked off. Before you start asking, my hens did not decide to perform a strip tease, and then forget where they tossed their feathers. Nothing as exciting as that happened, what happened was, they’re molting.
Wondering what molting is? Quite simply, hens, and roosters, begin losing their feathers when it starts to cool off, and there is less daylight. It’s their body’s way of signaling it’s time to refresh their plumage in preparation for migration, and cold weather. Like most birds, chickens lose and replace their feathers at 1-year intervals. I will note here, when the ducks and geese molt, they lose their feathers (looks like a down comforter exploded in the yard), but never look naked, or even partially naked, unlike chickens. Under normal circumstances, it takes a chicken about 14 to 16 weeks to complete the process.
The ideal hen molts late, and fast. Lazy hens start early, and go slowly. You always know a lazy hen by how shiny sleek and their plumage is. A good laying hen, on the other hand, will look pretty ragged before changing out their feathers.
Molting begins with the head and neck feathers, gradually working back toward the tail. Some areas will molt simultaneously. As the hen loses their old feathers, the new ones come in. These are called pinfeathers, or blood feathers because, as the name suggests, they contain a supply of blood to nourish the growing feather. You have to keep an eye on the pinfeathers along the tail and back, because chickens at this time tend to want to peck them. They aren’t being mean, they’re just craving additional protein, and aren’t too picky about where it’s coming from.
While a hen is molting, egg laying drops off. This is because the nutrients needed to lay eggs is channeled into growing feathers. Feathers are 85 percent protein, so a chicken’s dietary need for protein increases during this time. To help the chickens through the process, it’s best to give them some supplemental animal protein. Where do you find that you ask? Well, you can start with a high quality cat food. Cat food? Yep, I’m not joking. A good quality cat food is a good source of animal protein for a chicken. You can also give them raw meat (just not raw chicken, don’t want to encourage cannibalism). There’s also fish, or molting food for pet birds from the pet store. Mashed scrambled or hard boiled eggs also work, as do sprouted grains and seeds, or mealworms, and earthworms.
Personally, I give my chickens sprouted wheat and mealworms or earthworms (just depends on what is available). The sprouted grains give them greenery during the winter months along with the protein, and, seriously, they practically jump out of their skins with happiness when I throw them worms.
When the molt is finished, their feed efficiency improves, their eggs will be bigger, and the quality should increase. Keep in mind, their egg laying won’t be quite as good as before the molt, and it will decline quicker than before, but I feel this has more to do with the chicken aging than the actual molting process.
So, if you see your hen, or rooster, walking around a bit naked, don’t worry. There aren’t any wild antics going on in the coop at night. It’s just molting, their body’s way of renewing their plumage for winter. Give them some nice cat food, freeze dried worms, a bit of sprouted wheat, and they will finish the molt in better shape than they began it.