Why your backyard chickens are losing their feathers
Updated: 11 March 2022
Have you noticed your ladies are looking a little lacklustre in the feather department?
Are there fewer eggs in the chicken coop? Or does your yard look like this?
If so, don't panic!
Shorter autumn days signal backyard chickens that it’s time to shed their feathers, so they head into winter with a lovely, thick, warm plumage.
This process is called moulting.
Why do chickens moult?
Backyard chickens moulting is a perfectly natural cycle that all chooks go through in late summer to autumn each year. You may notice the following changes:
Perhaps you won’t notice some of your chooks or ducks moulting, but it will be undeniable with others. It also depends on the age of the bird and the time of year they hatched.
Your best layers in the flock will be the last to moult. They will look as though they’ve gone through a tough day at work. They’ll appear rough and tattered, having dropped most of their feathers all at once.
The scruffiest-looking chooks are the hardest working; these are birds you want to keep!
Interestingly, chickens lose and replace their feathers in a particular order. It starts with the head, neck, body, back, breast, stern, thighs, wings (signalling to the hen to cease laying) and tail feathers last.
In comb changes
You may notice your hens' combs look dry, scaly and shrivelled. Rest assured this is temporary and completely normal.
You may notice your moulting birds’ behaviour change. Mine have been putting themselves to bed extra early and are not their usual bossy and sassy selves. It's believed they may feel unbalanced when their tail feathers fall out and can feel frightened and insecure.
In egg production
Did you know that eggs are naturally a seasonal food?
Just prior to moulting, it's common for eggshells to be thin or odd in texture.
During a moult, the birds concentrate their energy on growing a brand-spanking-new body of feathers. This time off gives their reproductive organs a vacay, so don’t be concerned if they’ve stopped laying - it’s normal for them to take a holiday from laying eggs!
During this time, they are replenishing calcium and other nutrient stores in readiness for another season of laying as well as breeding season.
How long does a hen moult for?
Feather loss and regrowth can be gradual and hardly noticeable or they may lose most of their feathers at once. Anywhere from 1-3 months is normal. For birds that lose most of their feathers at once and look quite bald, don't worry, in 2-4 weeks they will look remarkably better!
When do hens start laying again after a moult?
Egg-laying doesn’t usually resume until early July (winter in Australia) or later, but this varies greatly – pullets may be back laying within two months and older hens may not lay for six months.
This is a huge frustration for many chicken keepers. I often hear;
"We had eggs, we were going well, and now we're down to one or no eggs."
You can work around this by buying pullets that hatched in early spring. They should start laying in autumn and lay right through winter.
Do hens need a jacket or extra warmth when moulting?
No, while cute, jackets are not a good idea as they can cause friction for the new growing feathers that are coming through. Hens only need access to shelter as they normally would.
How to help your flock when they're moulting
What to feed backyard chickens to help them through a heavy moult? Add the following to their diet:
Eating a diet high in protein is essential during a moult for feather development, especially methionine, an amino acid found in fish, meat and dairy products.
Without adequate protein (the same goes for minerals), a hen will pull it from its body issue - which we don't want.
Try the following types of protein-packed chicken feed:
- Laucke Showbird Breeder MP Expensive but excellent quality. Small pellet suitable for bantams and all large breeds.
- Barastoc Champion Layer - General crowd-pleasing layer feed! Short cut pellet suitable for bantams and all large breeds.
- Barastoc Golden Yolk. My birds aren't fond of this, probably because they're fussy and it's a larger pellet. But many commercial layers love it!
- Laucke Red Hen Se17enteen. I haven’t yet tried this.
If you can't get any of these, look for a good quality feed with a minimum of 16% protein.
Vitamins, minerals and amino acids - especially the amino acid, methionine
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Methionine is the amino acid that aids feather development. So when choosing a supplement, look for one containing methionine.
A good vitamin and mineral supplement that's highly bioavailable will help your birds to get through the stress of moulting. I recommend:
- Chicken Coach Resistance Assistance - a unique probiotic complex, and
- Solaminovit liquid - a vitamin and amino acid supplement rich in methionine.
I use both of these chicken supplements together as maintenance (once a week year-round) and a booster (daily) in autumn. You can purchase them together in the Chicken Coach Health Bundle.
Mealworms and sardines
Chooks go crazy for mealworms and sardines - they’re a fantastic source of protein. Leftover fish or whole carp are also popular choices amongst other breeders I know. Don’t fret about the bones; the chooks work that out.
Medium shell grit for chickens is critical at all times of the year, but especially now. Keep about half to a cup full of shell grit in a container that they can’t scratch at. They refuse to eat it if it’s dusty, so wet slightly to keep it sparkling. Want to know more about shell grit? Read my blog!
Apple cider vinegar (ACV) for chickens
The chicken breeder jury is out on the effectiveness of apple cider vinegar. But ACV can help calcium absorption. How much apple cider vinegar do you give chickens? Simply add one tablespoon per 2 litres of water. Look for an organic AVC still containing the "mother". I'm a big fan of 'free-choice’ feeding as chickens know what they need, mineral wise. This means also giving them the option of water with AVC and the option of water without AVC, and letting them decide.
Yes, I know you’re unlikely to have eggs during a moult! However, mashed up, shell included eggs are great for struggling birds. Oh, and cooked, mashed up egg will not teach your birds to eat their eggs!
Seaweed meal is packed with over 80 minerals; it’s a great all-rounder for your girls to peck as they need.
Want your chickens to be the healthiest and happiest they can be? I offer backyard chicken workshops, online programs, phone coaching, and in-person support to families, schools, and free-range egg farmers. Visit my online shop for natural, tried-and-tested poultry supplies in Australia.
Grab my free guide, The First 8 Steps To Naturally Healthy & Happy Backyard Chickens now!
Elise McNamara, Chicken Consultant & Educator.