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Molting- What is it & How to Help Chickens Get Through it

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It's late summer or early autumn and the floor of the chicken coop looks like a pillow fight broke out overnight. Assuming the flock is healthy with no parasites, they are most assuredly molting. What is molting, when does it occur and what can be done to help get chickens get through it? Molting is the shedding of old feathers and growth of new ones. Chickens molt in a predictable order beginning at the head and neck, proceeding down the back, breast, wings and tail. While molting occurs at fairly regular intervals for each chicken, it can occur at any time due to lack of water, food, normal lighting conditions. Broody hens tend to molt furiously after their eggs have hatched as they return to their normal eating and drinking routines. 

The photo above shows Phoebe, my bantam Frizzle Cochin, in October 2010. The photo that follows is Phoebe in September 2011. 
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First Juvenile Molt ('mini-molt') 

There are actually two, juvenile or "mini molts" as I like to call them, before a chicken's first annual molt. The first mini molt begins at 6-8 days old and is complete by approximately 4 weeks when the chick's down is replaced by its first feathers. This is a 7 day old Olive Egger chick. She is losing her yellow down, which is being replaced by her first feathers. 

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Second Juvenile Molt ('mini molt') 

The second mini molt occurs between 7-12 weeks old and the chicken's first feathers are replaced by its second feathers. It is at this
time that a rooster's distinguishing, ornamental feathers will appear.  These Black Copper Marans & Ameraucanas were 11 weeks old at the time of their second mini molt. 

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There is little doubt when chickens are going through their juvenile molt as evidence abounds in the coop. 

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All chickens will molt annually, their first occurs around 16-18 months of age. During a molt, chickens will lose their feathers and grow new ones. Molting occurs in response to decreased light as summer ends and winter approaches. Given that feathers consist of 85% protein, feather production places great demands on a chicken's energy and nutrient stores, as a result, egg production is likely to drop or cease completely until the molt is finished. On average, molting takes 7-8 weeks from start to finish but there is a wide range of normal from 4 to 12 weeks or more. 

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Both molting and egg production are controlled internally in response to the number of hours of daylight. Left to natural lighting conditions, chickens will stop laying eggs during the fall and winter and when spring brings increased daylight and their new feathers have grown in, egg production will again resume. To encourage egg production, supplemental light may be added to the coop.

Molting can occur at any time due to lack of water, food, normal lighting conditions. Broody hens tend to molt furiously after their eggs have hatched as they return to their normal eating and drinking routines.

These are photos of a few of my chickens undergoing an typical molt:

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This is Phoebe, my poster chicken for a rough molt. She has molted in this most undignified manner for the past two years. She's a trooper though, I have yet to hear her demand a sweater. 

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Newly emerging feathers have a vein-filled shaft which will bleed if cut or injured. Pin feathers are very sensitive and chickens generally prefer not to be handled while molting as it can be quite painful. An injured shaft is visible in this photo as a black spot of dried blood on top of the feather shaft.

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 Feathers emerging through the vein-filled shaft, which is covered by a waxy coating.

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A waxy-type casing surrounds each new feather and either falls off or is removed by a preening chicken. The feather within then unfurls and the inner vein dries up (the shaft is then known as a quill). 

The shaft casings are visible on the droppings board in this photo:  

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How to help chickens weather a molt & return to egg production 

There are a few things that can be done to help chickens get through a molt a little bit easier: 

1. Reduce their stress level as much as possible. Try not to move them to a new living quarters or introuduce any new flock members.

2. Increase their protein intake to 20-22%. This is easiest to manage with commercially prepared chicken feeds. (eg: switch from layer feed to meat bird feed for a month or so)

3. Supplement their daily diet with any of the following: black oil sunflower seeds, tuna fish, cooked eggs, soybean meal, cat food, (as it
contains animal proteins) peas, beans, fishmeal, cod liver oil.  

4. Limit handling to avoid inflicting pain and to keep stress to a minimum.

Remarkably, within a few weeks, dull and balding turns to shiny and voluminous within a matter of weeks. 

September 2011:

 Molting 17a 

 Molting 18b 

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