Photo by Sue Strantz
I currently own a lovely flock of nearly 60 hedgehogs. I’m fairly certain they used to be chickens, but in the last few weeks a bizarre metamorphosis has occurred, leaving my birds spiny and odd-looking. In fact every year about this time my yard starts to look like there was a major pillow fight. Closer inspection would suggest the pillows lost!
My once shiny, fluffy poultry begin to resemble walking rags. An overabundance of eggs dwindles to just a few each day. Strange objects start to appear in the nest boxes – eggs with ridges, fragile shells or even no shells at all. It’s like a chicken-zombie apocalypse!
In the early to mid-fall of each year, chickens over the age of about 9 months will go through a molt at which time the old, ragged feathers they have worn for the last 12 months are shed and are replaced by healthy new feathers. This is nature’s way of providing birds with good protection against the elements before the colder weather sets in (usually) so those of us who keep poultry don’t find a coop full of hensicles after the first hard freeze. Of course every year there seems to be at least one poor hen that didn’t get the annual molting memo and suddenly goes 90% bald two days before the temperatures drop down to -3 Fahrenheit (like the one pictured above residing in a cage in a warm bathroom with some little “friends”).
So – let’s talk about the care and feeding of your hedgehogs chickens …
Growing new feathers takes lots of energy. The best way to help your flock is to make sure they have plenty of protein. Consider switching their feed to one that contains at least 20% protein until they have finished their molt. You can also supplement their diets with cat food, pelleted fish food or other products rich in meat proteins. If you are a hunter, remember that your chickens will enjoy all the parts of the deer/elk/turkey/etc that you don’t want. (Your little chicken zombies would love some brains … and hearts, and livers and unidentifiable innards!)
Reduction in Production:
During this time your hens will lay fewer eggs … or none at all. Before you send them to the stew pot, understand that most hens start laying again once they have recovered from their molt. Sure – some hens are lifetime freeloaders who don’t care to work in exchange for room and board, but depending on age (younger than 4 years) and breed (heritage breeds tend to lay for many years as opposed to production breeds which lay well for only 18 – 24 months), freeloader hens tend to be the exception and not the rule. (Remember that while the left wing and right wing may suggest different things about such a hen, both wings belong to the same bird … and taste the same once in the pot.)
If your hens are still laying, the eggs may be odd. You may get eggs with ridged shells or no shells at all. You could get teeny-tiny eggs (also known as “wind eggs” or “fart eggs”) and hens may even start eating their own eggs or their friends' eggs as they search for ways to consume more protein. Collect eggs regularly or put ceramic eggs in the nests to discourage egg eating during this time.
Molting time is a great time to give your birds a once-over. With fewer feathers and less overall fluff, it is easier to find mites or lice that may have taken up residence on your birds. It is also easier to tell if your birds are of a good weight or need either a diet or deworming. The best time to catch and handle your birds is after they go to roost. Wait until dusk and take a flashlight and a helper. Check the birds one by one and then put them back on the roost. Wood ash is great for treating external parasites and ground up pumpkin seeds can be fed to your flock as a natural dewormer.
If you have chickens with bare spots, you will first notice a pimple-like bump developing, signaling the growth of a new feather. As the sheath of the feather lengthens it will appear to be a different color than the rest of the fully-grown feathers due to the blood supply in the shaft during development.
If a pin feather becomes damaged or broken, it can bleed quite a bit. The best thing to do if this happens is to use needle-nose pliers to gently pull out the pin feather at the base which will allow the bleeding to stop much sooner at the skin level. A new pin feather will develop and grow in the following weeks.
As the blood supply recedes from the growing feather, a tuft will appear at the top of the sheath.
The feather sheath acts as a protective covering for the developing feather. As the feather barbules develop, the sheath flakes off, exposing the newly grown feather. During this time, your birds may appear to have horrific dandruff. No need to grab the Head & Shoulders shampoo – the flakey residue from the sheath will fall off as your chicken preens or takes a dust bath.
A few weeks after the molt begins, your birds will look better than ever. The filthy, dull, frayed feathers will be replaced with healthy, shiny, new feathers. Some birds may even appear larger than they did before molting because any broken or shredded feathers will be replaced with thick, full ones and down will be more abundant going into the cold months.
Swedish Flower Cock bird before and during a molt
Swedish Flower Hen before and after a molt - note how much larger she looks!
Most birds do finish their molt before the temperatures get harsh, and even those that don’t tend to do just fine as temperatures drop. If you have a bird go through an extreme molt during extreme temperature drops, then use your judgment. More than a few chicken keepers have snuck a hedgehog into a guest bathroom without their family’s knowledge.