Autumn signals a time for change. Smoldering air turns crisp and cool. Green trees burn orange and gold. And chickens go commando. Well, some chickens do. While most are so discreet in their changing of feathers that the act goes unnoticed, rebels bare all for the world to see. However, when there’s a rapid loss of feathers among your flock, don’t assume your naked ladies and gents are simply replacing worn out plumage. Do a thorough flock check to rule out other causes and manage the situation as needed.
This nearly naked hen is the victim of feather picking.
Causes of Feather Loss
The most common cause of feather loss is the annual molt. Fall’s reduced daylight hours and lower-intensity sunlight triggers the loss of old feathers and growth of new ones. Beginning at the head and working its way down, natural molting often makes chickens look as though they had a run-in with a blind barber while others merely experience minor balding. If you gently pull the feathers back, you will find a patch of pinfeathers pushing to the surface with complete replacement taking six to 16 weeks.
However, stress from disease, lack of water/feed, getting chilled, or a sudden removal of coop lighting can cause abnormal molting. This stress-induced feather loss may not follow the head to toe sequence of annual molting and often results in a slower or nonexistent development of new feathers. This type of molting leaves chickens especially prone to injury or death as the mercury drops, making immediate removal of these stressors necessary.
Pinfeathers should be present in bare spots during an annual molt.
Many flock owners misdiagnose naked or patchy chickens as being in molt. However, close inspection of the flock’s daily activities often reveals a mild, but not harmless, form of cannibalism known as feather picking. Victims usually have bare patches, which at times may be severe, out of sequence with molting with little to no pinfeathers present. Should pinfeathers begin to push through, you will find they quickly disappear. Given enough time, chickens can lose so many feathers they are virtually ready for the oven.
Feather picking is usually caused by bored, confined, or crowded chickens — and the occasional bully — that discover the hidden joys in plucking another’s feathers. Others find themselves drawn to a flock mate’s feathers (or their own) in an effort to obtain much needed protein when the daily protein ration is insufficient. Even mice and rats are attracted to protein-rich feathers, nibbling the ends or entire feathers while chickens roost at night. These causes of feather loss require vigilant rodent removal, adequate space, a well-balanced, protein-rich diet, plenty of foraging opportunities, and/or bully removal.
While technically not a form of cannibalism, let’s not forget the love embraces of a "lively" rooster. While most roos cause no harm to their harem during mating, some become over zealous and pluck or pull large quantities of a hen’s feathers. Should the unlucky lady be his favorite, she will likely not only be wounded, but bald in the head, neck, or shoulder regions and will need to be removed or saddled until feathers are replaced.
Mite and lice infestations also result in feather picking as chickens seek relief from irritation and itchiness. While mites are often difficult to see, close inspection will reveal dark red, black, or tan specks crawling around the vent area and/or along the body, particularly around feather shafts. Some mites prefer to hide in the coop during the day, so a nighttime visit with a flashlight in hand to inspect the birds may be necessary. If you can’t make a coop visit at night, you may be able to see small specks of blood-filled mites crawling along the roost or hiding in nesting boxes during the day. Lice, on the other hand, spend their entire lives on hosts and can be readily discovered by gently brushing feathers back and looking for tan or white lice crawling along the body. You will also see lice eggs, or nits, attached to the base of feathers.
Left untreated, infestations lead not only to significant feather loss but also to weakened, sickly, and even dead birds. Approved treatments regularly change and depend on whether chickens are show birds, meat birds, or layers, so a trip to your local veterinarian is your best option when selecting insecticides. Alternatively, adding diatomaceous earth or wood ashes to the flock’s dusting areas and along coop flooring also works for many flocks — including my own — however, there is considerable debate among chicken keepers regarding their use and safety (as there is with chemical alternatives), so do a little research before you decide.
Suspect cannibalism or parasites when pinfeathers disappear or seem to never emerge.
Promote Feather Growth
Feathers consist of approximately 85 percent protein, so feather growth creates a protein deficiency when molting chickens (or any chicken actively growing feathers) are fed the typical 16 percent protein ration. Most birds compensate for the higher protein demands by either reducing or completely halting egg production until plumage is completely replaced. However, you can help your flock along by switching to an 18 percent protein feed for both hens and roosters over the age of 16 weeks. For many hens, this small increase is all that is needed to speed along feather growth while allowing better egg production throughout the process. You can return to layer feed once the flock is feathered out.
In addition to switching to higher protein feed, don’t overlook allowing chickens to supplement their own diet, when possible, by foraging for worms, grubs, and other protein-rich snacks. Offering mealworms, non-poultry meat scraps, night crawlers, or small amounts of non-poultry, meat-based cat food also works well.
Determining the exact cause of feather loss, regardless of the season, is the deciding factor when managing your flock during this stressful time. Hopefully your guys and gals are simply molting and will come along just fine. However, should other causes be the culprit, quick identification and immediate action will get your flock back to normal in no time.