Reasons for Missing Feathers on Backyard Chickens

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Feather loss and missing feathers happens within every flock at one point or another.  Suddenly, one day you happen to notice that one or more of your chickens are missing some feathers. Missing feathers should always cause you to do a bit of detective work.  There are reasons for missing feathers.  Some reasons are obvious, while others require you search a little deeper into the underlying cause of the missing feathers. 

Feathers can go missing anywhere on a chicken’s body. However, sometimes the location as to where they are missing can provide you with clues. Sometimes missing feathers occur during the normal process of molting.  Molting can take up to several months to complete and typically occurs in flocks at least one year of age.  It can also be triggered by stress. During their annual molt, typically in the fall, chickens systematically lose their feathers, starting at the head and moving down the body from neck, then chest, back, wings, and finally their backsides and their tails. Some chickens have heavier molts than others and their degree of molting can vary from year to year.  The Silkies in our flock rarely show any evidence of molting other than a few feathers here and there strewn throughout the run and coop. On the other hand, Oyster Cracker is one of those chickens that seems to drop all of her feathers overnight- leaving her bald and mangy looking for months.

Location of missing feathers and possible causes

Head– others chickens pecking, other hens asserting dominance, molting, lice

Chest-broody hen, molting

Butt– can appear beefy red-molting, vent gleet, mites, lice, feather pecking by self or others

Area immediately around vent-worms, mites, lice, egg bound, pecking by self or others

Random bald spots-feather pecking by self or others, mites, lice, bullies

Back near wings and back of neck-rooster’s damage from mating/over-mating

Reasons for picking at feathers

Protein deficiency– Feathers and eggs are predominantly protein. Adult chickens require diets between 15-17% protein depending on which chicken resource you rely upon.  They should all be on layer feed after approximately 20 weeks of age.  Sometimes, in our good intentions of sharing kitchen scraps, fruits and vegetables, chickens can become deficient in protein.  Therefore, they will seek another source to make up for this deficiency, even if this includes eating feathers.

Boredom-Chickens can become bored, especially in the winter. It is very important to provide your chickens with the proper amount of spacing per bird.  In flocks that are not allowed to free-range, it is suggested that each standard size chicken has approximately 10 square feet of space.  Bantams of course require less.  It is also important to provide them with distractions to keep them happy and occupied during these times when the grass outside is not always greener.

Mites/Fleas-Sometimes missing feathers are the only signs of mites.  Mites are incredibly elusive.  They like to hide in the nooks and crannies of the coop and come out and feed on the chickens under the cover of darkness.  They suck the chicken’s blood and in the morning, return to their hiding place.  It is not uncommon for chicken keepers only to find them on their hens after they investigate with a flashlight in the evening. Mites that crawl and move across the chicken’s skin are not only irritating, but also cause itching and pain after a while.  This annoyance can lead to chickens pecking at these sensitive spots.

Lice– Like mites, lice can be just as annoying for the same reasons; however, they love to congregate at the base of the feathers where the feathers meet the skin.  They can cause itching and a burning sensations. Lice love to hang out best near the vent, under the wings and on the head.  They will not leave their host. Instead they rapidly multiply leaving your chicken defenseless, except for feather pecking.

Bully hen/pecking order– Yes, even in the world of chickens there are bullies.  Our Dottie Speckles was one such bully.  Despite our best efforts, she was insistent upon hurting Tilly.  By the light of the moon, she took great pleasure at plucking feathers from Tilly as she slept.  Poor Tilly, she became so miserable that we had to eventually re-home Dottie Speckles.  In the meanwhile, Dottie Speckles had taught her bad habit to a few of the good hens. Taking Dottie Speckles away, allowed the girls to forget about pecking at one another and how much better it is to keep a harmonious existence.  It took me months to figure out that this is what was happening to Tilly.

Chickens Instinctively Peck-Chickens most always peck first at things that catch their eye.  They peck at shiny things such as buttons, earrings and painted toenails.  They peck at bugs, slugs and small moving flies.  Their curiosity is expressed via pecking.  There are a few things that you must remember.  Chickens love the color red.  Chickens love to peck at red things including blood.  Chickens can become cannibals if left to their own devices.

Vent Gleet-Vent gleet is also known as a fungal infection of the gastrointestinal tract.  It can lead to feather loss around the vent and the entire backside of your chickens. It is most commonly seen in hens. You can read more about it here.

Worms-If the worm infestation is serious enough in your flock the chickens will find the worms irritating to the vent area.  Thus, your chickens will peck at their vents to try and address the irritation and also perhaps at other affected chickens’ vents too, especially if they notice the worms. Read more about the types of worms that affect chickens here and how to treat for them. Any veterinarian can check your chickens’ poop for evidence of worms even if they don’t treat chickens.

Why are feathers not returning?

Quills in the Skin– Feathers begin to emerge from the skin as pin feathers.  They are pointy shafts of protein. As they grow longer, the chicken takes off the sheath and the feather unfurls.  In the center of the feather is the quill where blood supply exists.  Thus sometimes, broken feathers will bleed.  Also, sometimes when feathers are broken or pecked the tip of the feather remains in the skin.  To our eyes, we do not see any feathers, only bare spots.  However, since that tip is still in the skin the chicken’s body still believes that there is a feather present.  It is not until the chicken molts, that you will see a new feathers grow into the existing bare spot.

Repetitive Pecking-As the new feathers grow in, they too are irresistible to the chickens’ pecking.  Pin feathers are especially tempting.  Also, the color red of the irritated skin, especially on their bottoms, lends to pecking.  Sometimes, chickens lower in the pecking order bear the brunt of the pecking.

Helping Feathers Return

Protein snacks/Supplements-Snacks and treats should always be shared in moderation.  Too many treats can lead to health problems such as fatty liver.  Meal worms and sunflower seeds are good choices.  There are also supplements that can be temporarily added to your chickens’ food such as Poultry Conditioner and Calf Manna that help too.

Access to dust bathing/ dry run-Dust bathing naturally helps chickens to clean their feathers and helps to eradicate poultry lice and mites.  It is important that your chickens always have a place in their run outside to dust bathe that stays dry from the elements.

Layer pellets-Verify that you are feeding your adult flock layer pellets.  Even full time free-ranging birds should always have access to layer pellets if they so desire.  A proper diet leads to proper functioning of their bodies.

Hygiene-Clean coop/roost/nesting boxes-This is probably the number one reason for issues that arise in backyard chicken keeping.  I can never stress enough how important it is to keep your chickens’ living space clean.   Here is how we keep our coop clean.

Blu-Kote/Vetericyn– Both of these products are great to have in your chicken first aid kit. Blu-Kote is great for spraying on closed wounds only. (It can sting.)  It tints everything a bluish purple color.  Changing the color alone sometimes helps to deter chickens away from those tempting areas.  Be sure to wear gloves when applying.  It stains everything. Vetericyn is wonderful for applying to open wounds.  It is effective against bacteria, viruses and fungus and helps to promote wound healing.

Separate living area near flock– Sometimes the chicken that is missing their feathers and continually pecked upon needs to be removed from the flock until the feathers return.  Do not be tempted to return this chicken to the flock until the feathers have completely grown in and appear normal.  Here is how we have created a separate safe place for an injured chicken that would work nicely in this case as well.

Hen saddle/saver– Aprons that can be applied to the back of a chicken are an easy way to keep chickens within their flock while covering their bare backs and allowing the feathers to return.  These are great for over-mated hens and broody hens.  Just be sure to check regularly under the apron for lice and mites.  If left un-checked they can take advantage of the apron too.

Boredom busters-Keep your cooped up chickens busy.  Distraction is the key sometimes.  Try supervised free-ranging, a cabbage pinata, treat ball, chicken ball, or a flock block.

Rooster and over-mating– A flock should have at least 7 hens to one rooster.  This helps to keep certain hens from being over-mated by him and allows them to escape his constant attention.  If you have more roosters, they each will need a group of hens to keep everyone happy.

In most cases, there are identifiable reasons why chickens are missing their feathers.  Sometimes it is straight forward and other times, it may not be as obvious. In fact, like with Dottie Speckles, it took me months to finally find the culprit and figure out the solution, even though I spend a great deal of time with the flock each day.  Hens sometimes behave differently when we are around.  Keep that in mind, when you set off on your detective work and most of all do not get discouraged.  It might just be a situation where you have to wait until the next year’s molt.