Natural Chicken Keeping

When Chickens Become Hedgehogs

Leigh Schlling Edwards

A brood of hedgehogs

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!

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!

Walking Rags

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.

Chick Check:

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.

Feather Growth:

Pin Feathers

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.

Pin Feathers 1

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.

Pin feathers 2

Feather Sheath

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.

Feather Sheath 1

And Finally:

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

Snoleopard Grew

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.

Happy molting!

Response to CNN Factory Farm Abuse Story

On Saturday, March 15, 2014, CNN published an opinion piece by Jane Velez-Mitchell titled, Factory Meat, Cruel and Bad for Us.  While I am no fan of chickens living in battery cages or ruminant animals living in unnatural confinement, I am also not a fan of the misleading nature of Velez-Mitchell’s article.

Throughout her piece, Velez-Mitchell makes a number of points to back up her theory that “America's most intractable problems all double back to our collective mistreatment of animals.”

Rather predictably, Velez-Mitchell jumps right in with a quote by the Humane Society’s vice president Paul Shapiro stating that "Animal abuse is the norm in the meat industry. Many standard practices in animal agribusiness are so cruel that they're just out of step with mainstream American values about how animals ought to be treated."

Those are some pretty harsh words, and the allegations are based upon finding a number of instances of abuse at various factory farms. From the Humane Society’s web site: “In 2007, there were 20 reported neglect cases involving cows and eight involving pigs, down from 33 cow neglect cases and 11 pig neglect cases in 2006, and 26 cow neglect cases and nine pig neglect cases in 2005.” (Source)

The Humane Society’s report does not state how many individual animals were involved in these abuse and neglect cases, but to be fair we will assume it was abuse or neglect that may have affected the entire herd on the farm(s) implicated. There were approximately 89.3 million cattle between 935,000 farms and ranches in 2013 (according to numbers provided by and the USDA).

So – to state these numbers in a different way, there were 20 reported cases of abuse or neglect among those 935,000 farms and ranches. According to my calculator, that is one reported case of abuse or neglect for every 46,750 cattle ranches and farms.

In comparison, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that “For FFY 2012, 51 states reported 678,810 (unique count) victims of child abuse and neglect.” (Source)

Reports found on indicate there were approximately 73.7 million children in the U.S. during that year. (Source)

Now, I’m no math whiz … but even with my math skills it seems pretty clear that we treat our cattle better than we do our children on average in the U.S.

The next strike against factory meat and dairy farms, according to Velez-Mitchell, is the U.S. obesity crisis. She writes,The rise of obesity has paralleled the rise of fast food, laden with meat and dairy products: burgers and shakes.”  Velez-Mitchell seems to completely ignore the difference between fresh meat and dairy products and those sold at fast food restaurants. She then goes on to push the benefits of a plant-based diet. The differences between fresh meat/dairy and fast food burgers and shakes are comparable to the differences between apples and apple pie. Apples don’t make people fat, but add to them wheat flour, lard and tons of sugar and suddenly those apples become a heart attack in a pie tin. And let’s not overlook the fact that French fries (potatoes) are also plant based, but arguably still a contributor to our obesity crisis.

Apparently the U.S. health care crisis can also be blamed upon meat and dairy product. The article states, “Eating too much meat and dairy products, combined with excessive intake of sugars and starch, plays a big role in these medical issues.”

Eating too much of anything isn’t a good thing. And while the hope of the author may have been that the reader might quickly skim over the “excessive intake of sugars and starch” part, this is the very part that needs the spotlight placed upon it. In fact, a recent study by the CDC found that excessive sugar intake may be the biggest contributing factor to not only our obesity issue, but also our country’s issue with heart disease and type 2 diabetes. (Source)

The truth of the matter is that a diet of fruits, vegetables and plenty of lean meat (both red meat and white) and fish helps reduce cholesterol and the risks of developing heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Because of the obesity and health care crisis, the article goes on to blame the meat and dairy industries for the US deficit… and it gets worse. Now natural disasters and weather anomalies can be attributed to these industries to because of the methane emissions of the animals.

US Greenhouse Gas Contributors


OK – let’s face it. Scientific studies have shown that the methane emissions from ruminant livestock do make up about 23% of the overall greenhouse gasses created by the U.S. Add to that an additional 9% from manure management, and we can attribute the livestock industry with the creation of 32% of all greenhouse gasses. (Yes – scientists have actually studied cow flatulence…) But – do you know what accounts for 41% of our greenhouse gasses? Natural gas and petroleum systems and coal mining.

The deforestation of the rainforests for the purposes of creating pastureland for cattle is another factor cited … she doesn’t mention the fact that a large percent of the deforestation can be attributed crop farming, wildfires and the cultivation of timber. (We can’t blame it all on the cattle!)

The article makes no mention of the 8.4 million acres of U.S. land that has been affected by coal mining or the nearly 40 million acres of U.S. land currently under lease for oil and gas production.

Velez-Mitchell wraps up the article by contending that World hunger could be eliminated if all the produce fed to cows, chickens and pigs raised for human consumption was distributed directly to hungry humans.” This statement leads me to wonder if she knows that cattle are often fed fermented chicken droppings among other things. Or that the commercially marketed feeds for cattle, pigs and chickens are often made up of grains generally not fit for human consumption.

And one more point about a completely vegan diet … considering how grains, fruits and vegetables are propagated and grown these days (think GMOs, insecticides and a focus on the bottom line instead of the health values of these foods), I worry about the effects of these things on our health and longevity. What will we know about these farming methods in 50 years that we don’t know now? And what will the long-term effects be?

Once again – I am not a fan of keeping animals in unnatural and uncomfortable settings, nor am I a fan of excessive use of antibiotics and hormones in these animals. This is why I do as much as I can to grow my own food and buy pasture-raised meats. Instead of accusing and finger pointing, what if the answers lie in getting back to the way nature intended things to be? What if we pushed to have more animals raised in a fashion more in line with the way they were meant to live? What if humans quit eating exorbitant amounts of sugars, chemicals and GMOs? And what if we all came to the understanding that there is no ONE answer to all that ails us. It took a long time for us to get ourselves into this mess – and it is going to take a long time to get out of it.