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Why Is My Chicken Losing Feathers? Complete Guide to Feather Loss In Hens

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Nothing is more adorable than watching your little flock of plump, full-feathered hens freely exploring your homestead! But at some point during every chicken’s lifetime, it will lose its feathers. It then appears in a downtrodden, sorry state. But why do chickens lose their feathers in the first place? And is it anything to worry about?

Let’s explore feather loss in chickens – in much more detail.

Shall we?

Why Is My Chicken Suddenly Losing Feathers?

There are a few reasons chickens lose feathers. But first – if you notice one or more of your chickens suddenly losing feathers, don’t panic! There may be a perfectly normal and natural reason why your hens are losing their feathers, but it is worth investigating further to rule out any more sinister causes.

There are four main reasons why chickens lose their feathers:

  • Seasonal Molting
  • Chicken Behavior
  • Parasites
  • Ill Health
molting chicken losing feathers behind chicken fence
The molting process is the most likely reason that your chickens lose feathers. Chickens molt feathers yearly. Molting is a natural and healthy process of shedding old feathers and growing new ones. Our chooks almost always lose their head feathers first – followed by the neck, body, and breast. They lose their tail feathers last. Expect your hens to lay less often during this time.

Is It Normal for Chickens to Lose Their Feathers?

Yes. In most cases. Seasonal molting, where chickens lose their feathers and grow new ones, is natural and normal. There are also some forms of chicken behavior where hens can lose feathers, such as during mating or when they prepare to brood a clutch of eggs.

However, some alarming health problems can also lead to chickens losing their feathers. If you notice that your hens are losing their plumage and new feathers are not growing, there could be an underlying issue to blame.

What Does Chicken Molting Look Like?

Molting chickens lack feathers and might appear sick, frail, or unwell – at least to the untrained eye. And you might panic if you’ve never seen a chicken molt on your farm! Your beautiful full-feathered hens suddenly look like a bird rescued from a nightmarish battery farm – what on earth is going on?!

It’s time to relax. Molting is natural. Like human hair, chicken feathers do not last forever. They need to lose old feathers for new feather growth to occur. But unlike our hair, which falls out a little at a time, chickens tend to molt large clumps of feathers over a short period.

During molting, the feather loss starts at the head and works along and down the body, finishing at the tail. You should quickly see fluffy downy feathers appearing, which is the start of new feathers growing through. If you closely examine your hens, you will notice pin feathers coming through the feather follicles.

chicken molting feathers with only one tail feather remaining
Our homesteading friends often ask if there’s anything they can do to help their chickens when molting. The answer is yes! First – avoid handling your hens during their molt. Remember that their new feathers are surprisingly fragile, and hens are extra sensitive during this time. Chickens also benefit from a specialized diet when molting. Try chicken feed with extra protein – many poultry farmers agree that a 20% protein diet is perfect for molting hens. (They need more protein to help regrow feathers. Not to be confused with a high calcium diet, which is ideal for laying hens.)

What Time of Year Do Chickens Molt?

The most common time for chickens to molt is in the fall, enabling them to grow new plumage before the colder winter months. A flock of hens will tend to all molt around the same time, which often causes your yard to look like a pillow fight has occurred!

A typical molt may last up to eight weeks, extending into the start of winter. Some hens stop laying while they molt, or you might only notice a slight drop in egg production. For example – some heirloom chicken breeds may stop laying eggs while losing their feathers. While hybrid egg layers often lay all year round.

Younger hens don’t tend to molt during their first fall. And their first molt (usually) occurs just before they enter their second winter when they are 15-18 months old. This first molt might be severe and stressful, and it can be natural for them to stop laying for several weeks during this time.

backyard chicken molting heavily with significant feather loss
Our chickens usually molt in the late fall and winter due to the shortened day length. Luckily, molting usually only lasts two to three months maximum. But remember that feathers help hens maintain body temperature. So – chickens need extra help staying warm when they lose feathers – especially during winter! You might add a heat lamp or two in your coop to help support your molting hens. If several of your hens are molting, ensure all birds have equitable access to the heater. Otherwise, bullying or stress may ensue! (We prefer heating bulbs and radiant heaters that can shut off automatically. We’re always worried about accidental chicken coop fires. Stay vigilant!)

Is Chicken Molting Painful?

Yes. Potentially! Chickens are tough and resilient birds and tend to carry on their daily routine while molting. However, molting can be uncomfortable and even painful for the bird. There’s no doubt – molting is a stressful time for a chicken.

Our lovely Brahma cockerel, Mary (not a typo!), has a tremendously difficult time when he molts. His beautiful leg feathers seem to cause a lot of pain when they grow through, and he is much less active during this time. We’re always glad when this stressful time is over for him. But before long, he’s back to his adorable, upbeat, and chipper self!

What Should I Feed Molting Chickens?

Chickens will benefit from additional protein in their diet when they are molting. A complete feed that contains 20 percent protein is adequate, or you can supplement their regular diet with high-protein treats.

I give our hens extra snacks to increase their protein intake during their annual molt. Their favorite protein sources include cooked eggs, fish and meat scraps, nuts, and seeds. They also enjoy sprouted beans and legumes such as mung beans, lentils, and pea shoots.

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Why Do Chickens Pull Out Their Feathers?

If you see a chicken pulling at its feathers, it may be preening – a natural behavior where they use their beaks to remove dirt and debris from the skin and feathers. The feathers are not getting pulled out. More than likely, it’s your chicken’s way of grooming.

Sometimes it is normal for chickens to pull out their feathers. For example, when a hen gets broody, they prepare a clutch of eggs in a comfortable nest. The hen will pluck the softer feathers from its breast and use them to line the nest – this is where the term feathering your nest comes from!

However, some hens will pull their feathers out or even pull each other’s feathers out. Watch out for this conduct! It is abnormal bullying behavior and can result in harm to your flock. It can also lead to decreased egg production, unhealthy birds, stress, fleeing the coop, et cetera.

If you suspect feather pecking is taking place, examine your chicken accommodations – have all their needs been met? Most unnatural behaviors occur because the birds can’t meet their daily needs and conduct, such as roaming and foraging for food.

Ensure your hens have plenty of environmental enrichment and mental stimulation, with space to roam and scratch and plenty of foraging material in their run.

If one particularly dominant hen with aggressive behavior is the problem, she may need to separate from the chicken flock. Separating any trouble-making chickens will allow the rest of the hens to develop a new pecking order. Offending birds will struggle to regain their dominance when returned to the gang.

molting chicken in the backyard with only one tail feather
When our friends ask why is my chicken losing feathers? There’s usually another follow-up question about why their chickens have suddenly stopped laying! Chickens lay far less often when they molt because growing feathers requires immense energy. It’s a stressful time for your hens. That’s another reason we advise not handling them when they lose feathers. And – try your best to minimize outside stressors. (Predators, henhouse bullying, poor sanitation, and external parasites can all stress chickens. Help reduce these annoyances as best you can.) Molting is a time to let your hens recoup, rejuvenate, and relax. Let them focus on their feather health!

Do Chickens Lose Feathers When Stressed?

Yes! A sure sign of a healthy chicken is one with plump plumage. But any hen that is stressed or under the weather can start to lose feathers.

We all strive to keep our hens happy and healthy. But some circumstances beyond our control can cause stress. Excessive heat, predator attacks, and bullying are the most common causes of increased stress levels in hens.

Less-than-ideal living situations can also be very stressful for chickens. For example – undesirable environmental factors include overcrowding, water deprivation, and irregular feeding times.

If your flock is not thriving, it may be necessary to re-evaluate your chicken coop and run – do you have too many birds for the living space available? Do they all have sufficient access to a proper diet, water, and shelter?

As your flock expands, you will likely need to add extra chicken feed and water stations to ensure all birds have unfettered access to breakfast, lunch, and dinner!

two brown farmyard chickens with feather loss
Molting isn’t the only reason chickens lose feathers. You may also notice chickens picking feathers from one another. We’re talking about chicken bullies! We usually find that feather picking and hen bullying are due to a lack of space inside the coop or around where they eat or lay. Chickens need room to stretch, scratch, and enjoy a dust bath without bumping into one another. Offer your chickens a few square feet of space within their permanent housing. At least! Also, ensure your birds have adequate space to eat and drink without overcrowding. And have at least one nesting box per every few hens. (The more room you offer your birds – the less likely they are to quibble, bicker, and fight!)

How Do You Tell If Your Chicken Is Molting Or Has Mites?

Mites are the bane of any chicken keeper’s life! A mite infestation can creep up before you realize it, causing your healthy, full-feathered hens to appear miserable and bedraggled.

But if your hens have feather loss, how can you tell if molting or mites are the cause?

During a normal molt, your hens should still look clean, despite the feather loss. Hens with mites often appear dirty, particularly around the vent area.

It also pays to look closely at the hen – can you see pin feathers appearing? If so, she is just going through a normal molt. Hens with mites will not normally regrow their feathers until the mites get eliminated.

Of course, if you see some mites, you know they are causing the problem! Unfortunately, mites can be difficult to spot, and some mite species hide away in the coop during the day, coming out at night to feast on your hens.

What Do Chicken Mites Look Like?

The most common parasite found on chickens is the red chicken mite, Dermanyssus gallinae.

Newly hatched red poultry mites are pale grey and can be very hard to spot amongst your chicken’s feathers. However, once they have the opportunity to feed, they turn a dark red color and become much more visible.

Chicken mites can be hard to spot. They are tremendously small and hide during the day. Some nighttime detective work is often required to discover if your hens have poultry mites!

Sneak into the coop at night. Look at the perch. Can you see any mites moving along it? Rub a piece of white tissue along the underside of the roosting perch. Any red blood staining indicates that you have a mite infestation.

If you are still unsure, carefully examine one or two of the hens – lift the feathers around the vent area, and you may see a cluster of mites enjoying their late-night snack. Yuck! (The vent area is the cloaca.)

looking at a hideous red poultry mite under a microscope
Here you see the worst enemy of chickens everywhere. Dermanyssus gallinae! These nasty critters are barely visible to the human eye. Engorged females are only around 1 millimeter or slightly longer. They infect chicken coops and aviaries worldwide – from China, Australia, New England, Greenland, South America, to Madagascar. And beyond. We’ve also heard horror stories of mites infecting farmyard cats – and dogs. Thankfully, mites are famously easy to kill. Nearly any insecticidal soap will eradicate them. (But finding their nesting sites might prove tricky!)

What Is the Fastest Way to Get Rid of Mites On Chickens?

For the sake of your flock, you need an aggressive and comprehensive eradication plan for mites. These mites can survive for seven months without feeding, so we need to ensure as many as possible get killed before they reproduce!

Treating mites in chickens is a vital hen health topic, with many different methods recommended by homesteaders. If you want to dive deeply into red poultry mites, this article about chicken mites is our favorite source! But for now, here is our quick guide to treating mites in poultry.

A two-fold approach is necessary when dealing with a mite infestation. The coop will need to get thoroughly cleaned. And the chickens will need to be treated with effective anti-mite medication.

Mites hide in every nook and cranny they can find. So it is essential to empty and disinfect your coop. Burn all the bedding and scrub the chicken coop, perches, and nesting boxes with a chicken-safe organic cleaning solution.

In conjunction with good coop hygiene, it is also a perfect idea to use some form of insecticidal medication on your hens. Again, there are natural alternatives available, but these may not be as effective. One treatment known to be highly effective against mites is topical ivermectin. But ivermectin should be used sparingly in diverse farmsteads as it can be toxic to other animals.

Read More!

What Chicken Diseases Cause Feather Loss?

If you cannot find a cause of feather loss, such as molting or mites for feather loss in your hens, then your flock may be suffering from some form of disease or illness.

Diseases that cause feather loss in chickens include the following.

If you suspect your hen’s feather loss is a symptom of any of these diseases, it is vital to seek the advice of a veterinarian specializing in poultry medicine. Never diagnose and treat alarming problems without veterinary advice. You can easily make matters worse.

What Helps Chickens Regrow Feathers?

Once you’ve determined and, if necessary, eliminate the cause of your chicken losing feathers, they should regrow by themselves. Ensure your chickens receive adequate nutrition during this time, preferably by feeding them a high-protein feed.

If your chickens seem to run down and stressed, add a good-quality vitamin and mineral supplement to your hen’s feed, and ensure they have access to plenty of grass to forage in. Each hen can have up to half a cup of fresh vegetables daily and a small handful of higher-calorie food such as seeds, nuts, or cooked rice.

Conclusion

Thank you for reading our guide about why your chickens lose feathers.

We know that seeing your chicken going bald is a stressful situation.

But – remember that molting stresses your chicken out ten times worse!

So – we always advise minimizing stress during their molting season.

Try not to handle them. Never allow chicken bullying. And offer them plenty of protein-heavy snacks!

If you follow those rules? Then we bet you can improve your flock’s health and well-being. Dramatically!

Thanks again for reading.

And have a great day!

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