Feather shedding in chickens could be a sign of molting or a more dangerous condition. If you are new to raising chickens, watching your birds lose their feathers could be a frustrating event. You may already know about the annual molt, but what else causes feather loss in chickens?
There are some natural causes that cannot be altered, but also health problems that can be improved by paying close attention to the health and behavior of your hens. We have been researching and have found some useful and surprising information for you.
Feathers can disappear anywhere on a chicken’s body. However, sometimes the location of where they are missing can provide you with clues. Sometimes feather shedding occurs during the normal shedding process. Molting can take several months to complete and typically occurs in flocks that are at least one year old.
It can also be triggered by stress. During their annual molt, typically in the fall, chickens systematically shed their feathers, starting at the head and working down the body from the neck, then the chest, back, wings, and finally the rear and tail. Some hens have heavier molts than others and their degree of molt can vary from year to year.
Let’s take a look at the most common reasons chickens lose their feathers:
Diseases and Parasites
If feather loss is widespread and all your chickens have lost feathers, parasites or fowlpox could be one of the causes. Chickens could be infested with lice, mites, and fleas.
Imagine having creepy and nasty little critters crawling through your hair. Disgusting and irritating, right?
That is what happens to your chicken when it has lice or mites. These parasites will congregate in certain areas, usually at the base of the feathers. They cause intense irritation and your chicken will scratch and pluck its own feathers in an attempt to get rid of them.
The mites hide in the nooks and crannies of the hen house and feed on the chickens under cover of darkness. They suck the blood from the chicken and in the morning they return to their hiding place. The mites that crawl and move on the chicken’s skin are not only irritating but also itchy and painful after a while. This nuisance can cause chickens to peck at these tender spots.
Like mites, lice can be just as bothersome 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 sensation. Lice love to hang out on the neck, under the wings, and on the head. They will not leave their host. Instead, they multiply quickly leaving your chicken defenseless.
Protein deficiency is one of the most common reasons chickens lose their feathers. Birds need plenty of protein, minerals, vitamins, and amino acids in their diets to help develop and maintain healthy plumage.
However, if you suspect that your birds are undernourished, there may be a couple of reasons for this.
- Inadequate nutrition. You should change the brand of the feed and be sure to buy a feed that is balanced for the age of your birds.
- Sometimes breeders prepare their own feed mix; this is fine as long as it contains all the vitamins, minerals, and amino acids your birds need.
- If a hen has been severely malnourished for a while, all of her feathers may never grow back.
The first and most common reason chickens lose their feathers is the ‘annual molt’. It is a natural process that happens to all chickens at one time or another. This causes your birds to stop producing eggs and lose feathers around their chest, neck, head, back, and wings.
In simple terms, molting occurs when a chicken sheds its old feathers and replaces them with new ones. Chickens molt at the end of the egg production season, in the fall. Normally this is closely related to daylight hours. So during the fall, when there is a drop in the number of daylight hours, you can expect your chickens to start molting.
The molt lasts about 6 weeks. However, older chickens molt much more slowly and can take up to 10-12 weeks.
Pecking and Intimidation
If feather loss occurs in some birds and not others, it is most likely pecking. Sometimes you will find that your chickens are intimidated and peck each other. You will need to pay close attention to this as it can lead to cannibalism which in many cases is very difficult to correct. Any aggressor should be immediately removed from the hen house until the injured hen recovers.
Another cause of pecking is overcrowding. Chickens with little room to roam often peck at their mates because they are stressed. The situation can be made worse by boredom. Chickens are intelligent creatures and they need some kind of mental stimulation to keep them from getting into mischief.
Broody chickens are easy to spot. They are grumpy, short-tempered, and always on the defensive in their nests. Once a broody hen sits in her nest, she plucks the feathers from her breast. This covers the nest with soft, warm feathers for the chicks to rest.
If you notice that you have had the same hen sitting in the nest box for quite some time, motherhood could be to blame for her loss of feathers.
What To Do?
Clean your chicken coop regularly, at least once a week, or use other methods to keep lice and mites at bay. Some good remedies include herbs like peppermint, cinnamon, and lemongrass, as well as the regular application of diatomaceous earth.
These remedies can also make your chicken coop smell better. Make sure your chickens have access to a clean powder bath. You may also want to add diatomaceous earth to that. This natural powder has sharp edges that cut into the exoskeletons of insects such as mites, killing them almost immediately. However, your chickens won’t even know the dust is there. If you choose to apply diatomaceous earth, be sure to do so in a well-ventilated area, preferably outdoors. Chickens have a delicate respiratory system and should not inhale it or it can cause serious problems.