When a chicken begins to look dishevelled and tatty, it could be that it is moulting. Moulting chickens lose their feathers and grow new ones and this is often brought about by the decrease in daylight hours.
Chickens moult twice while they are juveniles, but their first adult moult will take place when they are around 16-18 months of age.
Order in which feathers fall out
Chickens moult in a predictable order. It starts at the head and neck, and then proceeds down the back, breast, wings and tail. On average, moulting takes 7-8 weeks from start to finish, but there is a wide range of normal from 4 to 12 weeks or more.
During a moult, birds do not lose all of their feathers at the same time. This is because in nature, they still need to be able to escape from predators so they do not lose all of their flight feathers at the same time.
Care of the moulting chicken
During the moult the fowl still requires a considerable amount of good quality food to replace feathers and build up condition. Feathers consist of 85% protein and feather production places great demands on a chicken’s energy and nutrient stores.
Because of this egg production is likely to drop off or stop entirely until the moult is finished. Occasionally hens will lay the odd egg during the moult, but most will take a break.
Pure breeds usually take longer to moult than hybrid hens. When a hen is going to moult, her plumage will take on a very dull appearance. It normally takes about six weeks for a young healthy pure breed hen to complete a moult. Older hens will take longer.
When new so-called ‘pin’ feathers are growing through it can be painful for a bird to be handled, so take care if you need to catch or hold them. The chickens are susceptible to injuring the feather shafts at this stage, which could cause bleeding. A bleeding chicken must be removed from the rest, as they will peck at it. The injury should be washed and sprayed with wound spray.
A waxy-type casing surrounds each new feather and either falls off or is removed by a preening chicken. The feather within then unfurls and the inner vein dries up. The shaft is then known as a quill.
What happens after moulting?
After moulting, the second year of egg production will be between 10 and 30% less than that achieved by the birds in their first year of lay. This is because the rate of lay is lower and the birds cease to lay earlier in the following autumn. Birds which have moulted twice and are laying for their third year will lay only 70 to 80% of their second year’s eggs i.e. about 60% of their first year’s production.
Like hens, cockerels also moult, and while in this condition are nearly always infertile due to loss of bodyweight. At this time their reproductive physiology undergoes a resting phase. Care must be taken to ensure that cockerels do not lose more than 25% of their bodyweight while moulting as this can lead to sterility.
How to manage the moulting chicken
There are a number of ways in which we can support the chickens through the moulting period. Limit the stress by maintaining an easy equilibrium within the flock and not moving the henhouse during this time. Limit handling to a minimum.
Flock nutrition is crucial to plumage health. Switch temporarily from layer feed to broiler feed, in order to increase the protein intake. However monitor the hens’ droppings, as excessive levels of protein are converted to urates. This causes the chickens to drink more, which in turn leads to runny droppings and even damp bedding.
Some experts suggest giving the chicken cat food, but once again caution needs to be exercised. Cat food should only be given to chickens in moderation for a limited period of time. It is possible that the chicken might ingest excessive amounts of methionine, which can lead to anaemia and even death.
If your flock is ranging freely they should still be getting enough variety in their diet to ensure maximum nutrition.
If the whole flock loses its feathers at the same time, the cause is more likely to be a disease or infestation of parasites.
When to slaughter
Some poultry keepers are of the opinion that once a hen stops laying and starts to moult, she should be slaughtered. However there are advantages to keeping them during the moult and the following year:
- it is cheaper to carry a bird through a moult than to buy replacement pullets;
- fewer replacement pullets may be needed, and buying can often be deferred, which can mean a saving of money, time and transport;
- moulted birds are hardier, and not as prone to disease;
- if strict culling is carried out during the first year, only high producing, efficient birds will be retained.
All-year-round egg production can be achieved by purchasing a couple of pullets at point-of-lay in the autumn, to provide sufficient eggs while the older birds are moulting. However you will probably have to provide artificial lighting for an hour or two to keep them laying during the shorter winter days. When the rate of lay of the newer pullets declines in the summer, the additional eggs from the moulted birds should sustain an adequate supply.
There is a practise of forcing chickens to moult, by restricting their food and water access. In many countries this has been banned.
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