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What happens when a chicken moults...?

All chickens moult. Its a normal thing for them to do, and, they need to do it. Moulting gives them a rest from laying eggs and a chance to build up the reserves of various mineral and vitamins that they used up when they laid all those eggs for you! Chickens tend to moult as it gets colder, so Autumn-ish time, in most climates. Here in Brisbane, it doesn't get terribly cold in Winter. Our sub-tropical winters are quite mild by comparison to most, and as such, my chickens seem to moult whenever they damn well please! In colder climates, they seem to moult, grow back their feathers but not start laying properly again until spring creeps over the window sill.

I noticed my wee Pekin bantam had gone off the lay and so I tried to get some photos of the moulting process so you can see what it looks like. Its not always easy to spot, but the first sign is usually that they go off the lay. Chickens tend to lay on a 25 hour cycle and so will lay an hour later each day on average. Its got to do with the length of the day and the age of the chicken - so don't set your alarm clock to them!

This is Dawn, my wee Pekin bantam about two years old, in full feather while she was laying.
See how she is nice and smooth and plump?
If they have been off the lay for over a week, keep an eye on them and see if you can see them losing feathers. They generally lose them starting at the head, then the body and the tail feathers are last.

In this photo, Dawn is looking a bit ragged around the edges. Not as sleek and well groomed as she usually is.

Can you see her cute double tail feathers...?

I certainly noticed when that fell out!
They don't loose all their head feathers and then all the body feathers and then all the tail feathers and become bald. Its a much slower process and the head feathers are usually growing back at the same time the tail feathers are dropping off.
Over all she is a lighter colour as her feathers drop out you start to see the bases of the remaining feathers. She isn't as tightly feathered or as uniformly coloured as she was. Its not always easy to see...

If you look carefully (you may have to blow this picture up a bit) you can see the new feathers on her backside growing back. Those little bobbly things hanging down are the new downy ruffles starting to grow back.

The lose up to 60% of their feathers. Mine don't usually get big bald patches, but that can happen too. If they do lose big patches and have skin showing, keep an eye on them that the others don't start pecking at the bare skin. Chickens are brutal and once they draw blood they often wont stop pecking until the chicken is dead. Red and blood make them a bit crazy, I think. If they are pecking at a moulting flock mate, separate out the pecked chicken and clean up all the blood. Try popping the pecked chicken in an isolation pen inside the main pen until the fathers grow back or she may lose her place in the pecking order when you put her back in with the others.
This is our isolation pen. Storm had a cold and this was the only way to force her to eat the antibiotics. She got locked in here with the doctored food until it was gone. As this was for a short time (an hour at most) it was in the backyard where I could see when she had finished the food with the antibiotics. If she needed to be in it all day, I would have put this cage in the big pen so they could see each other and talk but not hurt her.
 It took less than two weeks for a very sick chicken who had to sleep in our room so we could watch/medicate her at night to lose her place in the flock. She was about fourth or fifth but is now at the bottom and seems to be staying there.
This is Storm. She is a blue Leghorn and a bit older - maybe 3-4 years. When she moults, her comb goes lighter - more pink than red, it flops over a lot more and she looks a bit shabby too.

She lost a lot of feathers on her backside. 

But Misty lost the most this year!!
Poor wee thing - you'd think she had been through the lawn mower!
The higher up the pecking order your chickens are, the less hassle they will have with the moulting process. The newer ones or the babies who will automatically be lower in rank, may get a hard time. I have found that my chickens can get quite sick before I notice it even though I spend time with them every day. For a chicken in a flock, its important not to show any weakness and be left out or pecked to death, and so they tend to do all the normal things you would expect them to do and then simply drop dead for what looks like no apparent reason.
Some chickens lose colour in the skin, legs and heads as they lay eggs. This bleaching of various minerals is normal and this is where they store the supply of minerals etc for their eggs. When they moult, they seem to eat as much as they did when they were laying and if you watch carefully, you may see the colour come back into the skin, face and legs. (If the wattles and comb are blue-ish - this is really bad and not normal. You may need to see a vet)
I find there is a big gap - sometimes months - between looking like they have finished moulting and laying eggs. I think its because they don't have enough of a certain mineral and, like humans, wont ovulate until the body conditions are right. If you are tracking your chickens moult and you think it has been to long, try changing the feed. Some feeds are too low in calcium, protein and other bits and pieces and they may simply not be getting enough of something to start laying again. Also make sure you are worming them regularly as worms can take be quite a burden on them.
Pop into a local produce place and see what multivitamins they have for chickens or buy them a bag of mixed grain for a treat if they seem to be taking too long to come back on the lay. Let them free range if you can or maybe throw them a bone or two from last nights stew. I have heard of people popping a bit of road kill into the pen as a treat but I find I cant get a whole dead kangaroo in to the boot of my hatchback - just kidding - I haven't tried it but they do go very silly over any meat scraps that end up in the pen...
Some chickens look fine and loose very few feathers for the whole moult. Others look like they have been through the lawn mower backwards! I also find my more temperamental chooks (Especially my Aracana's) get even more flighty and nervous when they are moulting. Placid chooks often sail through without too many issues. They stop laying eggs, don't seem to lose any feathers and then three months later, start laying eggs again for the next nine months!
Once your chickens have been through a moult, their eggs will get fewer but bigger! In the egg industry most chickens are allowed to live until their first moult - that is the first year while they are laying every day. Once they go into moult (and the "farmers" use lighting to ensure they stay laying for as long as possible) they are turned into dog food. Some are allowed to moult as there is a demand for larger eggs as well. Once these girls reach their second moult, its the dog food can for them too.
I have a couple of girls who are over five and they may only pop out an egg or two a fortnight, but by golly, they are huge! I wouldn't want to be popping out something that big every day, that's for real!
Enjoy the moulting process and spoil your girls - they deserve it after all the hard work they have put into producing beautiful eggs for you!


Marigold Jam said…
Fascinating stuff.
Practical Frog said…
Have you got chickens, Marigold Jam? I've had them for years and just love them. We don't have a TV and some afternoon we sit with a cuppa or a glass of wine and watch them do their thing - its fun and as you said, fascinating!
If you haven't got any you have got to get a couple of bantams maybe and join in the fun! - K x
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