Chickens lose feathers for any number of reasons, some of which are seasonal, while others can occur at any time of year. Here are the most common reasons chickens and other poultry lose feathers and what you can do to help your feathered friends remain feathered.
Feather picking is most likely to occur when chicks are first feathering out and when mature birds are molting. Feather picking usually becomes evident when feathers start disappearing at the top of the tail. Feather picking is a management issue that can be avoided by improving these trigger conditions:
- Bright lights left on 24 hours a day
- Housing temperature too warm
- Inadequate ventilation
- Poor nutrition
- Too few feeders and drinkers
- Feed and water stations not evenly distributed
- Boring environment
Lice and mites irritate a bird’s skin and feathers, causing the chicken to peck at itself in trying to relieve the itch. If the itchy chicken pulls out some feathers, injuring its own skin, other chickens will join in the pecking.
External parasites may be treated with chemicals such as permethrin, according to directions on the label. Besides treating the chickens, also treat roosts and nests, as well as cracks and crevices in the coop walls, where parasites may be hiding. Repeat the treatment as necessary to catch parasites that hatched since the previous treatment.
When a pullet starts laying she has a 100% plumage cover. She gradually loses about 30% of her feathers by the end of her first laying cycle. Your best layers will look the rattiest, and the mere act of entering and exiting a nest box can rub away already worn feathers. Supplementing your hens’ diet with free-choice calcium in the form of aragonite or crushed oyster shell, along with adding a little crushed flaxseed or food-grade linseed oil to the layer ration, will help your hens maintain smoother, more supple plumage.
A rooster intent on mating grabs feathers on a hen’s head with his beak while his feet tread on her back to avoid sliding off. Over time, the hen loses feathers on her head and back. Feathers in those areas have difficulty regrowing because the rooster keeps rubbing them off, while other hens pick off any new feathers that try to emerge. To prevent feather loss, remove the rooster for all but a few hours once a week. As a temporary measure while a hen’s feathers grow back, dress her in a chicken jacket, also known as a Hen Saver apron or saddle.
An attack by a hawk or other aerial predator can cause damage that looks a lot like treading. Most such attacks are launched by juvenile hawks that may not be able to lift off with a chicken in its clutches. As a result, the raptor lets loose of the chicken and flies away with a talon full of feathers. A covered pen solves the raptor problem, and a chicken jacket will protect the hen’s back while the feathers grow back.
A setting hen will develop a defeathered brood patch on her breast, designed to bring the hen’s body warmth closer to the eggs and to keep the eggs from drying out too fast by lending moisture from her skin. You may not notice a brood patch, because it remains hidden while the hen is on the nest. The feathers will grow back when she molts after the chicks hatch.
Chickens and other poultry lose and replace their feathers at approximately one-year intervals. The process, called molting, usually occurs over a period of weeks during the late summer or early fall. Molting is controlled by hormones, which are regulated by day length (natural or artificial, or a combination of the two). Shorter day lengths are a signal to birds that it’s time to renew plumage in preparation for the coming cold weather.
Molting can occur out of season as a result of disease or stress, such as chilling or going without water or feed. A broody hen operates on a reduced diet, and therefore experiences a stress-induced molt by the end of her brooding period. Stress-induced molts are usually partial, unlike the complete molt occurring each fall.
Growing chicks molt several times, developing a complete first set of feathers by about the age of 6 weeks. Thereafter they go through partial molts at 7 to 9 weeks, 12 to 16 weeks, and 20 to 22 weeks, when the stiff tail feathers finally grow in. Wyandottes, Cochins, and other slow feathering breeds can develop bare patches of skin before acquiring full adult plumage.
Since feathers are 85 percent protein, a protein supplement will help your birds through a molt, and also improve the plumage quality of show birds. Options include mealworms and earthworms, cooked mashed eggs, and sprouted alfalfa or sesame seeds.
Feathers attempting to regrow in a large bare patch attract picking, slowing regrowth. In such a case, a chicken jacket may be used to protect the area both from sunburn and from being picked clean. Provided the quills of old feathers have fallen out, the feathers don’t get picked off as they regrow, and the chicken gets proper nutrition for feather regrowth, missing feathers should grow back within about a month.
Gail Damerow, author, Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens