We start getting the calls this time of year. “I went out to the henhouse this morning and there were feathers everywhere. What is wrong with my hens?” Another popular observation is “My hens look terrible. They are missing feathers and I think they might be dying.” Most likely your chickens are just going through a molt.
Just like other birds, chickens know when winter is coming. Usually in the fall of their second year they shed feathers and grow a new coat for winter. Most molting occurs in the fall but we have seen hens go through a full-blown molt in the dead of winter. Sometimes the molt is so mild and consists of just a hand full of feathers. Other times it looks like there was a pillow fight in the hen house and your chickens look like they have hen pattern baldness. Regardless, molting is natural and generally nothing to worry about. There are still things you can do to help.
If they are loosing their feathers already, this might be a great time to inspect their bodies. Since it is now easy to see the skin you can use molting time to look for signs of mites or other body parasites. This also might be a great time to do a semi-annual coop cleaning. You can remove all bedding, spray a 10% diluted bleach in the corners, sprinkle some Diatomaceous Earth in the corners, and add fresh bedding. This will make the coop nice and comfortable for the winter.
Hens will not lay eggs while molting. Since they need to grow new feathers before cold weather arrives, they put all their energy into that task. Chickens need extra protein to help them grow new feathers. The faster they feather out, the faster they will get back to looking good and hopefully laying a few more eggs. There are a number of poultry supplements that can be added to their feed. Most of these have 30% of more protein which will help them re-feather. When the hens at our store go through their molt we add dried cat food, meal worms, tofu or beef liver.
A molt can be over within a week or it can last several months. The longer the molt, the harder it is to keep your refrigerator stocked with eggs. There is no need to add artificial heat to their coop. We tend to recommend avoiding this so as to not create a fire hazard. Don’t worry about your chicken’s comfort level. They know more about how to be a chicken then you do. Just increase their protein intake and they should be back to beautiful backyard chickens before too long.