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How to Care for Chickens 101: Causes & Solutions for Chickens Losing Feathers

October 22, 2018

chicken losing feathers on neck

Photo: This is "NoName" {she's a hard molter}

Talk about a bad feather day, eh? Chicken feather loss and what looks like your chickens balding is a sad case of yearly molting. All chickens are going to go through molt differently but the causes of feather loss varies from chicken to chicken and coop to coop. 

Alright, let’s get down to business. Your chickens losing feathers isn’t cool. Especially since this odd feather loss situation with molting takes place just as the temperatures drop and you'd be thinking that your chickens need their feathers for all sorts of reasons... like staying warm!  In order to get a handle on chicken feather loss we need to first identifying the correct and real underlying problem. 

I put a shout out for questions on feather loss on Instagram and put together the most common underlying causes of chicken feather loss, how to deal with it, what to look for and how to put a stop to it!

 

chicken feather loss

Photo: Finnegan starting to molt feathers just about everywhere

To generally summarize... it's safe to say that there's a good deal of chickens with feather loss out there. I'm surprised to learn that no one asked about losing feathers on wings because they are dropping from everywhere else.

  • chicken losing feathers on back (not totally unusual)
  • chicken losing feathers on neck (not specific to Naked Neck breed)
  • chicken losing feathers on bottom (ouch, right?)
  • chicken losing feathers around neck (very common)
  • chicken losing feathers on chest (also very common)
  • chicken losing feathers around vent. (another "ouch" moment, right?)

Cause of Chickens Losing Feathers #1 – Poor Nutrition

what to feed chickens

Photo: Pinterest

Your precious little bundles of feathers need enough proteins, vitamins, minerals, and amino acids in their diet to grow and maintain their glorious plumage (do we love the word "plumage"?)

The Solution:

Thankfully poultry manufacturing companies make it so easy to meet your chicken’s nutritional needs by formulating (and labeling) their feed to meet the exact dietary needs of your flock according to their age and type (chicks, grower, egg layer, etc.) For example, starter chicken feed is specifically formulated for baby chickens to meet their unique heightened protein needs during this special period of rapid growth. And because baby chicks go through several fluffs before they have actual feathers, they need the additional protein and nutrients.

Cause of Chickens Losing Feathers #2 – Pecking & Pulling Feathers

chicken losing feathers on back

Photo: Larry our Cochin after the flock bullied her and picked/broke her feathers

Your chickens feather loss can be the result of other members in the flock being jerks, bullies and bitches. This school yard behavior is learned, so it’s “mucho importante” (that's Spanish for very important) to get down to the nitty gritty and determine who is responsible - you don't want this bullish behavior to spread and to have others acting up and causing harm..

So wait - why do some chickens pull, pick and bully their flock mates? There are a great deal of reasons. Sometimes it’s poor nutrition that triggers this odd behavior. You've seen the snickers commercials on TV?  "you're just not you when your hungry" and in this case perhaps you have an undernourished chicken on your hands?  

Boredom is pretty high on list of feather picking dysfunction as well. When your flock has a great deal of space in which to spend their days, toys to entertain them, roosts at different levels, wood stumps to sit on and things to occupy themselves with you will find boredom bullying and feather picking down to a minimum. 

Maybe you have an aggressive hen who is high on the pecking order and she's just flat out bitchy and lives in constant PMS? Sometimes the self-harming behavior is the result of hormonal changes (broodiness to be discussed in another blog). Whatever the reason, it's best to set aside time to sit and watch your flock interact and to pay attention to the behavior of each chicken. You will find that making subtle changes (noted above) to their environment can be conducive to harmony among all birds.

So, how do you tell if your chickens feather loss is the result of pecking and pulling? This is a sad one. You'll very likely see broken feathers and physical damage to the feather shaft. There will be dried blood on the skin and your chicken will most likely be a little skittish and/or withdrawn. Typically there will be patches of missing feathers that may look like chickens balding.

On another note: chickens for whatever reason are highly drawn to the color red and become cannibalistic with the sight of blood. It's most awful to think that your sweet little hen can be so terribly devious and cruel to her coop-mates but it's a given in the chicken world. 

The Solution:

As I mentioned above, the best way to get to the bottom of "chickens losing feathers" and knowing exactly what is going on with your flock is to get out there with them.  Spend a few hours.  Pull up a chair, read a book, take some notes, write in your journal...or just sit there and observe. You'll be entirely amazed at what you learn watching your flock mix and mingle, eat and drink, scratch and peck, dust and preen. Right before your eyes the boredom of bulling and bitchiness will unfold. You may find that you need to separate a problem bird from the flock to bring back harmony - 

Cause of Chicken Feather Loss #3 – Chicken Molting

chicken molting

Photo: WideOpenPets

Holy Molting Season!

Chicken molting is a natural process where your egg laying chicken will stop producing eggs and lose feathers around their neck, breast, wings, head and back for a couple weeks up to even a couple months. Molting is a seasonal event and not likely related to bullying or feather picking.

So, what’s the deal with molting chickens and how long do chickens molt?

Molt occurs because of a change in the length of day light in the Fall when the rest of us are bundling up - your birds are dropping feathers and molting. Egg laying is reduced significantly during this time as well because of the shortened natural light needed for laying eggs. Molting is Mother Natures way of giving egg laying chickens a break before their reproduction system goes into full swing again in the spring!

The Solution:

Check your chickens balding spots for damaged or bleeding feather shafts. That indicates physical causes for your bird’s feather loss, like being pecked at by other chickens in the flock or pecking at itself, and not seasonal (molting).

The cause of your chickens feather loss is probably molting if its Fall season, days are getting shorter and you’ve crossed off “physically pecking at feathers” as the reason.

Unfortunately, there isn't a behavior "thing" that you can do about chicken molting for backyard flocks.....but I do have a recipe that I call Molt Mender. It's a combination of ingredients that you feed to your flock over the course of several days/weeks to give their bodies a boost of nutrients, proteins and fats.  You can read more about that here

There is way to extend the egg laying cycle and to force molt quickly but I don't recommend messing with Mother Nature and it feels like a cruel process to me. In many commercial egg laying operations they either extend the egg laying season by increasing the amount of light an egg laying hen has access to - to keep her laying eggs.  The other strategy used is to discontinue light, food and water.  This forces the egg laying chicken into a full molt, she will loose all her feathers rapidly and will be able to return to egg laying in a much shorter period than if left up to Mother Nature. See? Neither of these processes seems very natural to me. 

Cause of Chicken Feather Loss #4 –Stress (Environmental or Disease)

chicken disease

Photo: PIA (Pain In A** our Austrolorp) w/ ruffled feathers

Stressed out chickens or chickens in stressful conditions sometimes experience feather loss. By stressful conditions I’m talking about your chickens being uncomfortably hot, your chickens being uncomfortably cold, chickens not getting enough water or dirty water, your chickens not getting enough feed, or your chickens experiencing a disease.

The Solution:

Using best chicken care practices to make sure your birds aren’t overheating, freezing, hungry or thirsty is first. Then check their environment to ensure their comfort. Ensuring their run, coop and nesting boxes are safe from danger, exposed or loose wire, sharp branches/rocks, etc. If you note runny noses, puffy eyes, wobbling when they walk, excessively ruffled feathers or any obvious sign of injury it's best to contact an avian veterinarian and seek professional care.  




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