Winter for Hens – No Eggs, No Feathers

You brought home your first batch of little spring chicks a year and a half ago.  They’ve grown up into beautiful hens, each with a distinct personality, and each providing you with delicious, nutritious eggs like clockwork.  Right about now you’re asking yourself, “where are my eggs?” and “why are my hens going bald?!”

molting hen
a hen’s annual molt can start as early as late summer

Not laying eggs and losing feathers are two things that go hand in hand during fall and winter, and are totally normal.  If you notice this happening during spring or summer, that is not normal and could indicate a health issue.

As days get shorter and nights get longer, adult chickens will undergo their yearly molt.  Molting is the process of shedding old feathers and growing new ones.  It’s just like when a dog or a horse sheds out their coat, just with feathers!  The shorter daylight hours trigger this process.

Each chicken molts differently.  While some birds may only lose a few feathers and it’s hardly noticeable, other birds lose almost everything and are walking around practically naked!  Feathers usually shed starting from the neck and then move down the body.  Fluffier hens like Orpingtons tend to lose much of their underfluff feathers, giving them a deflated appearance.

molting hen
each hen molts differently, some worse than others

Unlike when a dog or horse sheds its coat, growing new feathers can be uncomfortable and quite painful for birds.  New feathers first emerge as pin feathers.   These look a lot like quills or the shaft of a feather.  They are narrow cylinders encased in a plastic looking tissue, and they also have a blood supply.  If a pin feather is damaged, the bird will bleed heavily, even from a teeny tiny cut.  If your bird has a damaged pin feather, it is best to pluck it out from the base to quickly stop the bleeding.

pin feathers
new feathers covered by a waxy casing

As the new feathers become ready to unfurl, the blood supply recedes, the casing falls away, and the feather is revealed.  You might notice that as your birds age, their new feathers vary slightly from the previous year.  A splash might be splashier, a blue might be deeper blue, a buff might be more gold, and so on.

While your hens are molting, their egg production will drop significantly, or even stop completely.  The reason for this is two-fold.  Hens require at least 14 hours of daylight to produce eggs regularly.  Less daylight in the fall and winter means less eggs.  Also, growing new feathers is hard work!  While your birds are molting, their bodies are using maximum nutrients and energy to replace old feathers.  This diverts their bodies’ resources away from producing eggs.  From your chicken’s point of view, feathers are more important than eggs!

You can help your birds by feeding them a little extra protein while they’re molting.  This can come in the form of treats – mealworms, scrambled eggs, fish, packaged chicken treats – or in the form of a high protein lay feed.

molting chicken
Molting is a normal part of chicken life, but it can still be stressful on a bird.

Your chickens will have completed their molt within 8 to 12 weeks, and they’ll have a set of beautiful brand new feathers.  They won’t return to laying eggs right away.  You might not be filling up your egg basket until spring!  As the days get longer and your hens are seeing 14+ hours of light, they’ll return to their regular egg laying schedule.

Eggs tasting a little… fishy?

Have you ever sat down to a beautiful egg breakfast, taken that first bite, and noticed something fishy? Yes, it’s possible your hens are laying eggs that are super funky!  So what’s causing it and what can you do to fix it?

The culprit: Omega-3’s.

Omega-3 is a fatty acid that is essential, meaning the body cannot produce it but must consume it from food.  Omega-3’s are associated with healthier brains and hearts, improved mood, reduced joint pain, and healthier skin and hair.  They may also play a role in protecting against heart disease and cancer.  Basically, Omega-3 fatty acids are really good for you!

eggs omega 3
You can find special Omega-3 eggs on store shelves

So what foods are high in Omega-3?  Leafy vegetables, nuts, flaxseed and flaxseed oil, some animal fats, and fish.  When it comes to sources of Omega-3’s, fish reigns supreme.

Omega-3’s are fantastic, wonderful, healthy fats.  But they have a dark side… a fishy side.  They can smell and taste like fish, regardless of their source.  Here’s a brain teaser for you – does your fish smell and taste fishy because it’s fish?  Or because it’s loaded with fishy Omega-3’s?  Hmmm…

Normally, when a hen eats her feed, her liver produces an enzyme that deodorizes the fishiness of the Omega-3’s in her diet.  However, some hens have a defective gene that prevents enough of the enzyme from being produced.  That means the smelliness from the Omega-3’s in her feed get concentrated and deposited right in to the yolk of her eggs, and passed on to you.  You can thank her for the healthy fats, but they’ll come at a smelly cost!

So what can you do about it?  Take a look at the list of ingredients on the feed tag.  Look out for fishmeal, flaxseed, flaxseed oil, canola, or canola oil.  These are all ingredients high in Omega-3 fatty acids.  Then think about what extras you might be feeding your hens.  Treats like leafy vegetables, squash, and beans are high in Omega-3’s.  All of those Omega-3’s adding up in your hen’s diet will result in fishy eggs!  You probably won’t need to eliminate all of those things completely, but try reducing them until you get eggs that are smellible and edible.

If your eggs get fishy, decrease the Omega-3’s in your hens’ diet

But hey, if the fishiness doesn’t bother you, there’s nothing wrong with the eggs.  In fact, the fishier the eggs, the higher in Omega-3’s, and the healthier they are for you.  So eat up!

 

Feeding Your Juvenile Chickens

Did you hatch some baby chicks this spring or summer?  By autumn, they’ve reached an age where they can be considered young adults – hopefully young ladies if you’re looking for eggs!  If you have an existing flock, they should be able to join the group.   It’s also about time to switch their diet from their chick feed to an adult layer feed.

a juvenile pullet

A chicken layer feed is a diet consisting of moderate protein and all the nutrients hens need to stay healthy and lay eggs.  The key difference between a layer feed and other types of poultry feed, like scratch, is the amount of calcium.  Hens require quite a bit of this mineral, because egg shells are primarily composed of calcium.  Calcium makes up about 94% of a shell!

 

A hen will use all the available calcium in her body to produce strong egg shells.  Laying an egg just about every day means calcium is constantly leaving a hen’s body.  That makes it necessary to ensure there’s adequate calcium going in to her body via her feed.   This will help you make sure she remains in good health.

A diet with insufficient calcium will cause a hen to lay eggs with weak shells, or without any shell at all.  These are commonly referred to as “rubber eggs,” and although they might be an interesting coop find, they are an indicator that your hen’s health is compromised.  Parts of her body that are calcium rich, like her bones and beak, will be weakened and become brittle.

Any commercially prepared layer feed will already contain the right amount of calcium that your egg-laying hens require.  Some chicken keepers also like to have crushed oyster shells available for their hens to peck at free-choice.  Chickens are remarkable when it comes to seeking out the exact nutrients they are needing, and will snack on the oyster shell only when they are needing a little calcium boost.

Also try to limit the amount of supplemental treats you give your hens.  If a hen fills up on kitchen scraps, she will not eat enough layer feed to supply her with adequate calcium.

chickens eating, lay feeds

If you have a mixed flock, and are wondering “If lay feeds are made for hens, what should I feed my roosters?”  The answer is that your roosters can eat the lay feeds too.

For more information on chicken layer feed, visit the Poultry Products section of our website here.

All About Molting

While the days are still long in late July, we are more than halfway through our annual trip around the sun.  Each day grows shorter as the sun sets a little sooner in the evening.  Decreasing daylight signals to your chickens that it’s time to molt.  Some of your birds may have already begun the process, and the others will follow soon enough.

What is molting?

Molting is the natural shedding of old feathers and growth of new feathers.  Chickens go through a few molts as they develop from chicks to mature birds, and after that they will molt every year in late summer or fall.  If suddenly you take a look at your flock and notice your birds look a little naked, don’t panic!  This is a perfectly normal and natural process.

chicken motling
Molting rooster

What can I expect during molting season?

Each bird goes through their molt a little differently.  Some might only lose a few under-feathers, and just look a little less fluffy than usual.  Some have it a little rougher, and go totally bald.  Most will be somewhere in between those two extremes.  Feathers begin shedding at the head, then back, then breast and thighs, and finally the tail.  Other than feeling a little exposed, your chickens should be acting normal.

You will notice a drop in egg production from your flock during molt.  That’s because a hen’s body will put all it’s energy and protein intake towards the growth of new feathers.  Hens might lay less eggs, or stop laying all together, until their molt is completed.  The molting process can take anywhere from 3 weeks to 12 weeks, depending on the individual bird, but the average is around 7-8 weeks.

New emerging feathers are called pin feathers.  They begin as a feather shaft covered in a waxy coating.  These pin feathers have an active blood supply.  If a pin feather is damaged, it may bleed profusely, even though the injury isn’t severe.  If you experience this situation, it’s best to use tweezers and remove the bleeding pin feather.

pin feathers molting
Emerging pin feathers

Once the pin feathers have full come in, the waxy coating falls off, the blood supply dries up, and the feather unfurls.  You may see these waxy casings on your coop floor.

What do I do during molt?

There’s a couple of things you can do to help your birds out during this time.  While molting is normal, it’s an uncomfortable process, and they could use your support.

  • Reduce stress in the flock.  That means avoid changing up the everyday routine, moving the coop, or bringing in new flock members.
  • Don’t handle birds unless absolutely necessary.  New emerging feathers are extremely sensitive, painful even.  It’s best just to let your birds alone until the molt is over.
  • Feed a higher protein diet.  Feathers are made mostly out of proteins (about 85%).  By increasing the protein in your chickens’ feed, you are giving them the nutrients they need to grow new feathers.  Star Milling manufactures a 20% protein feed that is a great option for molting.  It’ll give your chickens the boost they need to grow new, beautiful feathers

 

Chick Watch: 5 Weeks Later

Our little chicks are in their 5th week of life outside an egg!  It has been such a joy to watch Jordy be a mother hen to these two, and to watch the chicks growing and learning about the world around them.

hen and chicks
Mama Jordy and her two chicks

Jordy is the epitome of an overprotective “helicopter mom”.  She never lets the chicks get too far from her side, and never lets anyone else get too close.  It has been quite a task to get photos of them or to check up on them, because we can hardly get within 10 feet of them before they are led away by cautious mama.

As the days and weeks pass by, mother hen is expanding the area she is comfortable letting the chicks explore.  What started out as a small perimeter directly around the nest has grown to about half of the one-acre property.  She is doing a great job of showing them the ropes – how to find delicious plants and bugs to eat, how to take a dust bath, where to find the best spot for a nap on a hot afternoon, and when to take cover from danger.  She is in constant verbal communication with her chicks, and after watching them for hours, we have noticed different sounding clucks that must have distinct meanings.  A “come eat this!” cluck, a “be careful kids!” cluck, and a reassuring “mom’s right here,” cluck for when they wander too far.

hen and chicks
Keeping a safe distance

She is also starting to bring them around the rest of the flock more and more.  Chickens are not welcoming of outsiders, and any new chick or chicken is viewed as an enemy to be eliminated.  Sometimes even flock members that have spent time away, perhaps due to illness or injury, have to be reintroduced carefully.  Mama Jordy is keeping a safe distance, but the other flock members are able to see and get used to the new additions being out in the yard.  Jordy and the chicks are still sleeping in their cozy nest, and have not relocated to the coop just yet.

The chicks are growing like weeds, and at this age their juvenile feathers are really coming in.  Based on their feathering right now, our hypothesis is that we have two girls.  Of course, we could always be wrong!  It’s still a guessing game at this point, and we won’t know for sure until about 16 weeks.  We once had a chick we swore was a rooster right up until it laid an egg!  Turns out she’s just a bit masculine in her appearance.  So time will tell, but for now they are healthy and happy!

Chick Watch: Week 3 – They Hatched!

Major pro of having a broody hen sit on eggs and hatch chicks:  she does all the work.

Major con of having a broody hen sit on eggs and hatch chicks:  you might miss out on all the excitement!

It’s a good thing we had our calendar marked with an approximate hatch day for our two Wheaten Ameraucana eggs, otherwise we’d still have no idea that the chicks were free from their eggs and out in the world!

We went to do our evening check up on Jordy.  She was being extra grouchy and protective of her nest, growling at us and biting us as we tried to check on the eggs underneath her.  So much so that we couldn’t get a good look at the eggs.  We almost walked away before we noticed tiny little “peeps” sounding off, and a little yellow head poked out for a split second.  The chicks had already hatched!

hen and chicks
Jordy and her two new chicks!

We didn’t actually have visible confirmation that both eggs had hatched for about 24 hours.  We only knew we had at least 1 chick.  It took two of us to move Jordy just enough to get a peak at our new hatchlings.  Two healthy, fuzzy, little yellow chicks!  We were disappointed that we didn’t get to witness “the miracle of birth,” but happy to see that the chicks were already dry, scooting around, and comfortably tucked up in the warm blanket of mama’s wings.

Jordy is certainly a proud mother, and deserves some kind of award for her fiercely protective, helicopter-mom style.  She is in constant communication with her babies, and is always on the lookout for intruders.  We can only get within about 5 feet of them before she puffs up and gives her chicks the cue to stop exploring and come seek protection under her wings.  She even attacked the dog when it came over for a harmless, merely curious look at the new additions.  There is no doubt that these chicks will be safe in her care!

hen and chicks
Learning important life lessons from mom

Slowly but surely, mama will lead her babies further and further from the nest, and teach them about life outside.  She will teach them to scratch and find food, take them over to the water bowl for a refreshing drink, and take a nice dust bath with them.  They will remain separated from the rest of the flock for a while, until Jordy is comfortable enough to introduce them.  Given Jordy’s ultra-protective instincts, it could take a while!

Chicks that are raised outside by a hen, rather than inside in a brooder, generally mature more quickly.  They shed their baby down and grow in feathers faster, they grow in size faster, and since they aren’t under the light of an artificial heat lamp 24/7, their sleep cycles are more regulated by natural light.  Plus they get the added benefits of getting plenty of fresh air and exercise.  They also learn better social skills because of the teachings of their mother, and can integrate into the adult flock fairly seamlessly.

Keep checking back, as we document these two chicks as they grow and mature in to adult birds!  Will they be hens or roosters?  Let’s find out together!

Chick Watch: Week 2

14 days down, about 7 more days to go!  Jordy the Buff Orpington hen is doing a great job sitting on her eggs and protecting her nest.  Since we take a very hands off approach to this process, there won’t be much excitement until hatch day.

We make sure to check on Jordy twice a day, but otherwise leave her undisturbed.  She is doing just what Nature intended.  Her nesting location has worked out extremely well.  The other more dominant hens have come over to investigate, but Jordy feels safe and secure under the tree branches.  She has also been nice and cool, even during days the temperature has been quite hot.  Overall, she’s looking to be in great shape and performing her duties like a champ!

While out feeding the horses one day, we heard a great big commotion – squawking, flapping, running, what a scene!  It was Jordy!  She had decided she was hungry, and needed to take a break from sitting.  Every second she was away from the nest, she was a hormonal and worried mother.  She was puffed up like a turkey the whole time she was eating!  After about 5 or 10 minutes of getting some food, water, and a nice stretch, she made her way back to her nest.  This was a great opportunity to observe her and evaluate her overall condition.  She looks to be in good health, and doesn’t seem to have lost much weight at all.  While sitting on eggs, a hen puts her body through quite the ordeal, eating and drinking only sparingly.  It is easy for them to lose weight and become dehydrated.  Jordy is in great condition.

broody hen
Jordy puffed up like a turkey

It was also a great opportunity to go take a peak at the nest!  We have our two eggs, hopefully developing into beautiful Wheaten Ameraucana chicks!  Have you ever heard the phrase “to feather the nest” ?  As you can see, Jordy has done just that!  She has plucked a few feathers from her breast to make her nest a little more cozy.

nest of eggs
Two eggs we hope to hatch!

At this stage of development, our chicks are basically fully formed.  They are just tiny versions of themselves.  They have down covering their entire body, a beak, and claws.  Eyelids have developed over their eyeballs.  Over the next 7 days, they will continue to grow in size, and utilize the nutrients within the contents of the egg.  Did you know, an egg white and egg yolk is the amniotic fluid for a developing chick?  Eggs are very nutrient rich!

day 14 chicken development
Day 14 Development courtesy of The Poultry Site

 

Chick Watch: Week 1

Meet Jordy.  Jordy is a Buff Orpington hen, and is just over 2 years old.  Ever since she reached maturity, she goes broody in late Spring, and is always extremely determined to sit on eggs!  She often needs to be searched for, because she has hunkered down in any number of odd locations, wanting to make a nest.

broody buff orp
Jordy the broody Buff Orpington hen

This year, rather than fight her urges, we let her sit on some eggs.  We’ll keep up with her periodically in our blog series: Chick Watch.

Jordy has been “lightly broody” these past few weeks.  She would sit on top of the flock’s daily eggs, but would easily be shooed off.  She’d give her feathers a shake and a fluff, and then go on her merry way.  She wasn’t fully committed.  About one week ago, she … disappeared.  We didn’t see her in the yard, and noticed she didn’t come home to roost one evening.  So, the next morning, we sent out a search party.  She was quickly discovered, holed up under a pile of trimmed tree branches.  We knew this was it; she was ready to commit to sitting on eggs.

broody hen nest
Jordy made her nest under these branches

There is no rooster on the property, so any eggs laid by the hens at home do not have the potential to hatch.  They are not fertile, and can never develop in to chickens.  We purchased two fertile wheaten ameraucana eggs from our local feed store.  They’ll fit right in to our flock once they hatch, as we have majority blue eggs layers.

Jordy had chosen to nest under a pile of tree branches in the far corner of the one acre property.  Do we move her to the coop, or another location closer to the house?  Or do we leave her where she is?  A lot of thought went in to this decision.  It is often considered ideal to have a hen nest in a convenient, extremely secure location, where she can be easily monitored and kept safe.  However, there are several reasons why we decided to leave Jordy in her tree branch nest:

  1. No real threat from predators.  While yes, we realize that it is possible for a coyote or other predator to enter the yard, it hasn’t ever happened before, and doesn’t seem a likely scenario.  It’s a risk we felt comfortable taking.
  2. Privacy.  Jordy is comfortable in the back corner of the yard, away from the rest of the flock and other animals.  She will not constantly be bothered and feeling the need to defend herself and her eggs.  This is especially important because Jordy is lower in the pecking order.  The more dominant hens are pushy and nosy, and would constantly be invading her personal space were she nesting in the coop.
  3. Shade.  She is in an area that is shaded and cool at all times.  Last year, she nested on eggs in the coop, in July.  While out of direct sunlight, it was still so hot that we had to set up misters and fans.  There were many days that we were worried about the temperature being dangerously high.  In her tree branch nest she’s in the shade and will get a nice breeze.
  4. Security.  We took more trimmed branches and piled them up around her.  She’s got a bit of a tree branch cage going on, and is well hidden.  While we realize this isn’t incredibly secure, it’ll definitely do the trick for 21 days.  “Back in the day on grandpa’s farm,” hens would disappear and make nests who knows where, and then reappear weeks later with chicks in tow!  They do just fine on their own.

First things first, and a lesson learned from last year, we marked the fertile eggs with a pencil.  This will help us distinguish the fertile eggs from the non-fertile eggs laid by our hens.  Sometimes, when a broody hen leaves the nest momentarily to eat, drink, or relieve herself, another hen will decide to lay an egg in the same nest.  Non-fertile eggs in the nest need to be removed regularly, as they will start to spoil if sat on for too long.

fertile eggs
fertile wheaten ameraucana eggs marked in pencil

Given her isolated location, we set up a food and water station close by, so she doesn’t have to travel far to replenish herself.  A hen sitting on eggs puts her needs second to her duty of incubating, and that will take a toll on her body.  She will only leave the nest about once per day to eat, drink, and relieve herself.

Today is Day 7 out of 21 days of incubation.  What do our developing chicks look like?  The Poultry Site  has a great explanation along with photos of chick development as it happens day by day.  At the stage of development, our chick embryos have a head, neck, a body, and limbs.  The beak is beginning to form.  The brain continues to develop, but it now takes up less space in the body, as the body begins to grow larger.  In just two days, feathers will start to form.

Day 7 chick development. Thank you to The Poultry Site.

 

Keep an eye on our Facebook page and this blog as we post updates on Jordy and her eggs, which in about 2 weeks will be little baby chicks!  We can’t wait!

What to Do with a Broody Hen

Around this time of year, when Spring is in full swing, your hens’ egg production has picked up, their appetites are good, and the sun is shining, you may notice a few hens going broody. Broodiness is triggered by hormones, daylight, and the availability of eggs to sit on. What does this mean to you as a chicken keeper? It means you may need to get involved and change your hen’s behavior.

What does “broody” mean and how do I recognize it?

When a hen is broody, it means her maternal instincts have kicked in. Her hormones are surging and telling her it’s time to sit on and hatch some eggs. It is pretty easy to recognize a hen that has gone broody. She will not be in her usual active, curious mood. She will stay camped out on a nest, whether there’s eggs in it or not. When approached by you or other birds, she will puff her feathers up, get very defensive, make a unique growling sound, and even peck at intruders. She means business and is insistent when it comes to sitting on those eggs!

broody hen, nesting
A broody hen that is puffed up and sitting on a clutch of eggs

If there are fertile eggs for her to sit on (and if you want baby chicks) –

If your broody hen is sitting on a clutch of fertile eggs, and if you don’t mind having a few baby chicks added to your flock, you are more than welcome to leave her sitting on those eggs. She will incubate the eggs at just the perfect temperature and humidity for about 21 days, and then you’ll have some new chicks added to your flock!

If your eggs aren’t fertile (no roosters present) or you don’t want chicks to hatch –

If your hen has gone broody, and there’s no possibility of her hatching eggs, you will need to intervene and put an end to her broody behavior, otherwise known as “breaking up” her broodiness. Why you ask? Because a broody hen will continue brooding until she hears the little peeps of baby chicks. Otherwise, she will sit on eggs indefinitely. This can have a seriously negative impact on her health.

The consequences of unwanted broodiness –

While a hen is broody and sitting on a nest, she will put all her energy in to sitting on eggs, and neglect herself in the process. She will only leave the nest to eat, drink, and relieve herself once or twice a day. She will become pale, lose sheen in her feathers, and lose weight. In hot weather, she can easily become dehydrated. While she can keep this routine up for 21 days, it is hard on her. Allowing her to sit on eggs that will never hatch is not fair to her and not in anyone’s best interest.

At the same time your hen is brooding, she will not lay any eggs, and she may inspire other hens to go broody as well. Broodiness begets broodiness. Before you know it, your whole flock could be on strike!

broody hen
A broody hen will occupy a nesting box and encourage other hens to become broody as well

How to break up the broodiness –

As soon as you identify broody behavior, get to work on stopping it. The longer a hen is broody, the longer it takes her to snap out of it. There are many techniques out there for how to break up a broody, but many of them are ineffective or even inhumane. The best, easiest (for both of you!) course of action is to put her in a “broody breaker” pen.

A broody breaker pen is basically a wire bottomed cage. It can be a rabbit hutch, a dog crate, or something of your own construction. It will need to be raised off the floor, to allow air to circulate underneath. Your broody hen will live in the broody breaker pen with food and water, but no bedding. The design of the broody breaker pen is two-fold; is allows air to circulate and cool down the hen’s breast, and also makes her generally uncomfortable. Broody hens prefer small, dark, private areas where they can snuggle up in the nest and incubate eggs. By placing her in a location without these amenities, it sends a signal to the hen’s brain that it’s not time to hatch eggs.

broody breaker
This wire cage will make a perfect broody breaker pen

It is essential to keep her in the broody breaker pen until she is fully back to her normal self. You can always test this by letting her out of the pen and watching her. If she gets all puffed up and hightails it for the closest nest she can find, right back in the pen she goes! Otherwise you are starting back at square one.

Some breeds of chicken are more prone to broodiness than others, and your hens’ individual personalities will also come into play. Some hens are frequent residents of the broody breaker pen, while others never quite feel that maternal need.