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?!”
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.
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.
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.
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.