by Meredith ChilsonMost of the girls in my flock were 3 years old in May. The Buff Orpingtons and the Rhode Island Reds started laying eggs in September 2008. In 2010, I added three more birds … a Silkie and a couple of mixed breed ladies. They are healthy birds, good winter layers, curious and friendly, too.
Several weeks ago, I noticed piles and piles of feathers in the yard and the coop. The egg production was down, too, and often I would find a very small egg or even a soft-shelled egg in the nest box. The hens were looking pretty scruffy, too; their heads had very few feathers, some of their wings looked like the girls had scrubbed them up against a wall, and often the birds would only have one tail feather, sticking straight up!
Now, I’m not new at chicken farming. I absolutely recognize the signs of molting. This is an annual chicken coop event. I was prepared for only a few eggs to be gathered a day. What I was not prepared for this year was the total lack of egg production. Three days now, and nothing. Not one egg. Zilch.
I have been trying to remember what it is I know about the molt in laying hens. I thought that the molt occurred in laying hens in response to fewer hours of day light. I am certain that molting can also happen in response to stress—a predator attack or a chase by children, a change in housing or even in feed. But…what do I really know? Not enough, it seems.
First, I turned to the Internet for answers. According to Cornell University (www.birds.cornell.edu), all birds lose their old feathers and build new ones. The building of new feathers, which are primarily formed from the protein keratin, takes a lot of energy. In wild birds, molting coincides with periods of “less strenuous demands, such as after nesting or before migration.” In laying hens, it does appear that the shorter daylight hours of autumn will stimulate a molt.
The age of the bird doesn’t make much difference as far as molting, but it can effect egg production. Most birds will taper off egg-laying after 3 or 4 years, but may still lay an egg or two a month even after 8 or more years.
Birds lose their feathers in a predictable manner, beginning with their heads and necks, following through to their tails. Even the feathers on their wings are lost in a predictable order. New feathers should begin to grow very soon after the old feathers are lost.
I also learned that there are “early” molters and “late” molters. Late molters are the hens that are good layers and will usually not have a molt until they have been laying eggs for almost a year. When they do begin to lose their feathers, they tend to do so rapidly, and new feathers will be growing in at the same time and same rate. These birds often return to full egg production within two to three months. Early molters do the opposite. They may only lay for a few months before they begin to lose a feather or two, and may take six months or more to complete a molt. My resources (and my instincts) say these are the birds to cull!
|Three new wing feathers the same length!!|
My “go-to” book, Jay Rossiter’s Living With Chickens, adds a bit more information. In addition to explaining how molts are often forced in commercial egg-laying operations where hens are managed intensively, he also tells more about the regrowth of feathers, especially wing feathers. “The ten primary flight feathers that every chicken has at the end of each wing are particularly predictable … a slow molter loses just one primary at a time. Each of these feathers takes 6 weeks to grow back. … A quick molting bird will shed the feathers in groups of two or three.” If you can see two or three new wing feathers that are the same length, you have a faster (“late”) molting chicken.
It’s interesting to me that the chapter in this book, on molting, is followed directly by the chapter on butchering your birds. I’m not sure I’m ready to do this, although I will admit I did give them a stern talking-to yesterday (“…if I have to buy eggs somewhere else, I’m not going to be happy about buying chicken feed, too…”). I kept searching for suggestions on moving the molt along …
I can’t add more light to the coop. My girls work with natural light; there’s no power to their coop. I already make sure they have plenty of fresh water and feed. I think maybe I might add more protein to their diet, since it sounds reasonable to me that they would need more amino acids to make feathers. I have a huge patch of comfrey; an armful of this everyday would help. If I had an earthworm garden, this would be great, too. I don’t, but I have a source for goats’ milk. I’ve heard that some people add alfalfa tablets to their feed, too.
|Hens on Strike?|
I think if I’m patient, keep the chicken coop clean, and listen carefully to the hens’ demands (More Protein! More Light!), and compromise a bit, I should be able to put down the strike before long. I hope so. I have baking to do!