One of the most shocking things to see as a new poultry keeper is chickens going through a moult. Most chickens shed their feathers in late Summer or early Autumn.
Chickens that go into moult will slowly lose their old feathers and new feathers will grow in the place of old. It can be shocking because birds will often look very scruffy and some will look pretty much 'oven ready' which can be quite alarming to see. A partial moult can sometimes take place earlier on in the year although this is usually just the neck feathers that are replaced.
Young birds will shed their feathers twice during the first 6 months of their life although this is a much more gradual process and normally it is only the feathers lying around the run that gives this away, visually, youngsters still carry plenty of feathers. When new feathers are growing through (called 'pin' feathers) it can be painful for a bird to be handled so take care if you need to catch or hold them.
Feathers are 85% protein so when birds moult, replacing their feathers, laying hens will usually stop producing eggs. Eggs are made up mainly of protein and it is too much for a hen to produce new feathers as well as eggs.
Pure breeds usually take longer to moult than hybrid hens. Occasionally hens will lay the odd egg during the moult but most will take a break. When a hen is going to moult, her plumage will take on a very dull appearance. It normally takes about 6 weeks for a young healthy pure breed hen to complete a moult. Older hens will take longer.
During a moult, birds do not lose all of their feathers at the same time. This is because in nature, they still need to be able to escape from predators so they do not lose all of their flight feathers at the same time.
Some poultry keepers supplement their birds diets with additional protein. Amino acids, vitamins and minerals are the basic building blocks of protein, so using vitamin supplements during the moult will help. 'Old timers' often recommend dried cat food as a good source of protein and a handful of this a few times a week can help top up your birds protein levels. Dog food also contains protein but this comes from grains. Cat food protein comes from animals and is rich in amino acids. This additional protein will help them to get back into lay after they have finished their moult but most hens moult in the autumn and early winter so daylight hours will be short and they may not come back into lay until the early spring.
Apple Cider Vinegar is a great help to chickens at times of stress and is packed with vitamins and minerals. It can easily be added to their water to help them through this difficult time. Read more about Apple Cider Vinegar here.
Ensure you don't overdo the mixed corn (called scratch in the U.S.) during the moulting period. Feeding too much corn will reduce the overall protein intake of your birds when they ideally need it to be increased. Chickens will usually prefer eating mixed corn to their layers feed so it is necessary to keep this as a treat.
You can read more about the correct Feeding of Chickens here.
In extreme cases if chickens are not getting enough protein, they will peck at other birds feathers and eat them in order to increase their protein levels. Birds are very vulnerable at this time since it doesn't take much for a wound to appear and chickens love to peck at red blood exasperating the problem. You should always separate a bird if blood is visible.
Remember if you have clipped a wing to stop your chickens from flying, you will need to do this again after the feathers have re-grown. Be very careful not to clip the feathers too early since there is blood inside the quill of a feather when it is growing and if it is cut too soon, it will bleed profusely and be very difficult to stop. Feathers whose quills are full of blood will appear very dark almost black instead of clear / white. Read How to Clip a Chickens Wing for further information on how to do this.
If you think your chickens have finished moulting and should be laying eggs again, then read 'Why have my Chickens Stopped Laying' which could be useful.