The biggest topic of conversation amongst the Hipster Hens these days is the fall molt. As summer wanes, the shortening days are a signal to chickens everywhere that it is time to drop their feathers and grow new ones that will help them get through the upcoming cold winter. Each chicken has thousands of feathers, and each one will drop so it can be replaced. Needless to say, the coop is taking on the appearance of the aftermath of a pillow fight gone really wrong. And then there are all those hens wandering around looking embarrassingly disheveled. Not all hens start molting at the same time, nor do they all molt at the same rate, but many of them have bare patches of skin right now and others look like porcupines as the pin feathers that will eventually grow into real feathers emerge from their skin.
|Feathers in the Dust Bath: The hens can "wash" off a lot of feathers while dust bathing|
The rule of thumb is that the ugliest hens at molting time are the best egg-laying hens. Egg and feathers are both mostly composed of protein, so a hen needs lots of protein to produce both, and if she’s making a lot of feathers, it would be really hard to make eggs at the same time. So egg production falls off dramatically during the molt. The good layers drop a lot of feathers all at once and get their molt over with in a couple of months, while the poor egg layers molt more gradually—they can take as long as six months. They eventually resume laying eggs when they’re completely satisfied that each feather is in place and their plumage is impeccably perfect. So all those pretty hens with the sleek and glossy feathers are generally real slackers in the egg-laying department.
|Veronica Molts: Veronica, my most heavy-hitting green egg layer, sprouts pin feathers in a patch that was bare skin just a few days ago.|
The egg count yesterday was seven, by the way. Seven eggs for the entire flock! And four of them came from the four Legbar pullets. The Legbars won’t molt and should keep their production up through the entire winter. Why? Well, these girls are just six months old. They’ve already gone through several “juvenile molts” in the first six months of their lives and are good to go with the feathers they’ve got until they’re 18 months old a year from now. Then they’ll have their first adult molt along with all the other hens. And because they’re young and vigorous, I should be getting an egg almost every day from each of them until then.
|Paulette, Nicky, and Marissa: No molt for the Legbar pullets!|
While it is unusual, hens sometimes go through molts at times of the year other than fall. For instance, I reported on Angitou molting in May and Arlene molting in July. Chickens that molt mid-year may or may not molt again in the fall—it depends on the extent of their molt, when it occurred and a whole slew of other variables. So far, Arlene is still laying and shows no sign of molting. Angitou, on the other hand, is not laying and is beginning to look a little like a porcupine. Mid-year molts are often stress-related and as I mentioned in my first post in my series on cruel hen cages, the commercial egg industry use this circumstance to force hens to molt. All the hens in a flock don’t start their molt at the same time, and the egg industry finds this imprecision annoying. So hens in many commercial flocks are stressed by manipulating the light, by withholding water, and by starving them. This practice is not legal in many countries and the Egg Bill that was before Congress in 2012 and 2013 that I reported on last week would have made it an illegal practice in the U.S., but that legislation did not pass. Needless to say, the Hipster Hens don’t get that sort of treatment.
So what do I do with my molting Hipster Hens? Well, the poor girls need more protein to make all those feathers. Some folks start giving their hens all sorts of high-protein food like meal worms and even cat food. While hens love this kind of stuff, it's kind of pricey and too much over a long period of time can actually cause kidney damage, gout, and other problems. So I just switch to a commercial feed with a higher protein content. And I avoid handling them a lot. All those pin feathers are sensitive. They're called pin feathers, after all - and when a hen has a whole bunch of them sticking out of her skin, it probably feels just like you can imagine it would feel! And other than that, I just tell the girls to be patient and that they'll get through this - and when they're done they'll be covered from head to toe with shiny new feathers!