What is a Moult?
Moulting is an annual phenomenon in approx 18 months and older hens. In reality, she will experience her first full moult in her second Autumn, and then every year after that.
Bam! At a time when you think that hens actually need a good feather covering, almost overnight, the coop looks like an explosion in a pillow factory. The girls drop feathers like it’s a drunken pool party in Ibiza. They also renew the scales on their legs too. It can be quite upsetting for people who have not kept hens before, to see how sad they look when they are stripped of their finery. Hens can look really unkempt and uncared for when this happens. The reverse is true, as they are provided with more protein and are not handled too much to avoid pressing the newly forming quills back into their skin. This is the reality of keeping hens.
Once the feathers start to regrow, the hen will look like a pincushion. The incoming feather shafts are called pin or blood feathers. They are dark and look almost blue. In reality, they are filled with blood which is nourishing the newly forming feathers within the shafts. The pin feathers are very easy to damage and can bleed profusely if broken.
Her comb will shrivel and become pink instead of red. Her face will also go pale. This is in response to the reduction in hormones.
A moulting hen will lose condition, she will look quite dejected if she finds herself at the bottom of the pecking order. Other changes in her body will occur such as reversal of the bleaching phenomenon which removed the colour from legs, skin, and vent areas. Legs, skin and vent will return to the original colour as occurs in a non-laying hen.
This affects the pecking order
When a hen moults, her status within the flock plummets, and hens who were once high up in the pecking order will find themselves struggling to find any peace. They are often in hiding places and are unable to eat when they want. This becomes an ideal opportunity for a lower ranking hen who may not yet be moulting, to seize power. Sometimes these once meek hens, turn into little monsters and can really give the shrinking ex-head chickens a really hard time.
In the normal ranking or pecking order the head chicken (always a girl by the way) eats first, then number 2, then number 3 etc. The lowest ranking hens must wait until all the others have eaten and even then must be given permission by those of a higher rank. Such is the life of a lowly hen.
Why do the hens stop laying
A moulting hen needs good quality protein in her food as protein makes feathers, to conjure up new growth. Egg production also uses a lot of protein, therefore, no eggs will be laid for the duration of the moult. Something has to give, as all the protein has to be diverted to their feathering needs. A full moult can last 8 weeks with some hens taking much longer. The moult coincides with the shortening of days which in itself can trigger a shut-off the egg-laying hormones. These will normally be reactivated once the days start to lengthen again after Christmas. Lack of eggs seems like a sort of curse, but it is a good thing. It gives the hens a well-deserved break from the rigours of laying for a few weeks.
Keep your hens on layers pellets during the moult as the calcium will help top up her depleted reserves and the additional protein it contains will be beneficial for the feather production.
Moulting at other times
A mini or partial moult, usually a neck moult or a chest moult, can occur due to stress. Stress can anything from a predator fright, or extremes in the weather, too hot, very wet, very windy. Firework, loud banging, DIY, dogs, or cats will take their toll. It can be caused by you wearing the wrong wellies, or a change in the environment. Getting the picture? Chickens are stressy creatures. Stress can depress their immune response and egg laying can also be interrupted or erratic for a while.