Backyard Chicken Feather Loss

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by Richard Goforth

Do your chickens look like they need the Hair Club for Hens? Chickens lose feathers for a variety of reasons and most are just part of the normal cycle of poultry life.

Chickens naturally drop feathers as part of the molting process that occurs when a hen comes to the end of her laying cycle, which for a naturally lighted, in-season bird starts in late December or early January and lasts for about six to eight weeks. During this time, hens drop a few feathers each day and start regrowing them in the order they are lost, starting with the primary wing feathers. While molting, egg laying usually stops. However, since each hen is operating on her own cycle, if your flock is large enough, or you have mixed ages or breeds, you may maintain some egg production. If you have a rooster in your flock, the mating process can also lead to some feather loss, though this typically occurs on the backs and necks of the hens. If your flock is losing feathers from the vent area (chicken posteriors), or you notice that feathers look chewed or covered in dandruff-like debris, the birds may have lice or mites.

When you notice blood, see whole feathers, or hear or see birds pulling feathers from one another, you have a social issue to deal with. Feather-picking can be a tough problem to solve, but like many things, the sooner you realize it is occurring and take action, the easier it is to stop it. Birds may pick feathers for a variety of reasons, so there is no one silver bullet approach to stopping it, and many of the cures below may be used instead as prevention.

  • First, space is often a contributing factor. Make sure chickens have at least 2 square feet of floor space if in constant confinement; if they have access to a run or yard for several hours the coop can be smaller.
  • Maintain adequate feeder, drinker and nest space as well; namely 3-4 inches of feeder and drinker space per bird and a nest box for each 3-4 hens.
  • Allow 6-8 inches of roost space also if your coop has roosting poles. I am sure many of you have heard the term “Pecking Order”. Chickens are social animals and this is their system of hierarchy; establishing this dominance can lead to some feather picking. Upsetting the established hierarchy by introducing new birds, or having several ages or breeds in a flock, can lead to some birds being bullied. Sometimes only one or two birds cause the damage, so if you can identify the offenders, isolation or permanent removal can bring peace to the flock.
  • Finally, some breeds are more likely to pick feathers than others. Examining the parent flock is a good indicator of how the chicks will behave when they are grown.

If you have further questions about feather loss, poultry or other agriculture related topics, contact Anthony Growe at the Richmond County Extension office at amgrowe@ncsu.edu or (910) 997-8255.

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