Now that the light has changed and we hurtle into fall and winter, it’s time for all style-conscious folks to update their looks. We here at the Abbey are rocking new haircuts (Coop Mistress and DH), the start of velvety winter coats (Cookies and Linus), and that time-honored style that chickens everywhere absolutely love (not): molting. Like so many things in nature that we pretend don’t apply to humans, light levels affect chickens’ reproductive cycle and how their bodies replenish themselves; as the hours of daylight decrease, the ladies’ egg production slows down and the casting off of old, last-season feathers begins.
Chickens generally have a juvenile molt when they are about 4 months old, and then an annual molt at around 16 months of age and every year after, usually in the fall but this varies. Some chickens molt hard and fast and lose the bulk of their feathers at once; others do it gradually. Typically, molting starts with a buildup of fluffiness as new pin feathers grow in and start to displace the current ones. Jenny models hard-core back feather fluffiness here.
Sally, meanwhile, shows us leg and rear end fluffiness in extremis.
As the first of our hens to lay eggs, Alice was the first to go into full molt mode, too. Her molt pattern is slightly different because she was regrowing back feathers that had been pulled out by an overly exuberant rooster. Once those were well under way, she followed one of the typical patterns (though these vary depending on the individual hen): primary wing feathers dropping off one by one, followed by a profusion of fluffy body feathers, and the complete loss of tail feathers. Without her tail feathers, she reminds me of a button quail (sorry, Alice). She also has loads of pin feathers on her head, cheeks and chin, which give her a porcupine-ish look.
Pumpkin, our second to lay, is also our second to molt. She is in wing and fluffy body feather shedding mode right now, and her tail feathers look like they’re about to drop any second.
Nutmeg seems to be heading towards losing the tail feathers first, as can be seen in how far they are sticking out. She looks like she’s wearing a shark fin on her rump.
Amusing as it is for onlookers, molting is really uncomfortable for the chicken. Pin feathers have blood vessels in them so if they break for some reason, they bleed. They also are very sensitive to touch. Alice is usually a cuddle bug but she runs from me now, not wanting to be picked up lest I accidentally bump her poor pin feathers. Pumpkin has been sitting in the coop growling and sulking for the past two days. I imagine that between the physical sensation of growing new feathers plus the altered hormonal state that accompanies it and slows down the laying, they must feel pretty miserable. So everyone has been getting extra, protein-rich treats to support feather growth and lots of commiseration.
But like most things having to do with high fashion, all the suffering turns out to be
worth it. When the new feathers are in, they are shiny, beautiful, and so, so soft. Our old hen Dreamer, who was golden with her first suit of feathers, picked up copper and silver highlights with each molt and got progressively softer. Hang in there, ladies. This too shall pass and you will be strutting your stuff in no time. Meanwhile, I need to come up with some cool craft ideas for all these gorgeous feathers that are all over the place . . .