About Molting

Molting is a natural process of the shedding and replacement of old
feathers that occurs about once a year. Chickens usually drop their
feathers in "sections" (to avoid being completely bald at any one time).
The order of this process is fairly well defined. It usually starts at the head
and moves to the neck, breast, thighs, back, wings, and tail. Molting puts
added strain on the birds due to hormonal changes and increased
nutrional requirements (particularly protein). Egg production during this
time is drastically reduced if not ceased. My flock of 25 birds went from
giving nearly 2 dozens eggs daily down to just three or four as most of the
birds were in molt! As in egg production the molt is related to day light
hours with decreasing light triggering the molt. Chickens that have been
laying heavily for at least a year molt easily in the fall (which is the natural
molting season). . Usually the a flock will molt all at the same time of
course some birds will molt earlier and some later. It is said that a good,
well maintained flock will molt rapidly and late in the season. After the old
feathes fall out, new ones will gradually poke through the skin. These are
referred to as "pin" or "blood" feathers (as have a large central blood
vessel and bleed excessively if damaged). These pin feathers appear as
small "tubes" as they are wrapped in a keratin sheath that the chicken will
then preen off to "unfurl" the feather fully (see pics).

Sometimes stresses such as temporary food or water shortages, disease, or
unseasonably cold temperatures can cause a molt. Commerical egg farms
will sometimes take advantage of this to "force molt" all their hens
simultaneously by withholding food and/or water. Why do this? Well the
problem with artificial lighting and a controlled indoor climate (usually
associated with commercial operations) is that the birds lose their natural
cues to go into molt. Sometimes they do not molt at all and this causes a
gradual decline in egg production. Because during the natural process of
molting, the reproductive tract of the hen is somewhat "rejuvenated" and
the bird will again produce eggs at near peak levels afterwards. As such,
commercial operations sometimes use "force molting" to make certain all
the hens (sometimes numbering in the 100's of thousands) molt and
"rejuvenate" for peak production. Of course this process is somewhat
cruel and completely unnecessary in a small scale hen house.
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