Tumultuous Times in the Coop

A neighbor’s Easter Egger in full molt
A neighbor’s Easter Egger in full molt

In the past couple of weeks, my chicken house looks like several chickens have spontaneously combusted… it’s a cloud of feathers. But every chicken is, luckily, accounted for.

It’s just my Easter-egger going through a late-season molt. Though I know a change in the photoperiod can trigger molt – and most definitely our near-complete absence of light in the winter qualifies – I am always bemused when a chicken starts going nude in the middle of the coldest time to do so. It reminds me of when I used to run dogs, and some of my team would blow their coats in January. You just stand there among the fur piles (or in this case, feathers) and think: “Really? What are you thinking?”

Despite the coop being a chilly 40 degrees at this time of year, Cinnamon doesn’t seem to be bothered by it; she’s had no problems with frost bite, eats heartily and is now growing out a new wardrobe.

It is my (admittedly) unscientific observation that Americanas and Easter-eggers seem to go through a more thorough all-over body molt than do some other breeds. I don’t often have Americanas in my flock – most of my birds are Rocks, Wynadottes, Orpingtons, Cochins and Langshans. They seem to take their molting less seriously, molting more in rotating patches than undergoing a near total de-feathering.

New feathers in various growth stages, Langshan hen.
New feathers in various growth stages, Langshan hen.

I often get questions from poultry newbies experiencing the first molts of their new flock. A full-on molt (such as the one pictured at the top) often alarms a new flock owner – who may assume that that their chickens have some sort of parasite or disease that is causing such severe feather loss. While parasites can be a cause of patchy feather loss, there are two things to keep in mind when confronted with birds that seemingly overnight, have transformed from fluffy handsome henny-penny chickens to bald, goose-pimpled, scrawny things.

First, do inspect your birds. If parasites like lice or mites are to blame, you will be able to see them scurrying around on the skin, and/or your chickens will be picking and scratching. Second, if you haven’t been touring coops or been around other flocks, and your birds haven’t been troubled with external parasites, it is not very likely that your previously healthy and pest-free flock will suddenly become infested, especially in an Alaskan winter.

Keep an eye out for new feather emergence to seal the deal that it is a molt they are experiencing. New feather growth first looks like the chicken’s skin has been peppered with buckshot, but very quickly you will be able to see the feather shafts, at which point your chicken will look a bit porcupine-esque. Usually you will see feathers in all stages of development, as modeled by Wah the Langshan.

Alaska Backyard Chickens is  a resource for Alaskans and others living in northern climates who are interested in keeping chickens. Maintained by the Community Development Agent at  the Cooperative Extension Service/University of Alaska Fairbanks, this site offers  information for the hobbyist flock owner, such as what works (and doesn’t) in arctic coop design, and how to keep flocks healthy and productive through long winters.  While small egg/meat producers are welcome, the site is designed for   those who keep chickens to fulfill their household needs for eggs and meat.  And of course – for people who just think chickens are cool birds!


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