Are Your Chickens Losing Their Feathers? Here Are The 11 Most Common Causes of Chicken Feather Loss
Yikes! The sight of a chicken losing feathers is scary, especially if they look like a bald pin cushion with bloody tips! But don’t pluck out your own hair in panic just yet. You usually don’t have to worry because in most cases, it’s completely natural!
Here are the most common causes of chicken feather loss and what you can do about them.
Chickens change their feathers in a process called molting. It’s completely natural and happens at least once a year. Get to know more about this common cause of chicken feather loss and how it affects your flock.
Molting happens a lot of times throughout a chicken’s life. It starts after they hatch. Every time a chicken changes their feathers they go through a molt.
Chicks come out of their shell covered in fluff. And then they start to feather after a few days. That’s the first molt. They lose their fluffy down feathers for their big kid feathers. At this stage, the future hens and roosters still look pretty much the same.
As they grow, they need new feathers—kind of like how kids need bigger clothes every few months. The chicks go through their second juvenile molt at around 7-12 weeks (1).
During this molt, the teenage boys get their fly, grown-up feathers, and bright red combs. If you weren’t sure of sexes before this point, you could clearly tell them apart now.
Molting continues even after the chickens get their adult feathers. But it doesn’t happen as often as when they were young.
The molting process occurs when daylight gets shorter, and the chickens need to prepare for winter (2). Think of it like how you switch your wardrobe to match the season.
Some chickens molt gradually in a soft molt. They lose their feathers in sections, starting from the head and working down to the tail. Although, some breeds like the Phoenix Chicken don’t molt their tail feathers at all. These majestic birds grow their tail feathers continuously throughout their lives. That’s why they grow so long.
Other chickens lose feathers through a hard molt. It’s when they lose all their feathers at once. They look naked with pin feathers sticking out. Yes, it seems scary but totally normal for some breeds.
It’s a more painful molt, like having all your hair plucked out. The growing pin feathers are also more sensitive. So, it’s better to keep these guys isolated, or else other chickens might peck at them.
Molting takes time, usually 8-12 weeks (3). Plymouth Rock chickens are one of the fastest natural molters, which means they can go back to work way faster than other chicken breeds. That’s right, egg-laying stops during the molting phase. So prepare to cut down on eggs for a while.
Commercial chicken keepers can’t afford to wait a long time for molting. So some factory owners force the chickens to lose their feathers at the same time.
People play around with stress to trick backyard chickens into losing their feathers. They put them into starvation mode, triggering molting on a large scale. But why put chickens into such a bad situation? Well, because layers produce more eggs after an induced molt (4).
“When birds return to full feed, a new plumage develops, and the birds resume egg production at a higher rate with better egg quality.”
Commercially, it’s a profitable method for getting more eggs of better quality. But it’s highly debatable as far as ethics go.
Affected areas: The whole body and head, either in sections or all at once.
- Avoid handling to reduce stress.
- Isolate hard molting chickens to prevent pecking injury.
II. Behavioral Causes
Natural and seasonal changes aren’t the only reasons why your chicken is missing feathers. Factors in their daily chicken life also cause feather loss.
There’s nothing like a broody momma hen’s love. Feather picking is normal behavior for broody hens. They usually pluck their lower breast feathers so that their eggs receive direct warmth from her body. Sort of like how skin-to-skin contact works for newborn babies. Don’t be surprised that part of her belly feathers is missing too.
It’s an instinct. So don’t worry about it, unless you don’t want a broody hen. Remember that hens also stop laying eggs when they go broody – they spend most of their time sitting and waiting for the eggs to hatch.
Since hens can’t tell if she has fertilized eggs, they can spend the rest of their lives sitting on the eggs. And, that’s not good because a broody hen eats less and loses a lot of weight (5).
If you want continuous egg supply and a fully feathered hen, break the sitting habit by taking out the clutch of eggs. Make sure you do this early on because other hens can go broody too.
Affected areas: Chest and belly area
- Break the broodiness if the eggs aren’t fertilized.
- Feed the hen chick starter after the eggs hatch to get her weight back to normal.
- Keep the broody hen isolated from other hens to prevent pecking.
It’s natural for roosters to tug on the hen’s back feathers while mating. After all, it’s how he stays on her. His beak pulls nape feathers, and his claws grab onto the hen’s back. But sometimes, they can be aggressive, especially if there aren’t many hens to mate with.
Favoritism makes things worse. If a rooster only chooses to mate with a particular hen, that hen is bound to go bald. You can prevent this by keeping a saddle on your hens to protect their feathers.
If the hen is already bald, the hens are at risk of skin injury because of continued mounting. Make sure you keep an eye on mating chickens and isolate any chicken missing feathers. And give your rooster a lot of options by keeping more than eight hens to one rooster. It’s an excellent way to reduce female chicken feather loss.
Affected areas: Back and nape of hens
- Keep more hens with one rooster
- Isolate the favorite hen
- Trim the rooster’s nails and spurs
6. Pecking Problems
Chickens naturally peck for a lot of reasons. Their beaks are pretty much like their hands. They use it to investigate things or move things aside while foraging. But they also use it to communicate with chickens, like body language.
Pecking becomes an issue when chickens do it to bully other flock members by pecking each other. And I mean the kind that goes beyond the rules of the pecking order.
Bullying is common in chickens too. Sometimes it happens because the bully is a naturally aggressive breed.
Too many birds in a small area can be annoying, so hens start pecking each other’s feathers, telling them to get out of their way.
In this case, you need to do something about it. If you let this aggressive behavior continue, it can lead to cannibalism (6). Chickens tend to gang up on weak and injured flock members.
Affected areas: Usually the head. Or in layers, the tail or vent area
- Keep an eye out for extra aggressive chickens.
- Make sure laying hens have enough nesting boxes so they don’t fight over space.
- Isolate very aggressive chickens to avoid others copying the behavior.
- In worst cases, trim beaks to prevent further injury.
Preening is basically chicken talk for grooming. Chickens use their beaks to get natural oils from their preen gland and spread them on their feathers.
It’s natural feather care for chickens because the oils keep their feathers healthy and shiny. Think of it like running your fingers through your hair to spread the natural oils from your scalp.
But why is this a featherless chicken problem? Well, chickens that don’t produce as much oil tend to start pecking at their preen glands. Like, “Hey oil, come out of there. I need you,” And if they don’t find it on their bodies, they start pecking each other.
Sometimes, this is okay since preening is usually a group grooming session (7), and chickens do not lose a lot of feathers. But sometimes chickens don’t want to share their preen oils, and feather pecking starts. So much for a calming chicken spa day!
Affected areas: Tail and bottom tail feathers
- Keep an eye out for excess feather loss in the rump region
- Check the feather quality of chickens
- If they look a little dull, give Vitamin A supplements to promote oil production.
You know the idiom “pulling your hair out” when you’re stressed figuring something out? Well, chickens take that literally when they’re stressed. As you all know, there are many causes of stress. A lot of them hit closer to home than you might think.
Let’s make a people-chicken stress analogy:
- Colleague/friend drama – flock dynamic issues
- Bullying – Bullying
- Sharing a room – overcrowded chicken coop
- Broken air conditioning – coop temperature fluctuations
- Hangry – inadequate nutrition
See, what is stressful for you is also stressful to your chickens. And a lot of it relates to the housing conditions you put them in (8). It’s the main reason why there is a guideline for how many chickens you should keep in a particular sized coop.
Happy chickens don’t just pluck out their feathers or their flockmates’ plumage. So do everyone a favor and keep your chickens stress-free. Mental health is not only a priority for people, people.
Affected areas: It depends on the stress factor.
- Nesting box issues – Rump feather loss
- Pecking order problems – Head or neck balding
- Overcrowding/bullying – Random bald patches
- Don’t overcrowd chickens in a chicken coop.
- Give them time to free-range whenever possible.
- Isolate overly aggressive chickens
- Isolate injured chickens to prevent further injury.
- Make sure chickens don’t overheat or get too cold.
- Give them a proper diet.
III. Health Issues
We already touched on chicken mental health. But let’s dive deeper into physical health, chicken diseases, and how these cause balding.
The “you are what you eat” phrase applies to chickens. Healthy birds have shiny, lush plumage- not the kind that looks like they came fresh out of a tumble cycle of a laundry drier.
So, aside from giving chickens the right amount of food. You need to provide them with the proper nutrients, too (8).
“When birds receive inadequate amounts of protein, phosphorus, and sodium in their diet, an excessive high-energy and low-fiber diet, or lack of fresh greens, they can develop aggressive behavior.”
Feathers are made of protein, just like hair and nails. Some chickens peck at feathers because they don’t have enough protein in their diet. It’s their way of satisfying a nutritional craving.
Affected areas: Random patches but chickens can favor one spot where they can see skin.
- Give a properly balanced diet with a good amount of protein content
- Allow free-ranging to divert pecking each other into foraging.
10. Fungal Infections
Skin health causes feather loss much like it makes hair loss in humans. Losing feathers depends on the fungi culprit. Here are some of the common fungal infections that cause chicken feather loss.
a. Vent Gleet
This infection is actually a digestive issue, but it also irritates the chicken’s cloaca. When watery droppings come out the vent, it usually stays on the surrounding feathers.
It also affects the overall feather health because of the lack of nutrition. Chickens lose their appetite, and it shows through the dull and dry plumage (9).
Affected areas: Vent
- Feed proper diet
- Wash the vent and surrounding feathers regularly
- Balance the poop pH by adding citric acid or vinegar to their water
- Give antibiotics/anti-fungal medicine.
b. Ringworm (Favus)
If you notice some white moldy or dandruff-y looking patches on your chicken’s head, then it might have the case of ringworms (10). It’s a fungal infection caused by Microsporum gallinae.
It usually stays on the combs and resolves after a few months. But sometimes, it migrates to the feathers. When this happens, your chickens could stop eating and eventually die.
Affected areas: Comb, head, and neck feathers
- Wear gloves and isolate your infected chickens.
- Expose your infected chickens to sunlight – it’s a classic mold remedy.
- Use athlete’s foot ointment on the comb.
- Mix some betadine into your chicken’s bathwater.
11. Parasitic Infestations
Mites and lice affect chickens pretty much like they do dogs and humans. Skin irritation comes with brown flecks (mites) or white dots (lice). Mites are sneakier because they do their bloody work at night, sort of like bed bugs.
Check your chicken’s plumage regularly. Parasite infestation is contagious. The earlier you prevent the spread, the easier it is to fix it.
Also, make sure that you keep the chicken coop clean and change the bedding often. Parasites cause more harm than just feather loss in chickens. They also cause anemia through regular blood-sucking (11).
Affected areas: Vent, tail, and breast
- Clean chicken housing and surroundings regularly.
- Change beddings often.
- Use topical antiparasitic for itch relief.
- Supplement diet with iron.
- Give them a dust bathing spot.
Most of the causes for chicken feather loss are either natural or housing-related. You can’t really do much to prevent molting, broody and mating behaviors. But you can control the more severe effects of poor housing.
As backyard chicken owners, it’s your job to provide a suitable environment for your birds. A nice, clean, safe place with healthy food for your chickens goes a long way in keeping their feathers intact.
Yes, a chicken losing feathers is in pain – no matter what the cause is. It’s more like pulling a loose tooth than pulling a strand of hair, just in terms of size.
Think about it; chicken feathers are WAY thicker than a human hair. That means bigger nerve endings and blood vessels. Plucking one out is sure to hurt, sometimes even bleed; now imagine pulling all of it?
Growing feathers hurts too. New feathers poke out of the already sensitive skin. It’s no wonder chickens don’t like to be touched while they lose feathers.
You should feed chickens a high protein diet after feather loss. You can give hens chick starter or layer feed to plump up after brooding or molting. Chicken plumage consists mainly of protein, so they need a lot of it to regrow their locks.
That’s also why hens stop laying eggs during a molt. The protein supply transfers from yolk production to feather production. Even if you increase their protein intake, their bodies can only do one of those tasks at a time.
Yes, plucked chicken feathers always grow back. As we said, it’s like hair. Unless your chicken gets badly burned or injured, that follicle nerve damage happens. In that case, feathers won’t grow back.
Make sure you keep your chickens safe from heat lamps and bullies. Even mild feather burns or breakage will always molt away and grow back.
- Chicken Molting in the Fall: Know the Essentials. Retrieved from: https://www.newheritagefeedco.com/chickens-molting-in-fall/
- Moulting and the laying hen. Retrieved from: https://www.business.qld.gov.au/industries/farms-fishing-forestry/agriculture/livestock/poultry/diseases-health-management/moulting-feather-loss/laying-hen
- Moulting Season. Retrieved from: https://www.bhwt.org.uk/health-welfare/moulting-season/
- Welfare Implications of Induced Molting of Layer Chickens. Retrieved from: https://www.avma.org/resources-tools/literature-reviews/welfare-implications-induced-molting-layer-chickens
- What to Do with a Broody Hen. Retrieved from: https://starmilling.com/what-to-do-with-a-broody-hen/
- Understanding Pecking Behavior in the Poultry Industry. Retrieved from: https://avicultura.info/en/understanding-pecking-behavior-in-the-poultry-industry/
- Normal Behaviors of Chickens in Small and Backyard Poultry Flocks. Retrieved from: https://poultry.extension.org/articles/poultry-behavior/normal-behaviors-of-chickens-in-small-and-backyard-poultry-flocks/
- Severe Feather-Pecking. Retrieved from: http://www.poultrydvm.com/condition/feather-picking
- Vent Gleet. Retrieved from: https://www.birdhealth.com.au/vent-gleet
- Common Infectious Diseases from Backyard Poultry. Retrieved from: https://www.merckvetmanual.com/exotic-and-laboratory-animals/backyard-poultry/common-infectious-diseases-in-backyard-poultry
- Mites and Lice in Chickens. Retrieved from: https://thecapecoop.com/mites-lice-chickens/
Tana grew up around island farms and pine forests. Her love for nature lead to her degree in Biology and mission to lessen her environmental impact. Now she grows food in her backyard and shares what she learns from Eco Peanut with others.