It’s that time of year again, when our coops are full of feathers versus full of eggs. Those of us with birds in molt undoubtedly sympathize with our poor chooks as they go through their annual awkward phase. Chickens discard their old, scruffy feathers and grow in healthy new plumage, but molting involves much more than unappealing appearances.
Chickens in molt put the majority of their body’s energy into producing replacement feathers. As a result, hens do not lay during this period.
Effects of Molting
Since molting usually completes in late fall, daylight will have minimized beyond that required for egg production. In other words, egg production is over for the year. A molting chicken is also at risk of both physical and weather-related injury, since feathers both help protect its skin and regulate its body temperature.
The latter is especially true if a bird molts in late autumn, when temperatures dramatically drop.
Molting can also profoundly affect the physiology of your chickens. Feathers are comprised mostly of keratin, a type of protein found in hair, hooves and fingernails. A chicken’s feathers account for approximately 25 percent of its body’s total protein. If not fed a protein-rich diet during molting season, a bird’s body will naturally tap into other sources—specifically, its own body—to obtain the protein it needs to replenish its plumage.
Since protein is vital to the creation and revitalization of body tissue, diverting protein to feather development can result in weak, sickly birds.
How Keepers Can Help
Fortunately, we flock keepers can quite easily help our minimally feathered friends through this yearly rough patch. No medicines, injectable vitamins or chemical additives are necessary.
All that’s required on our part is offering our flocks the proper feed and supplementing this with healthful, protein-rich foods. Here are five widely available protein options for molting chickens.
Layer rations typically contain approximately 16 percent protein. While this protein level is sufficient at other times of the year, it is inadequate during molting season.
According to Dr. Ashley Navarrette, a clinical assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, molting birds require feed with at least 20 percent protein to provide the nutrients necessary for feather regrowth. Game-bird feed and broiler rations contain higher protein levels (to fuel these birds’ rapid growth) and can be substituted during molt to boost a flock’s protein intake.
While it’s true that our stash of eggs will dwindle rapidly due to our molting hens’ lack of lay, eggs remain an excellent source of protein for our flock. Scrambled eggs and hard-boiled eggs can be roughly chopped up and offered a few times per week during molting season.
Make absolutely certain that the eggs you offer completely hard cooked through versus softly cooked and runny. I recommend feeding your flock supplemental eggs out in the run, a good distance from the coop and nest boxes.
These chicken favorites have become increasingly popular amongst flock owners and hence much easier to find than they were a decade ago. Many feed shops and farm-supply stores carry dried mealworms alongside other packaged poultry snacks in the feed aisle. They can also be found (usually at a cheaper price) in the wild bird seed section there and at home-improvement stores.
“Cheaper” is relative, however, as a small bag can still cost a pretty penny. If possible, buy dried mealworms in bulk. Believe me, your chickens will go through them! Sprinkle mealworms on chicken feed, scatter them throughout the run, or—if your flock is docile and friendly—offer them in the palm of your hand.
Full of protein and tasty, too, sunflower hearts—dehusked sunflower seeds—are a simple supplement to offer your birds. They are simple to find (feed shops, farm-supply stores, wild-bird stores, even supermarkets) and simple to feed. Toss them out and your flock will gobble them up!
Offer them the same way you would offer mealworms. If sunflower hearts are unavailable, shelled sunflower seeds work well, too. If you are buying these at a supermarket, make certain they have not been seasoned or flavored for human consumption.
Chunky Peanut Butter
An excellent source of protein for humans and molting chickens alike, chunky peanut butter—the kind with coarsely chopped peanuts incorporated into the butter—offers birds flavor, texture and the nutritional boost they need. Offer a sizable scoop on a paper plate or square of thick cardboard set in their midst.
It may seem strange and alien to them at first. But eventually one inquisitive chicken will venture forth to tentatively peck at the gloppy brown intruder.
It may help to lightly sprinkle dried mealworms or sunflower hearts—recognizable treats—over the surface of the peanut butter to encourage the birds. Offer peanut butter occasionally—perhaps once a week—since its pasty nature may result in peanut butter-bound beaks.
Skip the Beans!
Dried beans may seem like the perfect solution for boosting your birds’ protein intake. They’re inexpensive, easy to find and store well.
Unfortunately, feeding your flock dry—or raw—beans can be a death sentence for them. Dried and raw beans contain a chemical called phytohaemagglutinin (PHA), which is toxic to chickens in very small amounts.
PHA affects a bird’s immune system and can damage the liver, kidneys, pancreas and reproductive organs. It can even can lead to death.
If prepared correctly—cooked for 6 hours and well rinsed— beans are perfectly safe for chickens to consume. I, however, prefer to give my chickens the other protein supplements I’ve suggested and keep the beans for my family’s dinner table.