Why did the chickens go on strike?

It never fails.

Right about the time the lawn turns crunchy with frost in the mornings and the leaves drop from the trees, it looks like someone had a pillow fight in the chicken compound.

The hens lose their feathers, one by one, during their yearly molt.

That makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? It’s getting cold, so it’s time to lose the down coat and all their protection. Yeah, no.

In true chicken fashion, things like this happen with seemingly no rhyme or reason and they just have to get through it somehow. The rest of us are putting on sweatshirts and their bodies decide to molt.

This is completely normal, and there actually is a good reason for molting during the fall. Shorter day lengths trigger molting for the birds, and the purpose is to have sturdy new feathers to properly insulate them from the impending winter weather.

Molting happens once a year, and all chickens do it. They lose all their feathers, from head to tail feathers, and they grow back in, fresh and new. After it’s all over, the birds look shiny and new, but it’s painful to watch while it’s in flux. This can go on for as long as two or three months, in my experience.

Most chickens never lose all their feathers at once, so they’re not completely naked, which is good. Generally, my chickens start losing feathers at the top of their bodies, and the molting progresses down to the tail feathers, so for a while, it appears that they were half-plucked by an unfortunate encounter with a Weed Eater.

While you might think the worst thing about molting is the awkward appearance of the chickens, there is an added detriment for us humans who are keeping the chickens for egg production. All that protein the hens’ bodies normally channel into laying eggs is diverted into making new feathers. That means some hens only lay eggs occasionally during molting, and some lay none at all.

Although egg production slows over the lifetime of a hen, young hens generally produce an egg a day. During molt, I’m lucky to get two eggs a day out of a flock of six hens, so that tells you what breakfast at our house is like right now.

So what is a backyard chicken keeper to do? This nature thing is all very inconvenient.

My first concern is making sure the hens don’t peck at each others’ developing feathers. Chickens are curious, and they peck at everything, including each other. An experimental peck to a pinfeather can draw blood, and that’s where cannibalism starts, so I keep a close eye on the flock to watch for any sign of that.

I try not to harass the ladies too much about going on strike, and I ration the eggs until their feathers grow back. I also give them high-protein treats with the hope it will give them a nutritional boost and speed the process along. Black sunflower seeds, in particular, seem to be popular and also offer important amino acids.

But aren’t the chickens cold? I get that question a lot. There is no risk of frostbite right now, and I keep a close eye on the temperatures just in case we get a cold snap. But for the most part they’re fine. Chickens are more resilient than you think.

Don’t expect to see the ladies of the Poulet Chalet sporting any chicken sweaters this season. Trust me, they’ll be fine, and I’m terrible at knitting.

Erin McIntyre is an advanced master gardener and journalist who hosts “Diggin’ the Garden,” the second Wednesday of every month at noon on KAFM 88.1. Email her at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) with story ideas or feedback.


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