The Au­tumn Moult

By Julie Moore

Country Smallholding - - Inside this month -

Aflurry of feath­ers swirling around me and gently drift­ing to the floor greeted me when I opened the coop door this morn­ing. As Bella emerged, keep­ing as low to the ground as pos­si­ble, al­most glid­ing across the grass and look­ing ex­tremely em­bar­rassed about her new found nu­dity, my sus­pi­cions were con­firmed — the au­tumn moult had started.

While Bella may be the first in my flock to start los­ing feath­ers, she won’t be the last. Over the next month or so, the coop and gar­den will be lit­tered with cast-off feath­ers as the rest of the flock dis­card their old ones and grow new be­fore the on­set of win­ter.

Chick­ens fluff their feath­ers when they get cold, trap­ping a layer of air warmed by their bod­ies be­tween the skin and feath­ers thus cre­at­ing a buf­fer against the cold. If the feath­ers are old, dirty or bro­ken they won’t in­su­late the bird so well. Grow­ing new feath­ers be­fore win­ter en­sures that your hens will be able to keep them­selves warm when the colder weather ar­rives.

A moult­ing flock can be a dis­turb­ing sight, es­pe­cially to first-time chicken keep­ers, with some look­ing as though they are ‘oven ready’, while those fur­ther into their moult re­sem­ble hedge­hogs as new plumage emerges.

Moult­ing is per­fectly nat­u­ral and a nor­mal part of a bird’s life­cy­cle. The de­creas­ing day­light hours in late sum­mer and early au­tumn, to­gether with the end of the egg-lay­ing cy­cle, nor­mally trig­gers the moult­ing process. How­ever, a par­tial moult can oc­cur at any time and is brought on by stress, such as a change of diet, a lack of wa­ter, or a fox or bird of prey vis­it­ing the gar­den.

The or­der of things

Chick­ens moult in a cer­tain or­der: start­ing at the head, then moving down the body from the neck, then the chest, back, wings, back­sides and tail.

Like hair and fin­ger­nails, feath­ers are prin­ci­pally made up of a strong pro­tein fi­bre called ker­atin. As eggs are made up mainly of pro­tein as well, it is too much of a drain on re­sources for a hen to pro­duce new feath­ers and con­tinue to lay eggs si­mul­ta­ne­ously. Think of it as Mother Na­ture’s way of pro­vid­ing lay­ers with a rest pe­riod. I cer­tainly don’t be­grudge my girls their well-earned sab­bat­i­cal.

I have found that my poor lay­ers and older hens typ­i­cally moult early, shed­ding their feath­ers slowly and re­plac­ing them slowly — the process taking up to seven months.

My good lay­ers tend to moult late in the year, of­ten shed­ding all their feath­ers at once. This, though, is a quick process as the feath­ers are shed and re-grow all at once, taking ap­prox­i­mately two to three months to com­plete, thus al­low­ing them to re­turn to full pro­duc­tion sooner, un­less, of course, the day­light hours are too short.

If you have clipped a wing to stop your chick­ens from fly­ing, you will need to clip the wing again after the new feath­ers have fully re-grown. It is ex­tremely im­por­tant not to cut the feath­ers too early when the shafts are dark. This is be­cause there is a blood-filled vein in­side the shaft while the feather is grow­ing and, if cut, it will bleed pro­fusely. Wait un­til the blood has dried out and the quill is white or clear as this will sig­nify that the feather is fully grown.

Pure Pick-me-ups

The moult it­self is a stress­ful time for chick­ens. Their im­mune sys­tems are lower and, as a re­sult, they are more prone to pick­ing up a pass­ing dis­ease or par­a­site. Here is how you can help your birds get through their moult:

Take steps to re­duce any ad­di­tional stress lev­els as much as pos­si­ble. Dur­ing the moult, avoid moving your hens to a new coop or in­tro­duc­ing new birds to the flock.

I give my flock ap­ple cider vine­gar (ACV), which is a great tonic and has tra­di­tion­ally been used in times of stress to set­tle birds. There is no bet­ter time to add ACV to your hens’ wa­ter than now. Di­lute at the rate of 20ml per litre of fresh drink­ing wa­ter and give ei­ther two days a week (per­haps at the week­end) or for one week each month. To reap the ben­e­fits, you will need to use raw, un­pas­teurised ACV with the mother (live bac­te­ria and yeast), which can be pur­chased from most poul­try or equine shops. The ACV you find in the su­per­mar­ket is gen­er­ally pas­teurised and isn’t suit­able. Never use ACV in any­thing metal as it will cause cor­ro­sion. Plas­tic wa­ter­ers are best.

Avoid han­dling your hens. Newly emerg­ing pin feath­ers have a blood-filled vein which will bleed if cut or in­jured. As pin feath­ers are very sen­si­tive, chick­ens gen­er­ally pre­fer not to be han­dled while moult­ing as it can be quite painful. A waxy cas­ing sur­rounds each new feather and ei­ther falls off or is re­moved by a preening chicken. The feather within then un­furls and the in­ner vein dries up. The shaft is known as the quill. There­fore it is best to save any cud­dles and pam­per­ing un­til the feath­ers have re­grown.

Sup­ple­ment their diet with ad­di­tional pro­tein to help them re-grow their feath­ers. Usu­ally chick­ens will ob­tain ad­e­quate pro­tein from a good qual­ity lay­ers feed, sup­ple­mented by the in­sects and small mam­mals that they catch them­selves.

Dur­ing the moult­ing sea­son, it can be ben­e­fi­cial to of­fer some healthy high­pro­tein treats (re­mem­ber to limit treats to no more than 10% of their to­tal diet). Seeds are a great source of pro­tein. I give my flock a mix of fresh pump­kin seeds and sun­flower seeds. By hang­ing the sun­flower heads up for them, they can help them­selves to the seeds.

I also sprout or­ganic grains. This is a quick, easy and eco­nom­i­cal way to give my hens some ex­tra pro­tein, vi­ta­mins and min­er­als.

Chick crumbs are higher in pro­tein than lay­ers feed. If you have part of a bag left over, of­fer­ing it to your flock in ad­di­tion to their nor­mal feed is a good way of us­ing it up while pro­vid­ing some ex­tra pro­tein.

As part of good hus­bandry, clear up any dis­carded feath­ers that may be lit­ter­ing the coop and run. Pro­tein-hun­gry chick­ens will scratch and eat dis­carded feath­ers. In essence, a hen is sub­sti­tut­ing what she is lack­ing in her diet with ker­atin. As ker­atin is ad­dic­tive, once hooked it is dif­fi­cult to kick the habit. Be­fore you know it, your hen will have turned into a feather pecker, peck­ing out the small, sweet feath­ers around the vent, at the top of the legs and the base of the tail where it meets the body of other hens. To pre­vent feather eat­ing, rake up dis­carded feath­ers and add them as browns to the compost bin.

By be­ing vig­i­lant and taking some sim­ple steps you can help your chick­ens re­lin­quish their dull and bald­ing ap­pear­ance and re­place it with a beau­ti­ful shiny new coat ready for the win­ter.

Pro­tein-hun­gry chick­ens will scratch and eat dis­carded feath­ers. In essence, a hen is sub­sti­tut­ing what she is lack­ing in her diet with ker­atin

While Bella may be the first in Julie’s flock to start los­ing feath­ers, she won’t be the last

Avoid stress­ful things dur­ing the moult, such as moving chick­ens to a new coop

Dur­ing the moult, a hen’s im­mune sys­tem is lower and, as a re­sult, she is more prone to pick­ing up a pass­ing dis­ease or par­a­site

The moult it­self is a stress­ful time for chick­ens

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.