Asmall-scale poultry operator could be alarmed by a barrage of feathers in the coop or around the hen lot. But, as Dr. Dustan Clark, University of Arkansas Extension poultry science vet noted, more often than not, feather loss is all just part of the natural process for chickens.
“Look at a chicken,” Clark began, “They’re uniformly covered, but a lot of that is actually feather overlap.” Feathers grow in specific tracts, Clark explained. “There are tracts on their heads and on their legs, but lift up their wing, under the wing there’s a bare patch of skin. The feathers are arranged in a feather tract, and there are very scientific names associated with all those tracts. Look at a baby chick, once a baby chick sheds its down and gets feathers, you’ll see a line of feathers on either side of the breast bone, the line or tract there. As those feathers grow out they’ll eventually cover the entire area and it looks very uniform,” he noted. However, sometimes, if certain breeds grow too fast, the feather growth doesn’t align with the body growth, so the birds can look patchy, he warned.
A chick’s feathers fall off at 8-12 weeks of age, and you see other feathers come in once the bird reaches maturity, depending on the species of bird, around 12-14 months of age. “Those feathers are there for several purposes. There are flight feathers, they offer protection, temperature regulation. We have in some birds, feathers specific to breeding season, and once breeding season is over those fall out. In chickens, the male chicken gets tail feathers,” Clark explained.
Feather Loss by Molting
There is some feather loss seen that is natural, Clark noted. For example, birds molt. “In some species we see a molting – a lot of birds in the wild when they hatch and grow up they look like a female bird,” Clark said. Then, the bird will lose those adolescent feathers by molting.
Molting is most often seen in conjunction with a decrease in daylight. Hormones in the bird are regulated by the length of day. “When we see shortening daylight, birds start to lose their feathers. They lose them over a period of time, and it takes maybe up to a couple of months for them to grow back in, depending on the breed.”
Something Clark suggested small producers note is if their birds begin to eat their feathers. “When feathers fall out, occasionally you might see a bird eat those feathers. If you see the birds picking at the feathers, that may indicate they have a deficiency,” Clark warned.
Feather Loss by Parasite
Some feather loss can come from other things, like parasites, Clark noted. For example, four common parasites to affect birds include species of lice and mites. These cause feather loss mainly from irritation.
A louse is an external parasite. With lice, since they do cause irritation, you may see the chicken extensively preening. Normally, birds do preen their feathers, similar to a cat grooming itself.
So what is normal preening and what’s caused by lice irritation? Clark suggested a producer look at a feather under a microscope. The central shaft of the feather appears to have hooks at the ends, and the birds are essentially smoothing those ends. That’s normal preening, but with lice, they might be pulling excessively, he said. Lice appear yellow, white or gray, and they lay eggs at the base of the feather.
The other three most common parasites to affect feather loss in poultry are all mites. Clark noted in mites there are three specific culprits: Scaley leg, red mite and northern fowl mite.
Another cause of feather loss is inadequate nutrition, Clark said. It’s vital to make sure your flock is getting adequate protein, vitamins and minerals – that it is on a good poultry ration. Overcrowding can be another factor in feather loss. Good management, reducing stress factors and not overcrowding will keep them from pecking at each other. Also, it is not uncommon for hens to lose feathers at the back of her head if a rooster is really aggressive in mating, he noted. Too many roosters in with hens can also cause this.
He recommended watching and knowing your birds – watching their behavior to knowing what is normal regarding feather loss. Then you will recognize early what may be the sign of a problem.