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Why is my chicken losing her feathers?

Suddenly, your chicken run looks like someone unpacked a feather pillow and your flock looks like they've been freshly plucked.

What's going on, and what can you do about it?

Please note: This page is written as general information only. It is not intended as medical or veterinary advice and should not be taken as such.  

If you're worried about your or your chickens' health, you should always see your doctor or veterinarian.

Why is my chicken losing her feathers? And  other chicken feather problems. Pin for later.

Seeing your chickens with bare patches in  previously beautiful plumage for the first time can be very scary.

Most of the time, there's a perfectly simple and easily rectified reason.

Some of the time, it's not quite so simple. But there's almost always a solution.

In this article, we'll examine different ways chickens lose their feathers, the reasons behind their suddenly scary look, whether you should be worried about it or it's just a normal part of the chicken's life, and what you can do about it.

The article is divided into sections, so if you want to find one particular problem just use these links.

Feathers lost all over; feather-picking; bottom has no feathers; no tail feathers; bald patches on back; feather loss on head and neck; no feathers on chest; why are my chicken's feathers all fluffed up? should you ever clip chickens' feathers?; do feathers grow back?

My chicken is losing feathers all over.

The most common reason for this is simple: chickens moult their feathers once a year, usually in the autumn (fall). It's nature's way of taking out old plumage and preparing for the cold by re-growing new, perfectly formed feathers.

I have a detailed article about moulting, here.

However, if your flock has no feathers and it's not the autumn, you need to check other potential causes.

  • Re-homed ex-battery (caged) hens often come with very poor feathering - a result of being locked in a confined space for long periods of time with poor quality feed.
  • Fowl pox can cause extreme feather loss.
  • Sometimes, extreme stress can cause a moult. Chickens can find many things stressful, but the most common causes of that severe level of stress are predators and extreme heat
A Light Sussex hen partway through the autumn moult.One of my normally beautifully feathered Light Sussex hens, partway through the autumn moult.

Solution.

  • The annual moult can look pretty horrendous, but it's nothing to worry about. You can help your flock by giving them some additional protein in their diet.
  • Take action, before it happens, to protect your flock from whichever predators are common in your area. Find information here about foxes, birds of prey and the weasel family.
  • Look after your chickens when it's hot. Something as simple as a frozen treat can save them from dehydration.

My chickens seem to be plucking their own feathers.

If you see your flock seeming to pull at their own feathers, don't immediately panic!

Like all birds, chickens naturally preen their feathers, using their beaks to pull dirt from their plumage and, at the same time, evenly distribute protective oils. It's a self-grooming  act, so nothing to worry about.

Feather plucking is different - it's a behavioural problem, a  sign there's something wrong in the flock.

It's generally considered to be what's called a "re-directed behaviour"(2). In simple terms, this means that if chickens don't have anything else to peck at, specifically food, they'll start to peck at anything, and feathers are one of the things they'll turn to. 

Research also proves that a lack of protein has a direct link to feather-picking(2).

And finally, this might simply be a case of aggression - chickens can be ruthless, particularly with new members of the flock.

Feather-plucking, as opposed to preening, can turn to full-blown cannibalism.

So if you see your flock actively picking out each other's feathers, you need to address it straight away.

Solution.

  • Make sure your chickens have bedding in the coop and, in the run, grass or similar to forage through.
  • A properly balanced food should cover the flock's protein needs. However, if you see feather-picking try adding some additional protein to the diet. 
  • My recipe for a Poultry Protein Platter uses items you probably have in your store cupboard, so you can offer a high protein treat straight away.
  • If you have a bully in the flock, you'll need to isolate her until she learns to behave! Find out how in this article about how to put a chicken into solitary confinement.

If you purchase a product through links on this page, I receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. I only recommend products I have purchased or would purchase myself and which I believe would benefit you. To learn more please see my disclosure policy.

My chicken has a red bottom and no feathers!

If a chicken is missing feathers around her vent and the vent is red and swollen, there are a couple of possibilities.

Firstly, check for red mite.

Secondly, check to see whether feather-pecking is going on. You'll need to simply sit and watch your flock's behaviour. If you have a feather-picking bully, off she goes to isolation.

Finally, check for vent gleet. 

A hen with vent gleet.The tell-tale signs of vent gleet: no / dirty feathers and a red bottom. Image courtesy of the British Hen Welfare Trust.

Vent gleet is a fungal infection, often caused by mouldy feed or by an infection if the hen's bottom feathers have been pulled out (see this section).

Symptoms are no or dirty tail feathers, a red bottom, often swollen, a yellowish-white discharge and a disgusting smell...

Solution - vent gleet.

  • Half fill a bowl of warm (not hot!) water and dissolve into it two tablespoons of unscented Epsom salts (again, if you haven't got some in your chickens' first aid kit, order some now!). 
  • Stand the hen in it for at least ten minutes.
  • Remove her and pat dry with a towel, or use a hairdryer on a very low, warm setting. 
  • Repeat every two days until you see an improvement. If the bottom remains red, you may need to isolate the hen to prevent feather-picking. Applying some Blue Kote can help.

My chicken has no tail feathers!

A hen without her tail feathers is a sorry sight.

A Wyandotte hen with no tail feathers.One of my Wyandotte hens looking very sorry for herself having lost her tail feathers.

But this is nothing to worry about - it's part of a normal moult. It's just possible, on the photo of one of my Wyandotte hens above, to see the pin feathers starting to grow back.

Here's a closer view...

The same hen's tail feathers growing back as pins.Pin feathers are starting to grow the hen's tail back again.

Solution.


My chicken is losing feathers on her back!

If you have a hen who's suddenly missing feathers on her back, you can be pretty sure it's due to a rooster (UK cockerel) paying her too much attention.

As a male mates with a hen, he will cling onto the base of her neck and use his spurs to "tread" her back.

The typical result is a loss of feathers on her back.

A Black Copper Marans hen with feathers lost on her back due to over-use.Typical pattern of feather loss on one of my Black Copper Marans hens, due to over-use by a male.

Solution.

  • It's sometimes necessary to isolate a hen, if she's being heavily over-used, until her feathers have grown back.
  • Of course, you could also isolate the male, who's the source of the problem!
  • "Hen saddles", also known as "aprons", are pieces of material you can attach to your hen which help protect her back from the male's feet.  

There are two reasons for this...

You may have a naked neck chicken!

As the name implies, these chickens have no feathers on their neck, and you'll see no signs of the feather follicle from which the pin feathers emerge.

A naked neck chicken with no feathers on her neck.This is a naked neck chicken - there are no feathers on her neck.

The second reason is once again over-use by a male chicken. 

The rooster (UK cockerel) often holds onto the hen's neck feathers are he mates with her, and that can result in baldness on the head and neck.

Solution.

  • Be careful if the feather-pulling results in exposing red skin. Red attracts pecking, so other hens will be compelled to pick at it.
  • Apply some Blue Kote to the skin. It will stain purple, so hiding the angry red colour, and allow the feathers to grow back without being pecked at.

My chicken has no feathers on her chest.

It can look scary, but this is normal for a hen who is "broody" - who wants to hatch eggs.

When we use an electric incubator to hatch, we need to make sure both the heat and moisture levels are kept just right.

A hen losing chest feathers is just nature's way of doing this. With no feathers between her and the eggs, the chest, which she will place directly over the eggs, provides the ideal levels of both heat and moisture as she incubates her hatching eggs.

A broody Wyandotte hen with fluffed feathers.A broody hen will lose her chest feathers so she can properly incubate her eggs.

Solution.

  • If your hen has "gone broody" and you don't want her to, you'll need to isolate her.
  • Other than that, there's no solution needed - this is perfectly normal behaviour. Her feathers will grow back once the chicks have hatched.

My chickens are puffing their feathers up. Is that normal?

It depends.

It can be, and usually is, completely normal. 

Chickens fluff their feathers up to keep themselves warm in cold weather. In particular, they'll fluff up enough to cover their feet, which protects them from frostbite.

And a mother hen will fluff up to keep her young chicks warm.

But - if you see a chicken puffed up and inactive or unresponsive, and looking generally unwell, it may be a sign of illness.

A sick chicken standing on soil, with fluffed up feathers and eyes closed.This chicken is puffed up because she's ill. It's not difficult to tell.

Solution.

  • If your chickens look otherwise healthy, there's nothing to do. It's normal behaviour.
  • If they're looking unwell, particularly if they are hunched and look drowsy, there may be a health issue. 

Should you ever clip chickens' feathers?

This is a personal matter.

Chickens cannot fly for any distance, but they can certainly do a bizarre hopping, jumping, flying motion which can see them getting over a six or seven foot fence.

If that happens and your flock is flying into danger - into the mouths of your neighbour's dog, for example, then clipping does become an option.

Solution.

Clipping chickens' wings does not hurt them, is not painful, is not cruel, and can be done with the minimum of fuss if it's done properly. 

And it keeps them from flying into harm's way.

I have an article about how to do it safely and quickly, putting your chickens at ease and keeping them safe. It includes a video of me clipping one of my Red Star's wings after she had escaped, only to find herself between the jaws of a passing dog.

See how to clip a chicken's wing feathers safely, here.


Do chicken feathers grow back?

Yes. 

You'll see the small, stumpy quills beginning to take shape to replace the lost feathers. Here, one of my Wyandottes is growing her feathers back after a moult.

You can see the feathers coming from the top of the quill (where the arrows are).

Chicken pin feathers, showing new feathers growing from quill.

Solution.

  • If you've clipped your chickens' wings to keep them safe, you'll need to do it again after they have moulted because the wing feathers will have grown back.
  • Pin feathers are very sensitive and can cause pain. If you see pin feathers appearing, be very careful how you handle your chicken - don't handle her at all if you don't have to. 

You may also find these pages useful.

Chicken health - link.
All about roosters - link.
Raising chickens for eggs - link.
Can chickens fly? Link.
Dustbaths for chickens - link.
How to free range chickens - and whether you should. Link.

Sources.

A lot of "facts" you'll find on the internet are often people's individual views, based on inaccurate information repeated from poor quality sources.

The information I provide in this article and others is based not just on my own experience, but on evidenced facts from scientific, peer-reviewed research and books from highly respected and experienced poultry keepers such as Gail Damerow.

Some of the sources I have used in this article are these.

1. The British Hen Welfare Trust is an excellent source of information and support for anyone adopting ex-battery hens.

2. Sedlačková, M: Feather Pecking in Laying Hens: Environmental and Endogenous Factors. Pub. Institute of Animal Biochemistry and Genetics, 2004.

Link to Raising Happy Chickens home page.