What's going on, and what can you do about it?
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?
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.
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.
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-pecking bully trying to establish her place in the pecking order, she may need to go into isolation.
Finally, check for vent gleet.
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...
A hen without her tail feathers is a sorry sight.
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...
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.
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.
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.
It can look scary, but this is normal for a hen who is "broody" - who wants to hatch eggs.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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 trusted 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.