I am thrilled to report that at least one of our hens is laying eggs again. I found my first egg in the nest box in nearly a month. This year we kept nine hens over the winter. We had failed to cull our flock before cold weather set in so we made do with more than we normally keep in the winter. Initially I thought it would not be so bad as it would mean our egg production though less, with the shorter days, should be acceptable over the winter. Silly me as soon as the cold weather set in all but one of my laying hens went into full molt. Molting along with the shorter days meant that no matter how careful I was with my precious eggs, in January I did end up buying a dozen store eggs.
Yes my coop is sunshine yellow inside. I want my hens to feel sunshine everyday.
For those of you not familiar with chickens, molting is when all their feathers come out, like a dog or cat’s shed. During the molting process chickens do not lay eggs. All their food and energy go into making new feathers rather than eggs. Molting can be a long process of months and my hens did not disappoint. They started in late October and early November, and some of them are still working on replacing their feathers today and look pretty sad.
I have caught two different hens in the nest boxes last week. A couple more look pretty filled out feather wise and their combs are starting to perk back up. The days are getting longer. The chickens are starting to lay again. Spring is in the air in Montana.
As fall progresses here in southwest Montana our egg production has reached new lows. Our flock is the smallest each year at this time. Chickens ability to lay eggs is directly related to the number of hours of light, aka length of days. This can often be compounded by a fall molt.
Egg farmers today often light their chicken barns to ensure that they lay regardless of what is happening in nature. I raise my chickens more naturally and work with what light nature sends my way. I allow the natural rhythm of the seasons of life to cause my chickens to slow down and even take a break from laying eggs.
Molting is that time when chickens decided that their feathers must be replaced. For my birds it is usually happens during the fall and winter months. It seems to be one of those things that is counter intuitive to mother nature. Why would birds naturally lose all their feathers when it is getting colder out?? Who knows but molts traditionally occur in fall and winter.
With a small flock then compound in the shortening days and the loss of feathers eggs become a precious commodity.
Our chickens, at least some of our chickens, are back in the egg business again. All I can say is Yahoo! We have been paying dearly for locally laid eggs.
We do not supplement our chickens with light all year-long like many do. They are given an egg laying holiday. Winter is a chickens natural time to molt and stop laying eggs. Normally hens need 10-12 hours of daylight to lay an egg. The short days of winter cause this egg hiatus. We let our hens go through at least part of the natural cycle of things. Our hens stop laying sometime between October 1st and December 1st. During that time there is lots of feathers flying as they take care of their seasonal molt. As soon as we go into the new year and the days start to get longer the holiday is over. We start turning on the coop light when my husband leaves for work at 7am. Instantly the days become longer. It takes several weeks sometimes more for them to start laying again. This year they have started at a new early record, the second week of February. And as the keeper of chickens we could not be more thrilled.
No I am not considering it, but this morning another chicken enter the world of loosing all her feathers. It is winter here and in my human mind they must be a little chilly. It made me think of a book or story I read when I was a child.
It was a story about a poor old woman who had a flock of geese. The woman took the feathers from the geese to make a warm comforter for herself. She in turn took an old coat full of holes and made coats for her geese. That is all I remember about the book except the illustrations. I remember so many of the pictures throughout the book. I can see the pictures of this poor woman making coats for the geese from her threadbare red coat with holes, as vividly as if I had the book still today.
I have goggled and looked for this book for several days. I think of sharing that image of the old woman wrapped in her down comforter, with her white geese in red coats would capture how many of us feel when the temps get cold and our animals are outside. Chickens make it worse by loosing what nature gave them to keep them warm. Unfortunately I haven’t found my book online. It would have been from the early 60, or possibly earlier, since my lending library at two of my grandmother’s homes was full of books from my parents era. So far no luck finding my book. Each day I go out to open the door on the shed, and see one more nearly naked bird, I smile as I think about what they would look like with red coats on.
Another of chickens has began to molt. It always mystifies me that chickens will generally molt in fall or winter. They are loosing their feathers on when the temps are some of the coldest of the year.
One of my chickens is at that stage when she has almost no functional feathers. It was only 2 degrees out this morning when I opened the door on the coop. She has lost most of her old feathers. Her new feathers are just starting to come in, but for the most part are still in the covering that keeps them tight like porcupine quills. In the next few days the covering will fall off and the feathers will grow and bulk out to keep her warm. In the meantime she will be dependent on the warmth in the coop that the other birds generate at night and the sun during the day.
I suspect that mother nature is combining two periods of dysfunction into one season. What I mean by all of this is that chickens lay less and even stop laying eggs as days get shorter. The same is true of when a bird is molting they will quite laying and redirect all their energy into making new feathers. If there is going to be an egg laying hiatus all the necessary chores that tax a bird are happening at the same time.
This stage of what appears to be not enough feathers to stay warm causes my human empathy to kick in. I worry that they will get cold that will compromise their health. I carefully pick birds that are cold weather hearty breeds. I have gone through winters before with my birds so understand how this all works. But no matter I still look at them and worry that they will get cold. Grow feathers grow.
Everyone knows what a bad hair day is. Well chickens have bad feather days. It is when they are molting. When my chickens are swapping out old feathers for new they look terrible. They have the chicken equivalent of a bad hair day. Just like the millions of women who know when they are having a bad hair day, chickens know it too. On the worse days they stay in the coop embarrassed to be seen out and about half feathered.
They look like they had a fight with the fox and left with their life a just a few feathers.. They look like they accidentally fell in the plucker live! You can see all the goose flesh where feathers used to be and pin feathers where they are already starting to grow back. I am not sure why but they usually seem to pick the end of warm weather to do this. So as they nights get cooler, they have less to protect them.
We have had our first snow, and the nights are now in the teens. One of my prettiest chickens has started to molt and there is no doubt she is having one bad feather day.