Friday, August 30, 2013

Keeping Chickens: Feathers

Chickens are covered in feathers, except for their feet [unless you keep a feathered foot breed like Pekins]. Their feathers insulate them in the cold weather and keep them dry in light showers of rain. Their feather colour and patterning is what gives chickens their unique looks.

Moulted feathers from Gold and Silver Laced Wyandottes

They waterproof their feathers using oil from a special gland just above their tail in an action called Preening. Preening involves the cleaning and maintenance of each individual feather, realigning messed up feathers and removing debris.

Dustbathing is the action birds use to help keep themselves cool and parasite free. Feathers are very insulating and it can be hard to cool down with that insulating layer in the hot summer weather.

Chickens will find a cool spot and lie in the dirt, dig and flick dust and dirt into their feathers. This cool dirt on their skin helps cool their body temperature down. It also helps dislodge any parasites living in the feathers, dead skin and would probably soothe any bites.

Dustbathing is often a social affair.
In the right soil, they can dig themselves quite deep! My husband often refers to my chickens as 'echidna chickens' as some of their dustbathing holes can end up about 20cm deep! In the hotter months, dampening the soil in shaded areas will encourage them to dust bathe and keep cool.

Sunbaking is probably the oddest thing I have ever seen with chickens! Sometimes paired with dustbathing, it is an extraordinary thing to watch. The chickens will lie on the ground, wings and legs outstretched at odd angles, sometimes looking like they're dead!

Don't fret, this is a perfectly natural behaviour of birds, although they are not sure exactly why they sunbathe. Some ideas are that it helps the preening oil distribute across the feathers and to help rid their feathers of parasites.

Every year, chickens go through a moulting cycle, normally around autumn. They will lose their feathers and re-grow new ones.

Each bird will moult in it's individual way, but I think most can be sorted into two types of moulting. The 'here and there moult', where they will lose only a few feathers at a time, and they never really look scrawny. And then there is the 'explosive moult', where you walk out into the yard and think some animal has killed a chicken because of the amount of feathers in the yard! But then from around the corner walks an almost bald chicken!

Most chickens will stop or at least slow egg production whilst they moult and regrow their feathers. This is because they need protein to grow new feathers and to conserve their sources they stop laying.

It is important that chickens do get enough protein during their moulting, so you may need to supplement them with a little extra. Things like mince meat, mashed up cooked egg and meal worms are just some ideas for extra protein kicks.

Feather Eating
Eating dropped feathers is often witnessed around the same time as moulting. It is not a big problem normally and it shouldn't be worrying unless the birds start pulling feathers out of each other or themselves [see Feather Picking].

Feathers contain protein, so the chickens will often eat moulted feathers to gain that extra protein to help grow their new ones.

Feather Picking
Feather picking is a much bigger issue than feather eating. Feather picking is when chickens will pull feathers out of themselves or out of other chickens. They may eat them or they may not, and left to their own devices, it can become a big problem, leading to feather loss, wound formation, self trauma and even cannibalisation.

Feather picking is often caused by boredom and/or not enough space. Chickens are intelligent creatures and do need environmental enrichment. It is generally uncommon in backyard flocks, more often happens in commercial flocks, where they are caged or housed very tightly. Feather picking is often one reason rescued battery hens look so terrible.

Moulting time can cause feather picking and it is very different to feather eating [see Feather Eating]. It may mean the chickens are in desperate need of some extra protein. If this is the case, once they've had extra protein added to their diets, the feather picking should all but stop.

It can be caused also by a wound on a chicken, where the others take interest and peck at it, pulling feathers out and escalating from there. There is a blue wound spray [often used for horses] which you can spray on and around the wound to discourage pecking at it.

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