There are several causes of feather loss. Hens usually go through a moult in the Autumn, usually around October or November. The first year tends to be a small moult affecting the head and neck area but the second year is a little more drastic. Hybrids moult more than pure breeds and often look ready plucked. The whole process takes around 3-4 weeks to be completed and starts at the neck, moves along the back, breast and ends at the tail. It happens annually to replace old worn out feathers. Sometimes dramatic total body moults occur where nearly all the feathers fall out overnight but they do grow back. You should start to see and feel little quills poking through the flesh which grow and open out into lovely new feathers which will keep her warm and dry throughout the winter. Make sure you provide a good quality layers meal for them because the moult takes a lot out of your hens. Don’t give too many treats as these don’t really provide enough nutritional value but wheat is very good as a scatter feed in the afternoons or you could perhaps give a wheatgerm porridge made with warm water to keep their little bodies warm overnight. Adding Poultry Spice to their layers meal or a Chicken Tonic to their water will help correct any mineral imbalance caused by losing and growing new feathers as they contain lots of minerals and will help the hens over the moulting process. Adding protein to the diet can also help so things like hard boiled eggs, tuna canned in spring water rather than brine which is too salty or live mealworms are good, protein rich foods. Egg production often takes a break during the moult as so much energy is put into growing the new feathers but once they are fully feathered again, the eggs should return.
Another cause of feather loss is feather pulling by another hen. The neck and back area tends to be a prime target, as is the vent area. You can get sprays to use on the bullied bird which make her feathers taste unpleasant to the other birds and this usually deters pecking. If the skin is red, sore or broken, separate the injured hen straight away and you can use Veterinary Wound Powder on her to help stem the bleeding and promote healing. Hens are morbidly attracted to the colour red and will peck at wounds until they are in a dreadful state if nothing is done so Gentian or Purple Spray is very effective as it stains the skin purple and this makes it a much less obvious target for the bully. You can also use Stockholm Tar which acts like a sticky black plaster, deterring further pecking whilst allowing the wound to heal underneath. With my own hens, I’ve found that some of these sprays cause the feathers to clump together though and this can make them more of a target for a bully so a puff of Veterinary Wound Powder or even household cornflour in an emergency disguises the sore area effectively and helps stop bleeding. If any hen develops a wound of any kind, remove them and allow it to heal for a few days before reintroducing them to prevent the wound being pecked.
A broody hen will pluck the feathers from her breast and abdomen to line the nest to help protect her eggs so if she’s displaying any odd behaviour or is clamped to the nest all day, this may be the cause. However, there is also a slight possibility that she might be allergic to any nesting material you are using. Some hens seem to have skin problems when they are in contact with shredded paper or some of the hemp based bedding. If you are using any of these, it might be worth taking them out and replacing them with something like wood shavings which are sold as rabbit/guinea pig bedding as these tend to be non-allergic. Sudocrem sold for nappy rash in babies is very soothing for sore skin in hens too so it might be an idea to try gently rubbing some onto the bald, red areas to see if this helps soothe any irritation.
There could also be another reason for baldness and that is skin parasites. Dirty vent feathers, lots of scratching and dustbathing, hunched or withdrawn hens and soft shelled eggs are often indications that your hen has an infestation too. Mites can’t be seen easily with the naked eye but they leave the skin looking sore, red and featherless. Lice can be spotted quite easily. The hot spots where lice tend to hide are around the vent, under the wings, round the abdomen and chest and the neck area. Ruffle the feathers against the direction of growth and look for little scuttling creatures or tiny cream eggs stuck to the feather shafts. If you come across any, you can get louse/mite powders from various sources including poultry feed suppliers/farm suppliers and some large petshops. Apply it to all your hens and repeat the treatment after a week to catch any eggs which might have hatched out. Depluming mites don’t respond to some of the mite powders on the market so if there’s no improvement, try one which has Pyrethrum or Permethrin in as these are very effective against this particular mite.
Red Mite don’t live on the hens but live inside the hen house and move onto the hens during the night so if you check in all the corners, pull out roosting bars if you can, check around the roof for signs of infestation. They aren’t particularly easy to spot as they are only about 1mm long and are grey before feeding and red after due to the blood that they suck from the hens and this blood sucking can lead to anaemia and lethargy. If you have a red mite infestation in your chicken coop, you may see tiny blood spots on the hens eggs and there may also be a greyish powder which can be seen around the ends of the perches. If you wipe the undersides of the perches with a clean white paper towel and find red streaks on it, this will show that there are red mite in the coop. Spreading Vaseline or nappy cream on the ends of the roosting bars and in the ledges where these bars sit can trap red mite too as they head for dark crevices during the day and any which do become stuck in the sticky cream can be wiped or washed off. To treat an infestation, you will need to remove everything from the coop which can be taken out and spray with a proprietary red mite treatment. Steam cleaners are also very effective for eradicating lice and mites from coops.
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