Feathers 101 - Why Does a Chicken Lose Feathers and More....

Why does a chicken lose feathers? Why are some feathers fluffy and others not? Why do roosters have different feathers than hens? There are so many questions about chicken feathers. Here’s a helpful guide to answer those questions and more…

Why does a chicken lose feathers? There are so many questions about chicken feathers. Here’s a helpful guide to answer those questions and more…

Chicken feathers. They’re what people notice most when they see a chicken. The colors. The patterns. There’s no denying it, chicken feathers are beautiful! In fact, many a backyard flock has been chosen for looks. Some people keep only red chickens, others buff, black and white or speckled birds. There are lots of choices. 

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Why does a chicken lose feathers? There are so many questions about chicken feathers. Here’s a helpful guide to answer those questions and more…

But what about function? Intuitively we all know some general functions of feathers. You don’t have to go any farther than your local department store to see feathers in action. Down comforters and pillows fetch a high price. Feathered earrings are popular outfit accessories. A down winter jacket is a must-have when temperatures dip. Feathers are all about function. Even their beauty has a purpose.  

The overarching function of feathers is to keep a bird protected from cold, hot and wet weather and to protect the skin. But there’s more…

Types of Feathers and their Parts

Chickens have four basic types of feathers — contour, plumules, filoplumes and bristles. 

Individual feathers can be broken down into specific parts. The shaft runs the length of the feather with the hollow quill at the end that connects to the body. Barbs come off the main shaft on both sides. Barbs have barbules which have tiny hooks that attach to the barbules of the next barb acting like a zipper that locks the barbs together giving the feather its web. The fluff is at the lower end of a feather with barbs that lack hooks giving it a downy look. 

Contour feathers are the first feathers you notice on a chicken. They are the largest of a chicken’s feathers and cover the outside of the bird giving it shape and serving as the first line of defense against the elements. 

Plumules are also known as down feathers. They lack the hooks that join barbs together, so they are fluffy rather than smooth. These feathers are most evident on baby chicks, after all, the primary purpose of down feathers is for insulation to trap air for warmth. On adult chickens, down feathers are found closest to the body. 

Why does a chicken lose feathers? There are so many questions about chicken feathers. Here’s a helpful guide to answer those questions and more…

Two smaller feathers filoplume and bristles are less noticeable but still provide function. Filoplumes have a few barbs at the tip giving them a hairlike appearance. Their exact function is not fully understood, but they do have sensory receptors at their base. Bristles are the small feathers around a chicken’s eyes, nose, and mouth. They protect those areas by keeping out dust and debris. 

There are two types of chickens with interesting feathers that throw out the book: Frizzles and Silkies. 

Frizzle chickens are gaining popularity with backyard chicken keepers because of their interesting look. Frizzle feathers happen because a mutation causes the feathers to twist and turn and stick out randomly all over the body. You can see frizzle feathering in many different chicken breeds. 

Silkie chickens have only feathers that lack the ability to zip the barbs together. This means Silkies have no waterproofing so special care should be taken in wet weather. 


Nothing brings a feather’s function more top-of-mind than molting. In late summer, fall and even early winter, chicken keepers focus a lot on feathers because their birds may be losing them at a rapid rate. There may be lots of dropped feathers around the coop. At times, it can even look like a bird exploded. Chickens may be walking around looking half-naked. 

Why? What is molting? Molting is a natural and necessary process where birds shed old feathers for new. Chickens will have their first adult molt around 18 months of age and will molt annually after that. The molting season is timed with the onset of cold weather so that chickens have a new, fully functional set of feathers during harsh weather. 

FYI - Molting isn’t unique to adult chickens. Young chickens start molting early. They first molt to replace down with feathers. They molt again to replace juvenile feathers. 

Adult molting is triggered by the decrease in daylight hours as the year progresses. It starts at the head and moves down the body. Both hens and roosters will molt. During this time, hens will decrease egg-laying or stop laying altogether switching from egg production to feather production. 

“High-producing, well-fed backyard hens can lay up to 250 eggs in their first year of production. This is because it takes 24-26 hours to create each egg, and hens take a natural break each year for molting – often as days get shorter in the fall,” said Patrick Biggs, Ph.D., a flock nutritionist for Purina Animal Nutrition. 

Why does a chicken lose feathers? There are so many questions about chicken feathers. Here’s a helpful guide to answer those questions and more…

Molting can take around eight to 12 weeks to complete. Purina Animal Nutrition recommends feeding a high protein diet to your flock during this time. Feathers are 85% protein so the increase in protein helps. You can also supplement with high protein treats like black oil sunflower seeds, nuts and tuna fish to name a few. 

Molting chickens may act a little “off” during this time. They are not sick, but their bodies are working hard to replace feathers. New, immature feathers called pinfeathers can be seen as a chicken regrows lost feathers. Pinfeathers are sometimes referred to as blood feathers because they do have a supply of blood that nourishes the growing feather. Pinfeathers are essentially the new feather rolled in a papery coating for protection. As the covering flakes off, the feather opens. It’s a good idea not to handle your chickens much while they are covered in pinfeathers because growing feathers can be painful to the touch. 

Daily Feathers

Feathers aren’t top of mind just during molting, they play a role in many daily chicken behaviors as birds spend time each day caring for them. 

When birds preen —  the act of grooming and cleaning feathers — they can be seen running their beaks along their feathers to zip up loose barbs getting the feather into proper shape and/or biting at their feathers to remove bits of dirt or other substances and parasites. 

If you watch carefully, as chickens run their beaks along their feathers, they generally start this behavior by twisting around and dipping their beaks into their tail feathers. There’s a reason for this. The uropygial gland, otherwise known as the preen gland is located near the base of the tail. It’s not noticeable to the naked eye because it’s hidden under dense tail plumage. It looks kind of like a nipple on a baby bottle. When chickens nudge the uropygial gland, it releases an oily, waxy substance that they distribute over their feathers to keep the feathers supple and to help repel dirt and water. 

Why does a chicken lose feathers? There are so many questions about chicken feathers. Here’s a helpful guide to answer those questions and more…

Although chickens don’t bathe in water, they do bathe in dust and sun. 

Dustbathing is a way for chickens to remove excess oil and parasites. Free-range chickens will find a dry patch of dirt and dig their own dust baths. If chickens are confined, they need to be provided a dust bath. Chickens luxuriate in a dust bath moving to get the best angles as they scratch dirt deep into their feathers. Dust bathing chickens are a glorious sight to behold, but beware of standing too close to chickens after they leave a dust bath because they shake all that dirt and dust off and it goes everywhere!

Sunbathing chickens can be found on even the hottest day of the year sprawled on the ground often with one or both of their wings extended. Chickens get so absorbed in their sunbathing that they can appear dead at first glance. But they’re not! Sunbathing serves many purposes and plays a big role in feather health. Generally, it helps to destroy bacteria, convert compounds in the oil from the uropygial gland into vitamin D, allows for warmth in cold weather and drying if the bird gets wet. For feather health, it allows easier access to parasites for their removal. As chickens sunbathe, they will strategically expose body parts to the sun making it uncomfortable for parasites. As the parasites move to get cooler, the chicken will preen to remove them. 

Looking Good

In case you’re wondering about the function of beauty, yes, beautiful feathers are a big deal in the chicken world too. While beauty is touted in humans as being only skin deep, in the chicken world, outward beauty shows a lot about the inner bird. 

A healthy bird has feathers that are clean and well-groomed. A healthy bird’s feathers are at their best providing protection, insulation, the ability to fly and the ability to attract a mate. 

Speaking of attracting mates, rooster feathers have beauty for that purpose. Their showy tail and neck feathers attract a hen’s attention. On the other hand, hen feathers are designed more for camouflage as she has to sit on a nest and raise her brood, during which time, it’s better to stay unnoticed by predators.  

For chicken keepers, feather condition can be a good indication of their bird’s health. It’s good to check birds often so problems can be detected early. Plumage quality can start to decline noticeably if a bird is infested with parasites like lice and mites. Bare patches of skin on a hen’s back can mean she is being overmated. Bare patches of skin can also indicate feather picking or eating — often a sign of bullying or that birds are too hot, bored or overcrowded. 

Be careful not to jump to conclusions too quickly though. Bad-looking feathers can be a sign of an active bird or one that’s getting ready to molt. On a personal note, I have a New Hampshire hen whose feathers always look terrible. One, she does draw the attention of our rooster more than others. But also, she’s an active free-range bird that always seems to find places to damage her feathers. She’s healthy as a horse but looks a little worse for the wear. 

Why does a chicken lose feathers? There are so many questions about chicken feathers. Here’s a helpful guide to answer those questions and more…

Feather Identification

It’s good to know how to identify the feathers you can see at a glance when looking at a chicken. By using the correct terms, you can better understand your chicken and describe it when needed. 

Hackles: These feathers essentially form a ring around the neck including the rear and side feathers. Both hens and roosters have hackle feathers, but the rooster’s hackle feathers are more prominent being long and pointed. 

Saddle: The saddle is located along the rear of the back where it meets the tail. A rooster’s saddle area is covered with long pointed feathers. 

Tail Coverts: These feathers cover the base of the main tail feathers in roosters and most of the tail in hens. A rooster’s tail coverts are long and showy.

Sickles: The main sickles are the two long curving feathers at the top of a rooster’s tail. Lesser sickles hang to the side and cover the main tail. 

Main Tail Feathers: These are the long, straight and stiff feathers of the tail. They are more prominent on a hen but covered in both sexes by the tail coverts and sickles in the case of a rooster. 

This article about why does a chicken lose feathers was originally published in The New Pioneer magazine.

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