Learning Series

Nothin’ but Feathers

I don’t know about you all, but all I have been collecting from my chickens lately are feathers. After we experienced heat stress induced stop lay in July/August, my hens started laying again, albeit more slowly, and now they are not laying again. Why? you ask. Well……

A little known, or maybe little recognized, fact is that chickens are long day breeders. That means that when the days are long from March to October, the amount of light detected by the chicken’s eye activates their reproductive system, allowing them to lay eggs. We see this in other animals, too, like the horse and some other animals like the ring-tailed lemur, groundhogs, minks (remember this Golden Girls episode?), and hamsters. So what does that mean for egg production? It means that your local farmers will likely have a bounty of eggs from February/March through the summer (depending on where you live; remember the article on heat stress), however in the fall as the days gets shorter, egg production stops. The hens stop laying and rest their bodies from the hard work they have done for the past eight months. Another effect of this is that chickens will take this time to molt.

Molting is when chickens lose their worn out feathers during the fall to prepare for winter. This allows them to replenish their feathers, shedding the old and growing new. The energy and nutrients in their diet are used rebuild their feathers in lieu of egg production. The birds also use this time to build up their energy and body reserves. Think of this as a break for the chicken to revitalize itself before heading into the winter and preparing for another laying season.

My Easter Egger hen, Split, is molting. Notice the lack of feathers along her back and between her wings. The ruffles on her neck are where new feathers are emerging and not exactly laying down flat yet. Notice the amount of discarded feathers in the coop behind her.

So, if this is true, then how are eggs available to us all year round? Well that’s an easy answer: lights. We can supply the birds with artificial lighting in their housing systems to make them think they are in long day seasons. Commercially produced chickens are kept on a light cycle of 16 hours of light/8 hours of dark to keep them in production throughout the entire year.  Since these birds are kept indoors and not exposed to natural light, the light cycle can be adjusted at any time to allow the hens in this system to molt. With the amount of laying production houses and the staggering of when the birds “see” the short seasons allows eggs to be available throughout the entire year. We see this practice of artificial lighting also used with horses. The gestation period for the horse is 11 months. In the Thoroughbred racing world, all horses turn another year older on January 1. Having your foal born as close to that date naturally gives them an advantage when they begin their training and racing careers. Breeders set up lighting for the mares and stallions so that they can be bred as early in the year as possible to get a foaling date as close to January 1 as possible.

Notice the missing feathers on Split’s wings opposite my thumb. Along the top of the wing you can see the emerging pin feathers and as you move away from that top line, you can see the plumage emerging. The dark blue near the attachment to the wing indicates blood supply to that feather.

But I digress. Most local farmers will let their birds take the natural rest period during the fall and winter. Some will provide artificial lighting to their birds, though. Depending on the chicken’s genetics, they could experience a hard or soft molt. A hard molt will be quite shocking to see where the hen will lose all of her feathers, similar to what we see in the fall. A soft molt can occur in early spring, where only some feathers are lost. The feathers are lost in a pattern starting with the head, down the neck, across the breast, down the back, and finally the tail feathers. The loss of tail feathers is most obvious in roosters. The roosters leave summer with the characteristic long, beautiful tail feathers and by early fall have tails resembling those of hens. The feathers regrow as pin feathers in the same patterns as they were lost. If you have not see this before it can be a shocking sight. While the patterns of feather loss and regrowth are similar, some hens will experience a harder molt than others and it is possible to have a hen that is mostly depleted of her feathers. Others won’t look nearly as naked.

My Red laced Blue Wyandotte hen is also molting pretty heavily. Notice her head and neck which is all new feather growth. And the little feather on her left wing that is trying to fall off. 🙂

Because of the exposure of the chicken’s skin during this time, chicken “tenders” (hahaha!) need to be extra cognizant of their birds care. Skin lesions, bruising, scratches, and pecking injuries can occur. They can also be more susceptible to disease at this time so reducing stress is really important. This is a bad time to introduce new birds to the flock, change feed, or upset their daily routine. The nutrient requirement also changes during this time. Feathers, like most body coverings, are most protein, about 85%. So giving your birds a higher protein diet during this time is super important. You can do this by supplying chick or starter feed to your birds, supplementing with mealworms or Grubblies, some people even provide cat food as a source of extra protein during this time. Whichever way you choose, just be sure to increase their protein consumption to support their systems during this time and enhance feather growth. Since they are not laying at this time, the extra calcium in laying feed is not entirely essential, but you can supplement with oyster shell, too. Increasing protein is the most important thing at this time.

Notice the new feather growth along the back of my Blue laced Red Wyandotte hen. You can see pin feathers emerging near her non existent tail. The new feathers are very dark compared to those yet to be shed.

So I am who I am and now I’ll give you some background on why and how light plays such a huge role on the reproduction of  long day breeders.

The series of events that occur from when light enters the pupil to the beginning of reproductive function. This figure is edited from “Pathways to Pregnancy and Parturition”, 3rd edition, P.L. Senger, 2012, Current Conception, Inc.
  1. Not unlike you or I, light enters the bird’s eye through the pupil is directed back to the retina where photoreceptors (receptors that detect light) are located.
  2. The light excites the photoreceptors and they send a message to the hypothalamus and to the pineal gland.
  3. 4, and 5. The pineal gland is the gland responsible for melatonin production (you know, the supplement you take at night to help you sleep?) Melatonin is produced in times of darkness, which is why it is used as a sleep supplement. So light inhibits melatonin production from the pineal gland.
  4. This low melatonin results in decreased activity of neurons known as RFRP neurons. These neurons, when stimulated, produced a neurotransmitter (a chemical messenger) known as RFRP-3.
  5. In the long day breeder, RFRP-3 stimulates a different group of neurons known as kisspeptin neurons to produce kisspeptin-10. Kisspeptin-10 is a peptide hormone that regulates one of the main reproductive hormones in the hypothalamus, Gonadotropin Releasing Hormone (GnRH). Kisspeptin causes GnRH to be released.
Notice the location of the hypothalamus, pituitary glands, and the pineal gland in the brain.
Photo from: https://www.quora.com/What-are-the-functions-of-the-thalamus-hypothalamus-and-pineal-glands

GnRH then travels to the anterior pituitary to release two more reproductive hormones, Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH) and Luteinizing Hormone (LH).

This shows the relationship of the hypothalamus to the pituitary glands, both the anterior and posterior lobes. This relationship is crucial to reproduction.
Photo from: https://epidemicanswers.org/reference-library/hormones/hypothalamus-pituitary-pineal/

FSH allows follicles to begin to grow and develop on the ovary and start to produce estrogen. As estrogen increases, luteinizing hormone allows for ovulation of the oocyte from the ovary and allows cyclicity to begin.

RFRP-3 has a different effect on short day breeders such as sheep, goats, and deer.

So continue to be patient while searching for locally sourced eggs. We are caring for our chickens and making sure they’ll be healthy to lay eggs for us and you as long as possible!

Happy Farming,

Tiffany

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