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Molting is a natural, periodic process by which feathers are replaced by shedding of the old ones while producing new ones. It is typically a slow process, and occurring over the course of a week to up to six months. It involves the gradual loss and gain feathers in different areas of the body, in order to maintain sufficient feather coverage in order to regulate their body temperature, repel moisture, and provide skin protection.
The molting process begins by chickens shedding several feathers in various areas of their body. Pin feathers grow in as replacement of the old feathers. As the pin feathers grow to become full feathers, it causes the release of old feathers in other areas of the body. The process is usually symmetrical, where feather loss is equal on each side of the chicken's body.
Timing of Molts
Adult chickens normally molt once a year, usually in the Autumn. This is because shorter day lengths signal to birds that it’s time to renew plumage, or molt, in preparation for cold weather.
Out of Season Molting
An out of season molt may result from disease or stress, such as chilling or going without water or feed. A stress-induced molt is usually rapid and partial and does not always cause a drop in laying.
Molting of commercial egg laying hens is often done through a forced process known as induced molting. It involves a very cruel and inhumane technique by which the birds are starved for anywhere from five to as long as fourteen days. The starvation process triggers the physiological shock, causing the hens to molt---whatever feathers they may have left. In doing this, it decreases their body weight by 25-35%. The newest form of force-molting to achieve the highest egg production from hens is done by feeding the hens nutrient-deficient filler foods, rather than complete starvation. The intent of this cruel process is to maximize egg production over the life span of the hen.
Since molting requires alot of energy and nutrients to grow new feathers, in order to prevent weight loss limit exposure of the bird to other stressful events, such as extreme temperature variations, very cold or hot weather, excessive handling, food or water deprivation, and fights among flock members.