Every now and then you may find your coop and yard littered with feathers. There can be several reasons for this, some of which are perfectly normal. Since chickens go through processes in which they lose old feathers and replace them with new ones, it is not always necessary to panic. Even if it does sometimes seem like the feather loss is so extreme that a whole chicken may have been lost to a predator, a quick head count will ease your mind. Once you are certain all head are present and accounted for, there are many more possible explanations to consider when it comes to feather loss.
The most common reason for feather loss is molting. This is when chickens shed old feathers and replace them with new ones, generally in preparation for changes in seasons and weather patterns, although young birds molt a couple of times before reaching maturity. Molting is usually easy to confirm as the feathers are lost in a pattern that starts at the neck and moves its way down and backward, with new growth coming in to push the old growth out. During this process quills will be visible. There is also the possibility of a hard molt, during which a chicken will lose the bulk of his/her feathers all at once before slowly growing new ones, which can result in a lot of exposed skin that can look rather harsh. When molting occurs, chickens need protein to grow new feathers, so adding protein to their diet will help the process along. Also in the case of a hard molt, exposed skin can be easily pecked through by other chickens, so be vigilant about monitoring this.
Broody hens are hens that are determined to hatch eggs and have begun to nest in an effort to do so. They are known to pluck their own feathers to line their nests. They also pluck their breast bare to be able to apply warm contact to eggs as a means of incubation. If you have a hen that has gone broody while sitting on infertile eggs, she will need to be discouraged from doing so and encouraged to return to a normal life outside of the nesting box.
Preening is another normal activity that results in feather loss. It is
intended to maintain a cleanly, parasite-free body along with spreading
bodily oils amongst the feathers. Preening occurs year round and is most
commonly visible in the form of small, soft feathers being lost. There
is no cause for concern when preening occurs.
Mating is also a reason why feathers may be lost. When a rooster mounts a hen, he digs into her body with his feet and grabs the back of her head to balance himself. This process can do damage to feathers and cause them to fall or be ripped out. If repeated mating continues between a rooster and the same hen, she can wind up with bleeding sores. To prevent this, you can bump up your hens-to-rooster ration or enlist the help of a chicken saddle.
Being pecked by other chickens can also result in feather loss, although it is also common for pecking to start after feathers have already been lost and skin is exposed. If you notice the presence of pecking amongst your flock, separating the responsible party may be necessary. Treat the injured areas on the pecked bird with an antiseptic and bump up her protein intake for feather regrowth.
Lastly, external parasites could be to blame. This sort of problem can be identified by exposed patches of skin, especially around the vent. You may also be able to lay eyes on the parasites themselves if you look closely. If you suspect a parasite problem, treat it by cleaning the coop with vinegar and sprinkle food-grade diatomaceous earth in the area. Providing an area for dust bathing will go a long way towards the prevention of parasite problems as well.
In most cases where feathers have gone missing, additional protein is essential. Adding items such as meal worms, scrambled eggs, sunflower seeds, and canned tuna to your chickens\' diet will help give them the extra protein they need to grow those feathers back. Since feathers are comprised of protein, it takes protein to grow back what is lost and to have a normal, healthy flock once again.