Reading Time: 4 minutes
When raising chicks, you want to be sure that they grow healthy feathers. Feathers provide temperature control and protection from the elements. They are essential to your chickens being healthy and are often an indicator of when they are not. In order to help our chicks grow healthy feathers, we must first understand how feathers grow.
What are Feathers?
Feathers are made of beta-keratin much like human hair and fingernails. Also like hair and fingernails, they are essentially dead structures that cannot repair themselves when damaged. Once a feather has fully grown in, its growth stops until it is molted out in preparation for a new feather to take its place.
Stages of Molting
Once the previous feather is out, this molt happens as follows:
- Each new feather grows from a small outgrowth of skin called the papilla.
- As feathers mature, their tips get pushed away from the papilla, where the newest parts of the feather form. Like human hair, feathers are youngest at their base.
- The feather’s structure develops as proteins are laid down around the surface of this bump of skin. It’s here that the branching patterns form by smaller branches fusing at the base to make thicker ones—barbules fuse into barbs and barbs fuse into a rachis.
- As the feather grows, it stays curled in a tubular shape around the papilla until it is pushed away from the growth area.
- A protective sheath maintains the feather’s cylindrical shape until it starts to disintegrate near the tip, allowing the mature part of the feather to unfurl.
- The sheath falls off and the growth process is complete. (Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 2013)
Chickens, like other birds, have a few different types of feathers. The feathers that cover their body are called contour feathers. The base of the feather has plumulaceous barbs that do not interlock with each other. This fluffy portion helps keep a pocket of warm air near the chicken’s skin. The part of the feather that we can see is the pennaceous region where the barbs and barbules interlock much like Velcro. Wing and tail feathers have much smaller plumulaceous portions. When chicks hatch, they are covered with a very soft down coat. With down-type feathers, the barbs do not interlock. This type of feather helps keep heat in but does not offer much protection from other elements like rain or wind. During the chick’s first month of life, their feathers come in, often in stages of various body parts (wings first, then tail, body, etc.). While some breeds feather more quickly or slowly than others, usually they are fully feathered by six or eight weeks of age.
Feed for Healthy Feathers
The most important factor in helping your chick to grow healthy feathers is by feeding them properly. The best way to do this is by using a commercially prepared “chick starter” feed. This feed in particular is higher in protein (20-22 percent protein versus 16-18 percent for grown chickens), lower in calcium (1 percent calcium versus 3 percent for laying hens), and is in very small pieces or almost a powder. Chick starter should be fed until a chick is six weeks old (eight weeks for those breeds that feather at a later age) at which point you should switch to a grower feed mix. This grower feed mix has 16-18% protein but still does not have the extra calcium that laying hens need. The higher percentage of protein in the chick starter is essential for the formation of feathers. Feathers are made of protein, and if the chick does not have sufficient protein in their diet, they cannot make healthy feathers.
When you buy this chick starter feed, be sure to check that the formulation does in fact have 20-22% protein. Some of the cheaper feeds are simply scratch grains and do not even have enough protein for a grown chicken, so they especially do not have enough protein for one growing feathers. Because feathers are made entirely of protein, a chicken needs extra protein in their diet whenever they are growing a large amount of feathers. If you choose to make your own feed, you must carefully calculate the nutrients. The manufacturers of the commercial feeds hire specially trained nutritionists to calculate the percentages of protein, fat, carbohydrate, and minerals for chicken feed. While chicken feed may be expensive, it is a good investment in your healthy flock. Table scraps and scratch grains can be a wonderful treat for your chickens, but be sure that you do not give so much that your chickens (much like a toddler child) will refuse to eat their formulated feed and “hold out” for the treat (Schneider & Dr. McCrea).
As our chicks grow and prepare to enter the flock, we can help them to grow healthy feathers by giving them a well-formulated chick starter feed with more protein than what is offered in feeds for grown chickens. This additional protein is used to make feathers. By feeding a balanced diet, we can help our chickens not only grow healthy, strong feathers in their first months of life, but can help them keep growing healthy feathers throughout their entire lives.
- Cornell Lab of Ornithology. (2013). All About Bird Biology. Retrieved November 2018, from All About Feathers: www.birdbiology.org
- Schneider, A. G., & Dr. McCrea, B. (n.d.). The Chicken Whisperer’s Guide to Keeping Chickens. Beverly, Massachusetts: Quarry.