North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

  (Hayward, Wisconsin)
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The Grand Molt

It has a way of creeping up on you.  Maybe not for the barnyard fowl so much, but at least for their caretaker.  First, the days grow noticeably shorter.  Then the egg production slackens.  Certainly, laying eggs is correlated with exposure to light, but this change seems fairly drastic.  I chide the ladies for being pikers…and then I realize that this is the time of year for The Grand Molt.

Feathers are nature’s most complex skin covering.  Lightweight, insulating, and empowering flight, feathers are also a wonderful means of display.  Made of collagen (like your fingernails), the material is lightweight, structurally strong, and colors well.  Pigments offer tones in yellow, red, brown, and black, while blues and greens are caused by prisms in the feather itself reflecting and refracting light.  Take a rooster’s emerald green tail plumage, remove it from direct sunlight, and it become simply a black feather. 

Recent archeological digs in China have unearthed amazing evidence of early feathers on dinosaurs, which were neither very insulating nor aerodynamic.  These basic feathers, much like the coarse covering on a kiwi bird, are believed to have been primarily used for display—making the creature appear larger or adding attraction for a mate.  As this new modified scale was honed, it formed into the wide range of feather types found today—primary flight feathers, downy feathers, water-repellant feathers, and display feathers.  The airfoils on an airplane’s wing are modeled after feathers, and science has yet to produce any substance as insulating as goose down.  The feathers of waterfowl are so naturally structured that, even when completely stripped of their oils, they still cause water to bead up and wick away.

But before you wish you could have been endowed with feathers to keep warm this autumn, know that this complex skin covering comes at a price.  Even the most well-preened feather wears out from exposure to wind, sun, and use, and it has to be sloughed off and a new one grown in its place.  This process is called molting.

In the spring of the year (when the sheep are shorn before lambing), I always feel a pang of guilt for the ewes, who shiver at the drastic change in clothing.  But at least I am comforted knowing that warmer weather is on its way.  My chickens, turkeys, and ducks on the other hand have a habit of changing their feather coats in late autumn.  To a degree, this makes sense—going into the winter months with fresh feathers.  But as I watch them turn from sleek hens to a motley crew of dishevelment, I can’t help but feel that this is less than perfect timing.

I know it has reached The Grand Molt when I open the coop door in the morning and am showered in a rolling cloud of disembodied, worn out feathers.  They billow out in all directions, littering the coop floor and the yard outside.  And my half-undressed ladies bob about looking like homeless drifters who have little care for appearances—a far cry from their summer vanity of careful preening and disgruntlement at having their feathers ruffled the wrong way.  These days, they look as well kempt as a teenager’s bedroom.

But growing feathers takes considerable energy, with each new plume starting as a “pin feather” wrapped in a scaly sheath.  This capsule is filled with blood as it forms the interlocking barbs and sturdy shaft of the feather.  When the feather is ready to emerge, the scales of the pin shatter (creating rather a lot of dust in the coop), and the formed feather begins to elongate until it has reached its proper length.  In the meantime, because of this taxing growth, hens often cease laying eggs until the molt is complete.

I tease my mangy lot while trudging through morning chores with an Appalachian folk tune.

My old hen was a good old hen

Best darn hen ever laid an egg

Sometimes white, sometimes brown

Best little hen this side of town

Cluck old hen, cluck and sing

Ain’t laid an egg since way last spring

Cluck old hen, cluck and squall

Ain’t laid an egg since way last fall

First time she cackled, she cackled quite a lot

Next time she cackled, she cackled in the pot

My old hen, she won’t do

She lays eggs and taters too

Cluck old hen, cluck and sing

Ain’t laid an egg since way last spring

Cluck old hen, cluck and squall

Ain’t laid a egg since way last fall

The turkeys prance sheepishly, holding low their bunt tails.  Patches are missing here and their, showing the wispy down beneath.  The Toms often regret to offer their poofed display until at least some of their tail feathers return.  The ducks shows the least change (perhaps because ducks are endowed with ever so many more feathers—you know if you ever tried to pluck one).  But the yard full of scattered white bits give a telltale sign.

Birds grow new feathers nearly all the time.  Young birds graduate from their first chick plumage to adult-sized feathers.  New feathers replace ones that have been damaged or pulled out by bossy comrades.  But the molting process is the avian way of “changing the closet” for the coming of winter.  No need to buy a down vest when you can grow one!

Yet even in the midst of The Grand Molt, I know that this too shall pass.  The billowing feathers will settle, and my ladies will become sleek and vain once again.  And all the birds will be warm and snug for winter.  In the meantime, it’s not avian mange; it’s just the annual molt.  See you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café.  northstarhomestead.com

 

 
 
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