More Than You Need to Know About Chicken Feathers

By Kimberly Willis, Robert T. Ludlow

Feathers cover most of the chicken’s body. Most breeds of chickens have bare legs, but some have feathers growing down their legs and even on their toes. Other variations of feathering include muffs, puffs of feathers around the ear lobes; beards, long, hanging feathers beneath the beak; and crests or topknots, poofs of feathers on the head that may fall down and cover the eyes.

Some breeds of chickens appear fluffy, and some appear smooth and sleek. Chickens with smooth, sleek feathers are called hard-feathered, and birds with loose, fluffy feathers are called soft-feathered.

A feather mutation can cause the shaft of the feather to curl or twist, making the feathers on the bird stick out all over in a random fashion. Talk about your bad hair day! These birds are called Frizzles. The Frizzle mutation can occur in a number of chicken breeds.

Birds shed their feathers, beginning with the head feathers, once a year, usually in the fall. This shedding period is called the molt, and it takes about 7 weeks to complete. The molt period is stressful to chickens.

Types of feathers

Contour feathers are the outer feathers that form the bird’s distinctive shape. They include wing and tail feathers and most of the body feathers.

Down feathers are the layer closest to the body. They provide insulation from cold temperatures. Down feathers lack the barbs and strong central shaft that the outer feathers have, so they remain fluffy. Silkie chickens have body feathers that are as long as the feathers of normal chickens, but their outer feathers also lack barbs, so the Silkie chicken looks furry or fluffy all over.

Feathers also vary according to what part of the chicken they cover. The following list associates these various types of feathers with the chicken’s anatomy:

  • On the neck: The row of narrow feathers around the neck constitutes the hackles. Hackle feathers can stand up when the chicken gets angry. These feathers are often a different color than the body feathers, and they may be very colorful in male birds. In most male chickens, the hackle feathers are pointed and iridescent. Female hackle feathers have rounded tips and are duller.

  • On the belly and midsection: The belly and remaining body areas of the chicken are covered with small, fluffy feathers. In many cases, the underside of the bird is lighter in color.

  • On the wings: Chickens have three types of feathers on the wings. The top section, closest to the body, consists of small, rounded feathers called coverts. The middle feathers are longer and are called secondaries. The longest and largest feathers are on the end of the wing and are called primaries. Each section overlaps the other just slightly.

  • On the legs: Chicken thighs are covered with soft, small feathers. In most breeds, the feathers end halfway down the leg, at the hock joint. In some breeds, however, the legs have fluffy feathers right down to and covering the toes.

  • On the tail: Roosters have long, shiny, attractive tail feathers. In many breeds, the top three or four tail feathers are narrower and may arch above the rest of the tail. These are called sickle feathers. Hens have tail feathers, too, but they are short and plainly colored, and they don’t arch.

Anatomy of feathers

Feathers are made of keratin, the same stuff that comprises your fingernails and hair. Each feather has a hard, central, stemlike area called a shaft. The bottom of the mature shaft is hollow where it attaches to the skin and is called a quill. Immature feathers have a vein in the shaft, which will bleed profusely if the feather is cut or torn.

Immature feathers are also called pinfeathers because when they start growing, they are tightly rolled and look like pins sticking out of the chicken’s skin. They are covered with a thin, white, papery coating that gradually wears off or is groomed off by the chicken running the pinfeather through its beak. When the cover comes off, the feather expands. When the feather expands to its full length, the vein in the shaft dries up.

Chickens can lose a feather at any time and grow a new one, but new feathers are more plentiful during the molting period. The age of a chicken has nothing to do with whether a feather is mature.

On both sides of the shaft are rows of barbs, and on each barb are rows of barbules. The barbules have tiny hooks along the edge that lock them to their neighbors to make a smooth feather. When chickens preen themselves, they are smoothing and locking the feather barbs together.

Feathers grow out of follicles in the chicken’s skin. Around each feather follicle in the skin are groups of tiny muscles that allow the feather to be raised and lowered, allowing the bird to fluff itself up.

The color of feathers comes both from pigments in the feather and from the way the keratin that forms the feathers is arranged in layers. Blacks, browns, reds, blues, grays, and yellows generally come from pigments. Iridescent greens and blues usually come from the way light reflects off the layers of keratin. The way the light reflects off the feather is similar to the way light reflects off an opal or pearl. Male chickens generally have more iridescent colors.