What Was It? I’ll Tell You…

Did you get a chance to see the last macro mystery photo post?  If not, take a quick look and see if you can guess the subject of the photo before you see the answer revealed below.

Macro Mysteries Solved photography logo by Merry Hearts Medicine

The photo came from the back of a fierce hawk-fighter, superb mother, efficient egg-producer, and my little feathered sidekick who hovers around my feet when I do yard work: our three-year-old leghorn-mix hen.

If you don’t know much about chickens, I’ll explain a little bit about why she looks like she had a run-in with a weed whacker.  Every year in late summer or early fall, chickens molt their feathers and grow new ones.  Some chickens lose their feathers a few at a time, and the process is hardly noticeable.  Other chickens, however, lose them in large clumps, leaving bald patches on their bodies for a few days before the new feathers grow in.

molting chicken, white leghorn mix hen during a hard molt

My daughter went out to lock up the coop for the night, and came back with this bedraggled chicken under her arm to show me how bald the poor hen was.  I couldn’t resist taking a few photos!  The hen enjoyed a generous pile of dry oatmeal as reward for her trouble (one of our flock’s favorite treats).

This little white hen spent the entire summer stubbornly determined to hatch out a brood of chicks.  We tried to break her of her broodiness a time or two, but she would have none of our nonsense.  Though we had no rooster at the time, and though most of the eggs she sat on were wooden, she would not give up her devoted efforts to become a mother.

When cold weather hit, she finally — and reluctantly — gave up setting in order to snuggle with the other hens on the roost at night.  In our experience, hens never molt while they are setting, so when she got off the nest, I suppose her body decided it had some catching up to do.  Practically overnight, she started dropping feathers with every step she took.

When feathers grow back in, they are covered with a white waxy coating that the chickens clean off with their beaks.  This is part of what birds are doing when you see them fluffing (preening) their feathers and is why young growing chicks in a brooder in your house can stir up such amazing amounts of dust while their feathers come in.  After a chicken breaks off this waxy coating, it then takes oil from the gland on its back near its tail and coats each feather to keep it clean and water-resistant.

molting chicken, leghorn mix during a hard molt, oil gland (called uropygial gland) is visible

In this photo, you can see her oil gland (called the uropygial gland) near the base of what’s left of her tail.  The oil made a stain on her back because she has not been using it to preen her feathers lately.

The good news for this hen is that we now have a young rooster who’s come of age.  Maybe next spring she can sit on eggs that will actually hatch.  Then she can molt earlier in the year and not be bald and shivering like she probably was last night during our first freeze of this fall.

If you’d like to see what this feisty hen looks like on a good day, this post contains a photo of her with last year’s chicks.


I had forgotten (until I was looking through old posts just now) that this hen was also featured in my second Macro Mystery post.  She was an easy subject to photograph while she sat in a trance on her nest of wooden eggs.  Can you tell what part of the hen I focused on?


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