Make a hen saddle to prevent feather loss and protect your hens backs as a treading rooster is trying to mate the hen.
By Janet Garman
In 50 Do-It-Yourself Projects for Keeping Chickens (Skyhorse, 2018) by Janet Garman, Get ready to jump into the world of chickens, one DIY project at a time. Owning and raising chickens doesn't have to be an expensive hobby. With imagination, simple tools, and salvaged or bargain materials, you can make everything your flock needs for their health and safety.
“Why is your hen wearing a dress?” I get this question a lot. It’s not really a dress; the hen saddle (sometimes called hen aprons) protects the chicken’s back and feathers from the treading of a rooster. If you don’t keep a rooster, you may not ever need the protection of a hen saddle. Making the hen saddle is an easy DIY project. But first, let’s talk about why the hen saddle is good for the hen.
Observing chickens mating can be disturbing if you haven’t seen it before. Roosters are not gentle when they mate. The hen submits by crouching down. The rooster jumps on her back and treads his feet into her feathers to gain his balance. The actual mating is quick and then both hen and rooster shake their feathers, walking off to continue foraging. The rooster may go from one hen to the next in quick succession. And if you have more than one rooster, the boys may have their own idea of which hen belongs to each of them. Roosters have an interesting idea of courtship!
Rooster feet are large and the talons are sharp. In addition, the spur, which is a defense feature growing out of the rooster’s lower leg, may be quite long. All of these structures are digging into the back of the hen while the rooster is mating. Feathers are meant to protect and fluff, but they cannot always withstand repeated abrasions. The mating behavior can cause the hen to lose her back feathers. After the feathers fall out, the hen is still a willing victim in the mating game. Now however, the skin on her back will take the wear and tear—plus, the tender, exposed skin may get sunburned. Some hens seem to have a lighter feathering and lose their feathers quickly. Some manage to keep a downy covering.
The first sign of feather loss starts near the tail of the hen; you’ll notice that the tail looks downy instead of fully feathered. Assuming it’s not molting season (late summer or early fall), feather loss is probably a sign your hen could use some extra protection.
Rooster-caused feather loss is usually seen in the spring. Mating season begins as the days lengthen. Look for feather loss at this time and think about using a saddle to protect the hen. As fall approaches and the chickens begin the yearly molt and feather regrowth, remove the hen saddles. The saddles, if left on the hen, can abrade and loosen the new growth. Mating behavior should have calmed down by this point in the year.
Using a hen saddle will protect the feathers before they fall out. If you don’t want to sew a hen saddle, there are many options for buying them. But if you can follow a simple sewing pattern, you may enjoy stitching up a few saddles to protect your hens.
Depending on the temperament of the hen, she may object to being caught and held while you dress her. After the saddle is on correctly, the wings fold over most of it and the hens hardly seem to notice they’re wearing one. Occasionally the saddle will roll up the hen’s back. Flip it back down and when she adjusts, her wings it will cover it up again.
To make these hen saddles, I used two contrasting fat quarters, which can be purchased wherever quilting supplies are found. Two fat quarters will make four hen saddles. Of course, you can use any leftover cotton fabric you have on hand, too.
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Illustrations by Jacqui Shreve and Photos curtesy of Skyhorse Publishing.