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How To Tell The Age Of A Chicken (With Pictures)
Unless you are hatching chicks from eggs yourself, it can be tough to know the exact age of a chicken. Backyard chickens can live as long as 10 years, but hens usually only lay eggs until they are about 2-4 years old, depending on the breed. Roosters are only interested in breeding until they are about 3 years old. Because of this, it is important to learn how to tell the age of a chicken relatively accurately, especially if you are buying or rescuing full-grown birds.
The best way to tell the age of a chicken is to learn how their physical appearance and behavior changes as they age. A chicken’s feathers, legs, and coloring are good indicators of their age, no matter the breed.
The Life Stages Of A Chicken (And How To Tell Them Apart)
Chickens go through several different stages as they grow and develop. Their appearance and their behavior change as they age, allowing you to figure out roughly how old they are once you know what to look for. The approximate life stages of chickens are as follows:
From the time they hatch until they molt the last of their fuzzy down, baby chickens are considered chicks. This life stage generally lasts until your chickens are about 12 weeks old.
For the first 7 or so days of life, chicks are covered in the yellow fuzz we all think of when we picture baby chickens. After about a week of cute fuzz, chicks will begin to develop feathers. Chicks will go through a series of “mini-molts” over the next few weeks until the fuzz is gone and they have only feathers.
If your chicken still has fuzz or down, they are most likely 12 weeks old or less. Some breeds of chickens mature more slowly and may take 16-20 weeks to lose all their fuzz.
Pullets and Cockerels
Pullets and cockerels are living through the “teenage years” of the chicken. Pullets are females and cockerels are males. Female chickens are usually considered pullets from the time they get all their adult feathers until the time they lay their first egg at around 20-26 weeks.
During this stage of life, the chickens will grow and develop into full-grown chickens. Their combs and wattles will grow and become bright red and their legs will be smooth and shiny. They will have all their adult feathers which they will keep until their first full adult molt at 12-18 months. These feathers will be bright, shiny, and vibrant, especially the cockerels.
Before she starts laying, a pullet’s vent is small, dry, and pale. Another way to check the age of a pullet is to measure the distance between her pelvic bones on either side of the vent. Before egg laying starts, the distance should be about two fingers wide.
At this age, pullets will also start to be more submissive and you may notice them starting to nest in preparation for laying eggs. Cockerels will start to crow around 20 weeks and may begin chasing the pullets or adult hens.
Once a pullet begins to lay, she is generally considered a hen. Early on, the hen will lay smaller than normal eggs. but they will increase in size as she matures into her production. If you acquire a full-grown hen who is laying but only very small eggs, she is most likely just starting out and probably around 24-26 weeks.
Once she begins laying, the hen’s vent will become pink and moist. If you measure between her pelvic bones, it should now be about 3 or 4 fingers wide to allow the eggs to fit through.
Adult chickenʻs legs are rougher than those of a pullet, with scales. Around 12-18 months, chickens will have their first full molt. During this time, the color of their legs, comb, and wattles will fade as they lose their old feathers and grow new ones.
As already discussed, hens will generally lay eggs for about 2 years in total. Some breeds can still lay up until 4 years or even longer. Once they mature and are laying, it can be tough to tell the exact age of a hen. If you get an already laying hen, there’s not really a good way to tell how long you can expect her to continue to produce eggs.
Once hens and roosters are past their prime, they may start to exhibit signs of aging. Often, they will start to move slower and be less active. Their feathers may start to loosen, giving them an untidy appearance. The color on their legs, combs, and wattles will start to fade.
Once hens stop laying, their vent will become dry and hard and the space between their pelvic bones will narrow again. Senior roosters will no longer try to mate with hens and won’t crow much.
The legs of senior chickens are very rough. Hens will start to grow spurs on their legs at about 3 years old, which is another good way to tell the approximate age of your adult hen.
Backyard chickens live to an average age of 6-8 years but can live longer with proper care and safe housing. As they age, your chickens will appreciate some changes to their living arrangements such as lowered perches. This will make it easier for your older, possibly arthritic chicken to perch comfortably. Ask your veterinarian for additional advice for keeping your older chickens healthy and comfortable.
Ways To Make Sure Your Hen Lays Eggs As Long As Possible
Now that you know how to tell the approximate age of your chickens, you’ve also discovered that hens only produce eggs for about 2 years on average. That’s not very long considering their usual lifespan. What can you do to make sure your hens are productive layers as long as possible?
Research Your Breeds
Some chicken breeds are known to lay longer than others. One option for prolonging your egg production is to buy or rescue these breeds. Here are some chicken breeds recognized as longer layers for you to look for:
Many of these breeds were reported to lay more than 4 years, some even for 5 or 6 years!
Provide The Right Conditions
Hens need at least 14-16 hours of daylight for the most productive laying. It is also important to give your hens the right size chicken coop and nesting boxes, as well as the right number of nesting boxes. Generally, this is one box for every four chickens. Keep the bedding in the boxes clean and free from parasites like chicken mites.
Feed The Right Food
Feeding your hens the right nutritionally balanced diet will help them be more productive layers. Egg-laying hens need different nutrients than pullets or even chickens raised for meat. Because it takes extra protein to make an egg, diets for laying hens should have more protein.
The best way to ensure your hens are getting the proper mix of nutrients is to feed a commercial poultry feed. If you wish, you can supplement their diets by letting them free-range and forage or offering snacks of fruits, vegetables, and grains. Make sure your hens have access to plenty of fresh water as well.
Stressful conditions can impact a hen’s egg production. Some common stressors for hens are predators, crowded coops, and adding new hens to the flock. Try to provide your hens with a safe, clean, roomy environment to get the most out of their egg-producing years.
The only foolproof way to tell how old your chickens are is to hatch and raise them yourself. However, since this isn’t possible for everyone, learning how to tell the age of a chicken as closely as possible is the next best option. Hopefully, this knowledge will help you feel comfortable buying or rescuing full-grown chickens with a good idea of how long you can expect them to be productive. Learning all you can about how to properly care for your chickens will help them to live longer and produce eggs longer as well.
Featured Image Credit: klimkin, Pixabay
Nicole is the proud mom of Baby, a Burmese cat and Rosa, a New Zealand Huntaway. A Canadian expat, Nicole now lives on a lush forest property with her Kiwi husband in New Zealand. She has a strong love for all animals of all shapes and sizes (and particularly loves a good interspecies friendship) and wants to share her animal knowledge and other experts’ knowledge with pet lovers across the globe.