Most people know the approximate age of their birds when they first get them.
But how do you know their age if you are given some birds or rescue some?
Knowing the age of your chickens is crucial, without it it’s difficult to know their egg laying ability, what to feed them and what their general health should be.
Ageing a chicken is obviously not an exact science and some breeds are exceptions to the ‘normal’ rules, so the best you can do is to get an approximation.
Most backyard chickens live to an average age of six to eight years, but again there are exceptions! A hen that is kept as a pet is likely to live longer than her sister that’s outside foraging.
There are several clues to be found on close inspection of your birds.
We are going to look at your chicken through its lifetime and give you the ability to ‘date’ your chicken with a good amount of confidence.
These tips will help you make a reasonable ‘guesstimate’ of the age of your chickens.
It will also help you to tell the difference between pullets and cockerels before they crow!
Out of the Egg
This is the first stage of life.
Initially they don’t look at all attractive, more like semi-drowned blobs! After several hours in the incubator (or under mama), they dry to a fuzzy, fluffy little chick. This is the cute, little fuzz ball we all adore.
Around six to eight days old, the chick will start to grow its first feathers. This gives it the appearance of a really bad haircut, the fuzz sticks out at angles and the feathers are incomplete at this stage.
The chick will start to have a mini-molt anywhere from six to twelve weeks when its first full set of feathers will grow in. It’s around this time that you can begin to spot the difference between hens and cockerels.
By this time you will notice which chicks seem more assertive, less fearful and seems to stand more upright- keep an eye on this chick, it may be a boy!
Also, notice the comb on your chicks- boys tend to start growing out their combs more than the girls and their feet and legs tend to be sturdier.
The feather difference is the giveaway though! As the feathers of the mini-molt start to come in, you are able to see the difference between them:
- Cockerels tend to have pointed hackle feathers around the neck; hens’ feathers will be more rounded.
- Saddle feathers on a rooster grow longer and more pointed than a pullet. If you’re not sure where to look for saddle feathers, think of where you would place a saddle on the bird.
- Sickle feathers- these are the long, elegantly arching tail feathers that roosters have. Hens have basic, unremarkable tail feathers.
So now you know the difference in feathering, an unscrupulous seller won’t be able to offload roosters onto you! Please keep in mind that some breeds develop quicker than others, so the time line will change slightly with the breed.
For example: I can tell the sex of my Barbu D’Uccles by six weeks or so, but I cannot yet see the difference in my Bredas’.
How Old is My Pullet?
A pullet is a hen that has not yet come into lay. The average age when a pullet starts to lay is about twenty weeks.
Some sex link birds start to lay at sixteen weeks, while Orpingtons’ can go to twenty eight weeks! Pullets continue to put on body mass between twelve and twenty weeks. If the pullet is about the size of an adult hen, she is near the twenty week mark.
Young pullets (and roosters) look and act like awkward teenagers, they aren’t particularly attractive at this stage and they are usually a bit pushy, but are soon reminded of their lower ‘status’ by the older ladies!
They will soon blossom into fine looking hens and roosters and will find their place in the flock.
As they age their combs become fuller, more developed, ‘fleshy’ and a more vibrant red as do the wattles.
There are some breeds out there that don’t have noticeable combs and small wattles, the Breda fowl for instance, it’s a bit trickier to ‘age’ them but it can be done with careful observation and practice.
If you are buying pullets make sure they are in good health. They should look robust, be active, eyes should be bright and alert and the feathers should have a glossy sheen to them.
If the bird looks nothing like this- don’t buy it.
Once the pullet starts to lay, she becomes a hen.
A young hen will lay smaller eggs at the beginning of her laying ‘career’. They also can be soft shelled, misshapen and infrequent.
Once her egg laying machinery has kicked into full throttle, the eggs will become larger and she will lay four to five eggs a week on average.
Another way to tell the difference between a pullet and hen is by checking the width between the pubic (or pelvic) bones.
You should be able to feel these bones either side of the vent. With a pullet, the finger width between these two bones will be around two finger breadth. In a laying hen, the bones are more distant and you should be able to fit three or four finger breadths between them.
How Old is My Hen?
If you are new to chickens, this may seem like an impossible question to answer, after all, they don’t come with birth certificates!
Personally, I keep a record of my chickens ages in with their health records so that I can see at a glance how old, where did I buy etc.
However, it is possible to visually eyeball a bird and give an approximate age.
If the bird has not yet had her first full molt, she can be anywhere from twelve to around eighteen months.
The first full molt is around fifteen to eighteen months- she will not molt until she has passed the twelve month mark.
If your coop looks like an explosion in a pillow factory- they are molting. The speed with which they finish the molt and grow new feathers is variable. It is said that good layers will molt and re-feather rapidly. The molt can last anywhere from two to four months.
Young birds tend to look vibrant and full of life. The feathers have a good, glossy sheen to them, the comb and wattles are full red, eyes bright and curious, shank and feet have good solid color. They always seem to have lots of energy and spirit- they want to explore anything and everything to the point where they seem oblivious to danger sometimes!
An older hen is a bit more sedate and more like a grandmother than a teenager! She will come running for food and will happily remind the younger girls’ who is boss- a quick peck to the head will deter most of the younger hens.
She will have perfected the ‘stink-eye’ look- this is the look she’ll give you to note displeasure. It’s as good as saying ‘just what do you think you’re doing?’!
Her feathers will have lost a little of the gloss of younger birds, but she should still look to be in good condition. The feathers lose some of their ‘tightness’ over the years. This means they are not as closely linked together as they are in younger birds. This gives a slightly disheveled look to some hens.
Combs will still be red, but have a slightly different texture. The comb will likely have a few small scars from being pecked by her sisters. The lower status hens may even have some ‘fingers’ missing from the comb.
A roosters’ comb can be almost ‘dubbed’ if he has been fighting for dominance. Dubbing is the removal of comb and wattles, occasionally earlobes. This practice is slowly dying out thankfully.
The feet and legs of older birds tend to thicken and the scales can be slightly raised. The leg coloring will also look faded and you may find spurs.
If your hen has spurs, she is not a youngster!
Generally they grow spurs around three years of age, and they grow in length over time – so long spurs equal an older bird.
Older birds can also suffer from a type of viral arthritis which causes tendonitis, causing them to move stiffly, much as a human with bad arthritis. You will notice they walk a bit more carefully, go a bit slower and generally avoid exerting themselves unless good cause arises.
To help the older hens be able to roost at night, trying placing some lower perches in the coop. You can also rub a salve made of plantain into the legs. Plantain is an herb that is considered to be antiseptic, reduces inflammation and also a pain reliever.
I use it not only with my chickens, but it also make a hand cream for myself!
When you look at a chicken you can generally get a pretty good ‘feel’ for the birds’ general age. As you uncover the clues discussed above, they will help to confirm (or not) your thoughts on the general age of the bird.
There are always exceptions to every rule, but if you follow the tips above you will get a fairly good idea of your chicken’s age.
Keeping records of development, characteristics, ages and so on, will help you to remember for future use and can also serve as a health record too.
Do you have any tips for identifying the age of your chickens- let us know in the comments below!