We all love our feathered friends, but how much do we know about their life? What happens after the egg is fertilized? What developmental stages do they go through?
How long do they live?
We thought we would take the time to look at the life stages of our lovable chickens and answer some of these questions.
A chickens’ life cycle can be divided into several distinct stages.
Stage 1: Egg Development and Hatching
We won’t bore you with the old joke about the chicken and the egg – in our article the egg comes first!
A hen will lay an egg every 25-27 hours or so, this cycle goes on every day.
An egg will remain unfertilized unless the hen has been fertilized by a rooster. A hen can keep the roosters’ sperm viable in tiny pouches in her vagina for up to 3 weeks. Alternatively, if she doesn’t like the rooster she can eject his sperm, a neat little trick.
We will assume our hen likes the rooster and she now will lay a fertile egg.
She will continue to lay fertile eggs, gathering them in her nest until she feels she has enough eggs.
Now she becomes a broody – a hen you don’t want to mess with! She will sit diligently on those eggs for 21 days. During that time she will keep them warm, turn them regularly and expel any eggs that are not progressing.
When Day 21 arrives you will be greeted by lots of peeping from under Mama’s skirt. When they initially hatch they are ‘wet’, but they soon dry off and turn into those cute little fuzz balls that we can’t resist.
A short time before hatching, the chick will absorb all the nutrients from the egg into its body to support itself. The nutrients in the egg’s contents will sustain a chick for about 24-72 hours.
We may not be able to see what’s going on inside that egg, but there are certain ‘milestones’ that are important (and interesting) to know about.
Stage 2: Chick
So now you have several precious balls of fluff, what’s next? If mama is raising them, you need to do very little.
She will attend to their needs and care. The first days of their life will be spent under mama’s wings to keep them warm and safe.
You can provide her with separate quarters from the flock where she can raise her brood in peace and safety. You will also need to provide starter crumbs for the chicks. Water should not be cold or hot but at room temperature, some electrolytes for the first couple of days will ensure the health of babies and mama.
If you are incubating, you will need to provide warmth, food, water and safety for them. Special chick starter feed is needed for the high protein content to ensure healthy development. They will also need clean, fresh water (as chicks are messy you will likely find yourself changing the water several times a day!)
As the chicks don’t have mama to lead them, you will need to dip their beaks in the water and food dishes to let them know where they are. You can also tap the food bowl with your finger, imitating mama’s beak.
Warmth is also essential for them to thrive. The first week they are in the brooder the temperature of your heat lamp should be at 95F at chick level.
The temperature should be reduced by 5 degrees each week until you reach ambient temperature.
As your chicks get bigger they will start to sprout their first real feathers, this usually happens during the second week.
Also in the second week, you can add some chick grit to the brooder and perhaps a small perch for them to practice with. I also add a clump of short grass or dandelion weeds with dirt attached so they can get the benefit of greens and the dirt.
Weeks 3 and 4 sees them acquiring more feathers and growing rapidly.
By week 5 the temperature in the brooder should be matching the air temperature at 65-70F, you should be able to turn the lamp off since the chicks will now be fully feathered and able to control their own temperatures.
Around this time you will also see them start to acquire their first ‘adult’ feathers. You will also see them sorting out their pecking order!
If you wish, they can spend some time outside in a suitable pen to protect them from predators.
By week 8 they should be able to spend more time outside and you can start to expand their tastes: mealworms, grains and greens, scrambled eggs etc. At this point they are now technically pullets and cockerels; they have entered the ‘awkward juvenile’ zone.
Congratulations! You are now Mama or Papa to a gang of unruly teenagers…
Stage 3: Pullet (Adolescent)
Adolescent chickens are not the prettiest. They are skinny, all legs and look somewhat out of proportion when compared to your adult chickens. In fact they look much like their ancient relatives the dinosaurs!
Not to worry – they will soon be sleek and pretty like the adults, but meanwhile you have to be referee between the adults and juveniles.
The juveniles can be integrated with the adults when they are roughly 2/3 the size of the adults. As you doubtless know, the pecking order can be brutal, so keep your eyes open for extreme bullying.
Generally the youngsters learn to quickly get out of the way, but occasionally an adult bird will decide to be an absolute demon to the new arrivals and do everything possible to be obnoxious.
If possible it is best to leave the juveniles in with the adults so they only have to endure the pecking order once.
Ideally the cockerels will be introduced to the flock before they start to crow, especially if you already have a rooster. The boys need to learn their place in the flock otherwise you will have persistent fighting between the old and new.
The cockerels will be practicing their crowing every opportunity they get once they have settled their place in the hierarchy, so have your earplugs ready.
Adolescent hens will start to lay eggs around the 18 week mark, but this can vary a lot between different breeds. Once she has laid her first egg, she is an adult, although some folks call those first eggs ‘pullet eggs’ because they are so much smaller than hen eggs.
The adolescent period of a chickens’ life is mainly spent filling out the frame and learning all they need to know from the other adult hens.
Stage 4: Hen (Adult)
Now your pullet is a hen – she has laid her first egg, congratulations!
Although there may still be a few minor squabbles here and there, the new and older hens should settle into a routine. Some of your older hens may even take the role of teaching the newcomers.
The boys can become tiresome once the hormones kick in. They may challenge your head rooster at every opportunity they get.
There are a few solutions:
- Re-home them – easier said than done.
- Move them to a bachelor pad.
- Cull them.
As you know, hens molt every year to replace old, worn out feathers. The new hens will not molt until the following year, so they should keep laying through the winter for you.
The following spring, some of your ‘chicks’ may become broody mamas’ themselves and give you another generation of adorable chicks.
Most chickens lay well for the first year or two, but they start to slow production around the 72 week mark. Many will still lay for you but output will be noticeably less.
As chickens age, like most creatures they will start to show signs of ‘old age’. They will be less energetic and move slower, their legs and feet become thicker and possibly arthritic. Facial features take on an ‘aged’ or ‘tired’ appearance. Egg production may cease altogether or they may lay the occasional ‘yearly’ egg.
My older girls are done with laying now – I have several that are 8 years old. They can be seen spending their days lying in the sun or dust bathing sedately enjoying their retirement.
Depending on the breed chickens can live from 3-20 years. Admittedly the 20 year veterans are few and far between, but they do exist.
On average the usual range is between 5-8 years for most hens. Hybrid layers tend to have the shortest span as they are prone to developing reproductive tumors after 2 years or so.
Hens that are well taken care of and kept safe from predation can live much longer than 8 years assuming they are not culled because they have ceased to lay eggs.
It is always amazing to me how quickly the chicks grow into egg laying adults. I love to watch them interacting with the other birds and watching their crazy antics!
This article should have given you an overview of the main cycles of a chickens’ life.
Of course, there are many other little subtleties that we have passed by for the sake of brevity, but if you spend any time just sitting and watching your hens you will learn much more about them as you peek into their private lives.
We hope you enjoyed learning about the life of a chicken and perhaps you learned something too! Let us know in the comments section below…