We all love our chickens, but how long do they live? The answer to the question can depend on so many things.
Nowadays, hens have become productive pets for thousands of people and we want the best for them, so knowing something about what to expect is really important.
Today, we are going to take a look at the lifespan of the average chicken and talk about some of the things that can affect their longevity.
History of Hens and Life Expectancy
Hens have not always been ‘pets’.
It is only recently there has been an explosion of folks that have started out keeping hens for eggs, only to find those bundles of feathers work their way into your heart and become family.
The ancestors of our hens were wild birds and as such life expectancy was short. If they could survive predators, hunger and other life threatening events, they could actually live 2-4 years at most.
In the mid to late 1800s, man started collecting chickens and ‘tinkering’ with them to meet human expectations, the chickens life was irrevocably altered. Many of the wild behaviors were suppressed, productivity was increased and chickens became a food source too.
So nowadays the lifespan of a backyard chicken can be anything from 3-10+ years. Their lifespan can vary depending on a lot of reasons, so keep reading to learn why.
Lifespan of Chickens (Heritage Vs Hybrid)
Heritage hens are hens which have been raised and bred naturally with their own kind. The benefits of heritage hens are many, including a longer life span; they can be expected to live for up to 8 years.
They are bred to be ‘natural’ layers so their laying period can cycle over 2-3 years, perhaps longer depending on the breed you have.
As their bodies and genetic content haven’t been ‘hybridized’ too much, they are likely to live much longer than hybrids.
To meet the American Poultry Association definition of heritage a bird must:
- Mate naturally
- Slow growth rate
- Have a longer, more productive outdoor life
- Come from pure stock
- Must meet the APA standard for the breed
Almost all hens, including heritage hens have at some point in their history been developed by poultry folk, but once the standard is ‘set’, very little will be done to alter the accepted bird.
Hybrids on the other hand, have been manipulated by mankind to be productive layers. Their laying cycle is pretty much done by the second year. They were created specifically for the egg laying industry starting during the 1940s. The goal was to get hens to maximize production and when they were done laying they were sent to the slaughterhouse.
Sadly, because of the manipulation of their egg laying abilities, hybrids are much more likely to die fairly young from reproductive tumors, egg yolk peritonitis and other reproductive tract issues.
Industrial or commercial hens are done at 18-24 months of age. After this age, peak production is on the wane and the hens are considered ‘spent’ – even though they will continue to lay for another 12 months or so.
Financially they become a loss rather than an asset and so are ‘retired’ to the slaughterhouse to become pet food.
Meat birds have an extremely short life. Some breeds can be butchered as early as 5 weeks. Other meat breeds such as the Red Ranger, can be allowed to grow and commence laying if desired depending on your requirements.
Factors Affecting Life Expectancy
Diseases of poultry are now much better understood and as such, we as caretakers can do a lot of preventative things for our hens to keep them healthy.
Parasites such as mites, lice and worms can all adversely affect the health of our flock. Mites will suck blood causing discomfort and anemia, lice can cause skin irritation and feather damage and worms can, in extreme circumstances, kill a hen.
Preventative actions such as dusting and worming can be performed regularly or when you have a problem, whichever suits your style of management. If you are not able to do close inspection of your flock on a weekly basis at least, I would recommend regular dusting to prevent infestations.
There are still, of course, diseases which we can’t do much about, such as Mareks or lymphoid leucosis. But with careful management we can prevent the spread of such viral diseases.
Chicken housing has come a long way since Grandma’s day. Back then the chickens would likely share the barn with the larger livestock and make their living from whatever was available to them. They could freeze to death, be trampled by bigger animals, killed by predators and a host of other indignities could be heaped upon them.
Nowadays in the backyard situation, they have purpose built coops that are designed to keep them cool in summer and warm in the winter.
They are sheltered from the worst of the weather and given bedding specifically for them – such luxury! There is no doubt that having safe, secure and protective housing has expanded the lifespan of a chicken.
Free from drafts, warm, dry and safe from predation has improved their lot not only physically but mentally too.
Commercial hens that are kept in ‘warehouse’ type conditions are more susceptible to respiratory disease because of the close quarters and being inside with dust and dander. Fresh air is very important in keeping respiratory problems at bay.
As we have seen in the past few years, Avian Influenza has taken a huge toll on the commercial poultry operations despite precautions being in place.
Diet and Nutrition
This is another area where tremendous progress has been made. Chickens used to subsist on whatever they could find in the way of grains and morsels, plus whatever the farmer might toss their way.
Today’s poultry diet is specifically manufactured for every stage of life – from chick to old biddy. Appropriate nutrition has played a tremendous part in increasing the lifespan of poultry.
In fact, our hens of today may be a bit on the ‘plump’ side from too much feed and/or treats – this is something that is becoming a problem for some breeds.
Overweight hens are prone to health issues such as leg and back problems, heart problems and respiratory issues. All treats should be given in moderation and exercise for the hens should be encouraged in the form of reward games such as cabbage tetherball.
Too much protein in the diet can cause kidney problems, so from being scrawny self-sufficient birds, our hens are turning into ‘coop potatoes’!
Overfeeding aside, the nutritional value derived from the commercially manufactured feed helps to give a great start to chicks and helps to maintain hens throughout their life.
The conditions in which a hen is kept will ultimately contribute towards her long term health.
A hen that is kept in a clean, dry, warm coop with adequate food and water is going to live longer than her neighbor that is kept in filthy conditions, with marginal nutrition fending for herself.
We have mentioned above that the manipulation of breeds in order to maximize egg output can have a harmful effect on the long term survival of the species.
Bird breeding can be tricky with breeds that have a small genetic pool. Oftentimes birds are interbred excessively to the detriment of the species as a whole; this clearly impacts lifespan.
Diligent breeders who bring in new stock from unrelated lines try very hard to increase the gene pool and create some diversity within the breed but it is a long and costly process and fraught with failures and disappointments.
Hens were always the ‘poor relations’ of the barnyard. They really weren’t considered ‘livestock’ until well into the 20th century.
As such, little attention was paid to their welfare and health issues. Thankfully much progress has been made with regard to the study of the humble chicken. As a result diseases and wellness issues are now much better understood.
Although they are still ‘as rare as hens teeth’, veterinarians who specialize in poultry are becoming easier to find.
As the keepers of the flock, we can do much in the way of first aid for our hens. The longer you keep chickens, the more practice you will get at caring for their feet, including bumble removals, health checks, medication administration and possibly stitching up small wounds.
Minor things can usually be taken care of at home before they become larger problems that may require more extensive care from a veterinarian.
5 Popular Breeds and Their Life Expectancy
As always, it’s hard to choose 5 popular hens – we love them all!
Rhode Island Reds
These are hardy, prolific egg layers and talkative birds. There are 2 lines of Rhode Island chickens – the most common is the production line, so we will talk about them.
As heritage chickens their genetic makeup has been left pretty much intact since the creation of the breed.
They can live 8+ years in ideal surroundings and with adequate nutrition and care.
Another heritage hen, with a good genetic profile. If this hen is given good care and nutrition, she should live to 6+ years.
A delightful chicken created for high production. As a hybrid that can produce an egg per day, they can literally lay themselves to death.
They are prone to reproductive tumors and other problems, if they live to 5 years they are considered old.
The fluffy backyard favorite! Orpingtons are a heritage breed so tend to have longer life spans than the hybrids. Orpingtons are generally mellow and can live 8+ years under ideal circumstances.
These darlings are a cross breed or hybrid hen. However, although they lay colorful eggs and many people buy them just for the colorful eggs, they were never meant for high egg production.
This is fortunate for the Easter Egger as it means they are more robust than many hybrids and can live for 8+ years.
As a general rule you should expect hybrid breeds to live between 2- 4 years; this will vary from bird to bird.
Heritage hens are more likely to outlive their commercial sisters by several years. The average age can be placed around 8 years. Landrace chickens are particularly hardy, self-sufficient and have a wide genetic base, so they are likely to live to a respectable age of 8+ years.
The oldest hen ever recorded was Matilda who made the Guinness Book of Records at 16 years old.
As a general rule, hens that have good housing, food and care and are allowed to express their natural behaviors should thrive.
When they are healthy and well cared for their immune system is in great shape to fight off any possible disease threats.
How old are your hens, do you have any really ‘old ladies’? Let us know in the comments section below…