How to Tell How Old A Chicken Is (Tips and What To Look For)

young chicken pullet

There are many circumstances where you might need to estimate the age of a chicken that’s in your flock. In this article, I go over some of the specific things you can look for to to tell how old a chicken is.

How to Tell How Old A Chicken Is

It’s lots of fun to hatch chicken eggs or buy chicks to build your flock. If you begin your flock this way you know exactly how old your chickens are as you watch them grow. Other people prefer instant rewards from their hens and choose to buy chickens that are already laying eggs. Whether you buy from another chicken owner, are bidding on some birds at an auction, or trading with some friends, how can you be sure of the age of your chickens?

If you don’t care about your chicken’s age, this is a moot point. If you want to be able to cater to your hens as they age and have different needs, it’s important to keep track of their age.

How Chickens Age

baby chicks on a  rock

Pams Backyard Chickens explains that there is no definitive way to determine the age simply by looking at a chicken. Even chicken owners who see their chickens daily, rarely notice the aging processes of their girls. When they see them every day, the chickens may have changed but in the owner’s eyes, they still look the same.

If you are planning on building a flock and will be hatching or buying new chickens over the years, a simple way to keep track of your hen’s age is to use colored bands. Pick a different color each year you update your flock. Keep a record of the color you used for that year. You will always have a reliable method of tracking the age of your chickens. There are many types of bands for chickens available on Amazon.

The Happy Chicken Coop gives general tips to look for throughout a chicken’s stages of life.

6 to 8 Days

Baby chicks come out sticky, but within a few hours they will begin to fluff, no need for a hairdryer. The first day they have the appearance of victims of a bad haircut. The fuzz will be sticking out from all angles and they will only have grown a few feathers.

6 to 12 Weeks

Finally, the chicks will begin to grow real feathers. The full set will grow in and this is the time you may be able tell the difference between the females and the males. The difference will not only be physical, but you will notice the males will be more assertive, less fearful, and will stand more upright.

The visual difference is seen in the comb. Compare the chicks and look for the combs that are larger and protrude higher. If you would like to see how this is done, check out this YouTube video from The Happy Chicken Coop on how to tell the hens from the cockerels (roosters).

The feathering between the hens and roosters will be very different.

  • Rooster have pointed feathers called hackles around the neck, where hens will have more rounded feathers.
  • Roosters grow longer and more pointed saddle feathers on their back (imagine where you would put a saddle on a chicken).
  • Hens will have very plain tail feathers. Rooster have long sickle feathers that arch out from their tails.

Breeds of chickens develop on different times lines. In the slower developing breeds, it may not be possible to see the changes in the feathers until more toward the 12-week mark.

You can read more about how to sex a chicken in this article I wrote.

Sex Link Chickens

Sex links are a hybrid chicken breed. Described by Backyard Chicken Coops,

they are the result of crossing two or more chicken breeds. The purpose is to create a chicken that lays more eggs, produces better meat, or displays a certain attribute like better plumage, size, or temperament.

The coolest thing about sex links is that they can be identified by their sex (or sexed) on the day they hatch. This makes the process of separating the male and females much easier for chicken farmers.

12 to 20 Weeks

Maybe you’ve heard of the term “pullet”? A pullet is a hen that has not yet started laying eggs. Typically, a pullet begins laying at around 20 weeks. Some sex link varieties may begin laying as early as 16 weeks. The typical pullet will reach an adult size somewhere around 20 weeks. Once a hen lays her first egg, she is no longer a pullet, she is now a hen.

If you are unsure if a bird you are purchasing or have been given is a pullet or a laying hen, there is a way to determine this. You can gently turn the chicken over and check the width between her pelvic bones.

You can feel the bones on either side of her vent (the opening where she expels waste and lays her eggs). If you have a pullet, the breadth between these bones will be about two fingers in width. Eggs layers will have had their bones expanded with the egg laying process. You will be able to fit 3 or 4 fingers between these bones.

How to Tell How Old A Chicken Is

Since chickens do not come with birth certificates, all you can do is give an educated guess as to their age. If you know your chicken is fairly young, she has started laying eggs and is no longer a pullet, you can look for the next age benchmark.

The First Molt

chicken molting

Her first molt (when chickens lose their feathers and may stop laying in order to build up their nutrient reserves) will occur somewhere between 15 to 18 months. Molting can last anywhere from 2 to 4 months. The speed with which she will regrow her feathers will vary.

Both roosters and hens molt. This process can take place twice a year, usually when the weather changes in the spring and fall. There are ways to help or forgo molting such as adding artificial light to the coop. Some chicken raisers believe this a natural rebuilding time and chickens should be allowed to molt in order regain nutrients.

Learn more about molting chickens here.

Overall Physical Appearance

Wyandotte  chicken

In general, young birds will look more vibrant, have a glossy sheen to their feathers, and the comb and wattles are bright red. The feet will have a healthy, strong color. They will have lots of energy. Older hens are much more sedate. They will have lost some of the gloss of the younger girls. You will notice some loss of feather tightness which gives them an almost dishevelled look.

Combs will have faded slightly and have a different texture. Some of them will even droop. They may be missing fingers from their combs as the result of altercations with the other ladies.

More Indicators Of A Chickens Age

Let’s look at some additional indicators of your chicken’s age.

  • Feet and legs will thicken, scales may be slightly raised
  • Leg coloring will look faded
  • Spurs grow around 3 years – the longer the spurs the older the hen
  • Chickens can suffer from arthritis – birds moving stiffly are probably older
  • Older birds move more slowly and with caution
  • Older chickens may have difficulty flying up to a perch and will roost in lower places

How Long Do Chickens Live

Chickens typically live between 8 to 10 years. If you can rule out a chicken is not a youngster, and they show some signs of aging, you can guess that bird is between 5 and 7 years. If they looked more dishevelled, have lost their leg color and their feathers look dishevelled, you are probably looking at a bird between 7 and 10 years.

You can read more about how to care for aging chickens in my article How To Care For Older and Aging Chickens.

Best Way To Track A Chickens Age

The best way to keep track of your hens’ ages is to use colored leg bands. Taking good care of your chickens and feeding them a proper diet will prolong their lives. Some chickens have been recorded as living up to 20 years! Pamper your chickens and keep them healthy and happy and they will provide you with wonderful, delicious, and nutritious eggs for many years. 

Final Thoughts

You probably won’t be exact in determining a chicken’s age, but you can uncover clues to make a more educated guess. Taking note of coat, feathers, legs, and combs can let you know if you are looking at a younger or older chicken. Watch how they walk, their state of mind, and you can get a general feel for the bird’s age.

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