Just how do you tell the age of a chicken?
It can be important to know the approximate age of a chicken.
For instance if someone wants to sell you a pullet, how do you know it is a pullet and not a spent hen? Is it a pullet or a cockerel?
Since chicks do not come with birth certificates it can be a difficult task! However here are a few ways to guesstimate their age.
Today we are going to explain some of the visual things to expect at certain ages, behaviors associated with certain developmental stages and practical hands on ways to check the age of a chicken…
We also have a handy chicken age chart too!
Contents and Quick Navigation
Chicken Age Overview
Chickens go through three key development stages during their lifetime.
Roughly speaking the chick is a chick until the last mini-molt is done. Once she has her big girl feathers she is a pullet.
Then once she is a year old she will be considered a hen.
Below you will find a detailed bullet point list of the key developmental stages of the chicken and their visual changes to help identify their age.
- 0-16 weeks: This is the hatching to pullet phase. This period is marked by the dependence of the chick upon a mother hen for education and survival.
- 16-20 weeks: This marks the start of total independence. Mothers will no longer take care of the youngsters. This is also the point of lay when young pullets are getting ready to lay their first eggs. Adolescent chickens are either pullets (female) or cockerels (male). A pullet will be starting to approach her point of lay sometime after week 16. However it can be up to 7 months with some breeds (such as Brahmas). She will remain a pullet until her first year is done.
- 12 months: Congratulations your pullet is now a hen! Some folks refer to pullets younger than one year as hens. This is a regional and variable thing, but technically she has to be a year old to be a hen.
- 12-18 months: At the one year mark she will become a hen and will experience her first full molt soon – the adult molt is a miserable time for them. Those that molt really quickly and grow feathers back quickly are said to be your best layers.
- 2+ years: After their second year laying eggs they will start to slow down egg laying. They will still lay but they won’t be as productive as the first 18-24 months. This is the usual age that industrial hens are culled sadly. If they are heritage birds then they can still lay up into their fourth year.
- 5+ years: The vast majority of hens that live to 5 years will no longer be laying. Some ladies may pop out the occasional egg but they will be infrequent. Heritage breeds can live to be 8-10 years old and some have reached 20 years! Obviously the better you care for them the longer they will live.
How To Tell The Age Of A Chicken
There are three key development stages of chicks from when they hatch until they are matured adults.
To know how old a chicken is you need to know the key visual differences at each development stage.
Below we explain the three key development stages and how to know which stage your chicken is at.
Chicks (0-12 Weeks)
A chick is a chick right?
A chick is a chick until they become an adolescent (pullet or cockerel). So how do you tell if your chick is days old or weeks old?
From hatch until day 6 your chick will be covered in a fine down coat – not a feather to be seen.
Around day 7 or so, the first of the chick’s feathers will start to appear, usually these will be the wing tips.
At this time they start to look like a bad haircut until all of the feathers are grown in, this will be by the fourth week of life. The second and final mini molt will start around the seventh week and last until week 12. During this time the small baby feathers will be replaced by the first adult plumage.
The boys will start to grow long pointed feathers on their neck, saddle and tail. These are respectively called hackle, saddle and sickle feathers.
Girls will grow feathers that are more rounded at the ends and fairly uniform in length, they do not have any hackle, saddle or sickle feathers.
At hatch your chicks will weigh around 1.4oz each (40 grams).
Over the next 12 weeks they will put on an amazing amount of weight. At week 12 the same chicken will weigh 2lb 6oz (1.1kg) on average.
Meanwhile their body has changed from a cute little fuzzy ball to a slender and somewhat gawky teenager.
Comb and Wattles
When your chicks hatch most of their combs and wattles will be fairly small.
Some of the boys might have a largish comb at hatch however their wattles will not be too noticeable at this time.
At week 12 you will see distinct differences in the comb and wattles. The combs will now be quite apparent and the wattles (if your breed has them) will be noticeable too. Although neither comb nor wattles will be vibrant, they will start to turn red.
You should see some distinct differences between the boys and girls now. The boys usually have much larger more developed combs and their wattles too will be much larger than the girls.
Your chick’s legs are tough but spindly when they hatch. By week 12 they will have thickened out and the boys legs will be noticeably larger than the ladies.
Breeds that are yellow legged such as ISA Browns will start to show noticeable coloring on their legs now.
Nothing to note here at this time.
As day old chicks they do not really show too much in the way of behaviors.
However as they grow you will notice them doing things like chest bumping, stare downs and posturing.
They are setting up the pecking order of the group.
Boys will become more extrovert, stand taller and start to push to the front of the group. They may even challenge you as they get older. They should start crowing sometime around week 7-12. The girls are more subdued. They will stay at the back of the group, adopt a lower (more submissive) posture and be quieter than the boys.
By week 12 you should have some clear ideas about the sexes of the chicks and the pecking order too if you have been paying attention.
Pullets and Cockerels (12-52 Weeks)
At around 12 weeks old your chicks are starting to become teenagers.
They usually look a bit awkward and gawky at this time.
By now they will have their adult plumage and this will be kept for a whole year before they molt and grow in new feathers.
Over this first year their plumage markings will intensify (especially with young roosters).
Their hackle feathers will be pointed and will flow down to their shoulder. The saddle feathers too will flow down his side. Finally, their sickle feathers should start to look quite magnificent too.
Your pullets will continue to grow and fill out their frames.
At around 20 weeks old the majority of your chickens will have achieved just over half their adult body mass. As an example a Rhode Island Red will weigh around 3.1lb (1.4kg).
Some breeds will continue to grow until 9 months – Jersey Giants are a good example. They will start to look slightly less slender and start to appear more like the older hens with a more solid and rounded frame.
Combs and Wattles
Your hen’s wattles and combs will start to redden and flesh out when she is approaching her point of lay (ready to lay her first egg).
The reddening of the comb also signals to the rooster that she is almost ready to mate.
By now the roosters’s wattles and comb will be large and red, when he crows he will shake them to attract the ladies. The vibrancy of the comb and wattles of both sexes are indicators of good health and vigor.
Their legs should be fully colored by now.
They should also be sturdy and smooth. Any raised scales should be checked over as this is not normal for a young bird.
The vent of a pullet who has not started laying will be rounded, small, dry and pale.
Once your pullet starts to lay eggs their vent become pink and moist.
The first couple of eggs may create a drop or two of blood but this should stop fairly quickly.
As a young pullet hens will start to show signs of submission.
She may squat down if you pet her – this means she is ready to receive a rooster.
Hens will also develop some nesting traits.
She may go around checking out the nesting boxes and other darkened areas that would be suitable to lay her first egg. She may pick up bits of straw and bedding and place them on her back.
If she has been able to watch older hens laying she will likely go automatically to a nesting box but this is not always so. You may find eggs in unusual places (under bushes, in buckets etc) so make sure there are enough nesting boxes for her to have one.
As she starts to lay eggs she may appear anxious and a bit confused – this is normal.
Her hormones are driving her and she does not understand what is happening right now.
The first eggs may be small until her egg machinery gets into gear. Once she has the hang of it she will be more settled in her behaviors.
Young roosters can be a nuisance at this point. They may challenge the head rooster on a daily basis.
They may chase down the hens to mate and can cause some nasty wounds. This is the time to put them into bachelor quarters to prevent your hens getting injuried.
Hens and Roosters (1+ Year)
Somewhere between 12-18 months your hen will experience her first full molt.
This is when all her old and tatty feathers start to fall out and get replaced by new shiny feathers. These new feathers will help to keep her warm through the cold nights ahead, keep her dry and insulated and make her look more attractive to the rooster during mating season.
By the end of their first year you can expect your chickens to have reach their full weight.
Your pullet will have changed from a slender chicken into a more homely and cuddly hen. Her shape will be more rounded and softer.
Roosters will have developed into a well-muscled and upright bird now.
Combs and Wattles
The combs and wattles of older chickens appear plumper than those of the pullets.
When the molt starts the color of the comb and wattle will have faded to a washed out red or pink color. The vibrancy will not return until she is ready to lay eggs and mate again (perhaps a few months in the future).
At the start of their first molt you will notice that the color of their legs has faded to a pale beige color.
This has happened over the laying period as the coloring in the legs helps to keep the yolks orange. The pigment in their legs will be replaced ready for the next season of laying.
Also older chickens will have much rougher legs than the younger birds.
You may notice some scales lifting slightly – do not pull these off! You should however check that they do not have scaly mites on her legs. Read read our guide on chicken mites to learn more.
The claws of older hens also tend to get longer as they are not so active – you may need to trim them occasionally. Your older ladies can also suffer from arthritis and they will walk with a stiff leg and perhaps limp occasionally. You can help by placing perches lower or providing a ramp up to their usual perch at night.
The vent should now be well rounded, moist and pink. During the molt the pinkness will fade and secretions dry up until the next laying cycle.
Older hens that are no longer in lay will have a pale, sometimes yellowish vent that is dry.
The following video shows you how to check the width between the pelvic bones and the width between the keel and the vent. These two measurements are important as they will help you to determine which hens are laying and which are not.
Roosters are good for mating up to about 3 years old.
After this his interest in mating diminishes as does his sperm count. At this point he may be challenged by a younger rooster and dethroned.
The hens will be calmer now because they will have adjusted to the hormonal changes in their body and found their place in the pecking order.
Depending on your breed, your girls may or may not be prone to being broody too.
The head rooster is ever alert and watchful – he takes his job very seriously. Secondary roosters in the flock will be subservient to him and they will not be allowed to crow before him.
Your head rooster will also guard all of the girls against the lesser roosters.
Frequently Asked Questions
When do chicks first get feathers?
Their first feathers start to come in when they are seven days old. Once they are four weeks old they should have a complete set of feathers.
When are chickens fully grown?
Chickens are considered to be fully grown once they reach one year old, although some breeds will continue to grow and develop a bit more after this.
When do chickens stop laying?
This will depend upon the breed.
Some hybrids will only lay for a couple of years before they will stop laying. However heritage breeds will lay for a bit longer – often into their fourth year before they stop completely. There have been hens that have laid beyond 4 years but it is unusual.
So there you have it.
It is a very imprecise science but you can at least have a reasonable idea of how old your hen is.
If you decide to rescue hens then the rescue organization usually have an idea of how old they are. These hens are rarely over 18-24 months old so they should still have some reasonable laying power left in them.
Of course not every chicken has read the egg instruction book and you may have ladies that are poor layers for whatever reason.
How old are your chickens? Let us know in the comments below…