There is no official paper to determine the exact poultry age, but you can guesstimate their age in a few ways. For instance, you can be sure that chicks are approximately 72 hours old when ordering them from a breeder or hatchery since it is the standard period of their delivery.
However, things are different with adults. Determining their age is crucial, particularly when buying hens, because of their limited egg-laying abilities. Since the process varies depending on breed, the answer to the question of how old are my chicks can make a difference between a successful business and fraud.
Chicken Age Overview
An average chicken can live 6 to 10 years, but it is impossible to precisely determine their age unless you know the day of their hatching. However, there are some guidelines to help you with estimation. Each chicken goes through four life stages during the period of development, including:
Chicks (from laying to 16 weeks when finishing the last mini-molt)
This first stage includes a period from the hatching to approximately four months of age. Chicks entirely depend on their mother hens and learn everything necessary to survive. If you are interested in determining chickens’ age to use them for egg production, you should particularly check their characteristics in this period.
Cockerels or pullets (4 to 12 months)
This period typically lasts four to five months but can be prolonged to seven months in some breeds, like Brahmas. During this phase, chicks become teenagers, develop gender-specific traits, and become independent. Young pullets can start laying their first eggs.
Roosters or hens (adults older than 12 months)
The period from 12 to 18 months – The period of first molting can show you how quality chickens you have. Those that early molt and get new feathers are typically the best layers.
The period from 2 to 5 years – Hens start slowing down egg laying after the second year of life, slightly lowering their productivity. In this period, most industrial hens finish their life. Only heritage poultry continues laying eggs up to their fourth year.
Seniors (5+ years)
Most hens never reach this age because they completely stop laying eggs in this period and become unprofitable. A list of breeds known as long-lasting laying hens (4 to 6 years) includes the following:
If you decide to let your chickens live, you can expect them to reach 6 to 10 years on average, but some heritage breeds can live 15 to 20 years.
Ways to Differentiate the Chicken Age
As I have already mentioned, it is virtually impossible to precisely definitive chickens’ age by looking at them. However, you can estimate particular stages based on traits specific to each period of poultry life.
1. The first molt
The first molt implies losing the first feathers from 15 to 18 months of age. The entire process typically lasts 2 to 4 months, and hens often stop laying in that period to let their bodies build necessary nutrient reserves.
Afterward, you can expect molting approximately twice a year, following the weather changes in spring and autumn. The molting period is crucial for chickens to regain nutrients, but some breeders use artificial lighting in coops to prevent it.
2. Overall physical appearance
This way of age determination is not particularly precise, but you can see that cockerels or pullets look more vibrant, while feathers have a glossy sheen. Only young poultry has bright red combs and wattles and healthy, strong-colored legs.
On the other hand, adults have thick, long, fade-colored legs and feet and move more slowly. Since spurs need three years for full growth, you can use this trait to determine roosters’ age more accurately.
Feathers can help in estimating chickens’ gender and age. It is always more pointed around cockerels’ necks and a bit softer in pullets. You can also spot saddle feathers around necks and impressive arching tail feathers (sickle feathers) in roosters, while hens’ tails are less conspicuous.
Chicks typically lack combs and wattles in the very beginning. They actually have them, but it is often hard to see them with the naked eye in the first 12 weeks of age. Both are more pronounced in cockerels than in pullets.
While chicks spend time learning how to survive, cockerels and pullets start showing typical chicken-like behavior. You can notice your 6 to 12-week-old chicks start observing their surroundings while pecking. Unlike calmer adults, younger ones have lots of energy and tirelessly search for food.
While females are restrained, quiet, and stay behind, males begin chest-bumping, twisting their heads while posing, and choosing to stand at the group head. They are also loud, self-confident, and search for a challenge. You can expect most male chicks to start crowing at 8 to 20 weeks.
Chicken Appearance at Each Age Phase
Some breeders use colored leg bands to keep track of their chickens’ age. Without accurate information, you can assess it based on their physical appearance and behavior.
Newly hatched chicks are wet and unattractive but quickly become fluffy and fuzzy after spending a few hours under their moms or in the incubator.
Newly hatched chicks have 1.5 ounces (42.5 g) but quickly gain weight and grow during the first weeks. For instance, they can reach approximately 2.50 pounds (1.1 kg) in four months, depending on breed.
You can see the incomplete feathers replacing the first fluff in the second week. The first complete set of plumage appears after a mini-molt when chickens are 6 to 13 weeks old. It is also a period when the first differences between female and male chicks occur.
Be careful with chicks in this period since various breeds develop differently. So, strictly sticking to the timeline without considering possible variations can mislead you.
2. Cockerels and pullets
This period corresponds to the teenage years in humans. Chickens reach over 50% of adult body mass by 20 weeks, depending on the breed. For instance, Rhode Island Reds typically reach 3 pounds (1.36 kg) in this period, while Jersey Giants will continue growing until nine months.
Chickens look awkward during these months, but it is possible to recognize differences between cockerels and pullets. They keep the first feathers for a year before the next molt while plumage markings intensify, particularly in cockerels.
Pullets may lay their first egg when reaching 18 to 26 weeks of age, depending on the breed. Additionally, they start preparing nests in that period, often look where older hens lay eggs, and automatically go to the nesting box. Unfortunately, finding eggs in atypical places, like buckets and bushes, is also common.
Before laying the first egg, the pullet’s vent is small, rounded, pale, and dry but becomes moist and pink after that step. Some breeders can determine their age by measuring the distance between pelvic (pubic) bones in the vent height.
That width is approximately two fingers wide before the egg-laying starts. It reaches a width of 3 or 4 fingers in egg-laying hens.
In the beginning, laying is infrequent, while the first eggs are smaller than the average, may have a soft shell, or look misshapen. After a while, they become more sizable, and each hen produces four to five a week on average.
You can recognize the first male characteristics in cockerels in this period, including sickle feathers and pointed plumage around their necks. The comb reddening signals it is almost ready to mate.
You will hear the first crowing attempts as early as 7 to 8 weeks, but most cockerels will crow regularly and start chasing pullets by 20 weeks of age.
3. Roosters and hens
Chickens reach their full size and experience their first complete molt from 12 to 18 months. Hens become soft and rounded, while roosters get a well-muscled and upright bodies.
Roosters are sexually mature and start producing sperm at four months of age. Hens reach sexual maturity once they turn four months and are ready to mate as soon as they start laying eggs. The head rooster is watchful, alert, and protective, while secondary males are subservient and never crow when the leader is nearby.
Both have bright red combs and wattles, and their legs are yellow and rougher than in younger birds. Pay attention to their claws since they often tend to get longer as a sign that chickens are too inactive.
4. Senior chickens
Most roosters and hens never live to old age. It sometimes happens in families keeping ornamental chickens as pets. In such a case, you can notice that they become less active over time. Their combs, wattles, and legs fade and become rough, while plumage is untidy and partially plucked.
Since hens stop laying eggs by age five, their vents become hard, pale, and dry, while the distance between pubic bones narrows. Senior roosters rarely crow and may hurt someone with their long spurs.
It is virtually impossible to determine the chickens’ age precisely by looking at them. However, you can estimate particular life stages thanks to their appearance and behavior. For instance, most chicken breeds quickly grow in the first three months and then start showing significant physical changes.