How Do You Know How Old a Chicken Is?

Hatching eggs and buying day-old chicks are two popular ways to build a backyard flock. In those cases, you know how old your chickens are. But sometimes opportunities to add full-grown birds present themselves — swap meets, poultry shows, trading with friends, to name a few. Other than the previous owner's word, how do you know how old a chicken is? For some, age isn't important. For others, it matters.

Aging Over Time

Can you tell how old a chicken is just by looking at it? No. There really is no definitive way to look at a chicken and know it's age. On a personal note, I have to say that as my flock ages, it's amazing to look back and see how my birds have changed over time. It's like they always say that people change gradually and those closest to them never notice. I found the same thing with my chickens, they changed, but they stayed the same in my eyes.

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Clues to Chicken Age by the Numbers

16 to 20 Weeks — Is your chicken laying eggs? Most chickens start laying eggs within the four-week span of 16 to 20 weeks. The average start for laying is 18 weeks. FYI - Backyard chickens hatched in the fall will most likely not lay when they come of age over the winter during short daylight hours. They will lay in the spring as daylight hours increase.

16 Weeks — Roosters at 16 weeks will have hackle feathers (located on the sides of the neck) that are long and pointed. They will have long, skinny saddle feathers that are located at the base of the tail and curve up and over. Roosters, at this point, will also crow and have a large comb and wattles.

18 Months — Did the adult chickens you purchased go through a molt in late summer/early fall? If so, that means they are at least 18 months old. The change from old, worn out feathers to new feathers allows chickens to go through the winter months with feathers that protect them from the cold and harsh elements. If you think about it, spring hatched chicks go through their first winter with feathers that are in good shape since they're brand new. The 18- month molt gets them through the next winter and all those after, with good feathers.

Weekly Egg Count — Check out the average weekly egg count for your chicken's breed. Is she coming near that count or missing it? Barring other issues, this may give you a clue to your chicken's age. If she's not laying as many eggs as younger chickens from her breed, she could be getting up there in years.

Looks Matter

Legs — Over time, a chicken's legs (shanks) will grow thicker and rougher. Any issues they've had over time will become more prominent. For instance, my New Hampshire hen had quite a few missteps in her younger years and even broke her leg once. All those injuries, while healed, have left their mark.

Spurs — Roosters get longer spurs as they grow older, but beware, this isn't foolproof because spurs can, and should, be maintained over time. Be aware that hens can grow spurs, some from a young age, but mostly this happens in older hens. In my flock, both my New Hampshire and Brown Leghorn hens grew spurs at around four years old. Both have only one spur and they're much smaller than a rooster's spurs, but they are a sign of hen aging.

Coloring: For this, you need to know your breeds because some change coloring over time. For instance, the Speckled Sussex starts out with more mahogany red than white-tipped spangles. With each molt, the Speckled Sussex gets more and more white-tipped spangles.

Ultimately, there's no way to know exactly how old a chicken is unless you've raised it or have a reliable source of information on its background. By looking at the numbers and physical clues, you can have a rough idea of age. But it's important to remember that many of the rules above are made to be broken. Chickens don't always lay eggs reliably to their breed's average egg count no matter what the age. Chickens can go through molt at different times for reasons that aren't seasonal. Legs can have imperfections from activity early in life.

Trying to guess a chicken's age is really just that - a guess. So make it an educated guess!

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