Why does it matter? Well if you want to have fresh eggs, it matters. Several things are necessary for a hen to lay. For instance, did you know that chickens need light in order to lay their eggs? They need at least 14 hours of daylight, and that just doesn’t happen up here in the north at this time of the year. So we provide the next best thing and hang heat lamps in the coop to give them light and . . . um . . . heat. This keeps them warm through the cold winter months and keeps them laying. Unless they’re molting or too old.
The first year we raised chickens, I did a lot of reading about what to expect. One of the things I learned was that chickens have life-spans of 5-8 years but that by the time they become senior chickenzens they aren’t laying anymore and should probably be culled for the stock pot. In order to tell which hens weren’t working for their feed anymore there was a non-invasive way to measure their pelvic spread (I decided right then that THAT wasn’t going to happen!) over a two-week period. Besides the fact that this seems to be getting into their personal space a little too much, we have about 50 hens. Can you imagine trying to keep track? No, “The Ladies” (which is what I call my hens) would lay until they “retired” and then they would be allowed to live out their lives in continuing peace and freedom until they bought the farm (sorry, couldn’t resist).
So to return to my topic, how do you tell an old chicken from a young one? It’s actually pretty easy. Just go into the coop an hour or so before dusk. The old hens and roosters go to roost EARLY (several hours before dark actually) with full crops. They choose their spots and try their hardest to stay right where they are for the rest of the night. There are some tussles, irritable clucking, and rearrangements when a chicken who’s higher in the pecking order wants their place. But they settle down quickly, trying to get some sleep while the middle aged chickens roam around the coop, stocking up on food and water to last them through the night. The youngest of the flock, meanwhile, stay outside until they’re in imminent danger of missing curfew. (In chicken language, that means they wait so long that they can’t see inside the coop anymore, actually fall asleep on the coop ladder, and wait until the weird hairless chicken who feeds them everyday–but also steals their eggs–comes by and stuffs them through the coop door whether they want to go or not.)
And that’s how you tell a chicken teenager from a chicken grandma.