While recent events have only accelerated the trend towards city-dwellers, urban gardeners, and suburbanites keeping their own chickens, buying any animal based on a trend or whim is a dangerous proposition. Odds are that the chickens will happily survive, and people who only bought them for something to do while stuck at home will suddenly have a new problem: a coop full of chickens they no longer want.
As anyone who’s started a chicken-keeping venture will tell you, keeping chickens requires a lot of infrastructure and planning. They’re generally more difficult to rehome than a cat or dog that can be given away or dropped off at a shelter. Therefore, anyone looking to get their first flock of chickens should not only ask themselves how they’re going to care for them, but how long they’re willing to do so.
How Long Do Chickens Live?
The question “how long do chickens live” is almost impossible to answer with any certainty. Despite the best preventive measures, any hen might succumb to an illness, pick up a parasite, or be killed by a predator at any time. Life expectancy can also vary based on living conditions and many other factors, like genetics, that chicken owners are simply unable to account for. That said, there are a few constant factors that allow us to estimate the approximate life expectancy of a hen based on breed, size, and laying capacity.
Like dogs, small chickens live longer than larger ones. The reason for that is that bantam and dwarf birds have much less body mass to maintain than, say, a Brahma hen. So their bodies are doing less work and wear out more slowly. Many bantam birds can live to 10 years old or more if properly cared for. But there are variations within breeds that can make all the difference in the world.
Breed variation is probably the biggest factor in how long a chicken will live and the most reliable indicator of their natural lifespan. A lot of heritage breeds are relatively hardy and long-lived; Rhode Island Reds can live for almost eight years. In contrast, high-production hybrids and other birds selected to have specific traits will tend towards shorter lifespans. Part of this is that when humans breed selectively for a specific trait such as high egg production or gorgeous feathers, they tend to also produce other traits as a side effect. This might include a tendency towards disease or illness that can drastically shorten a chicken’s lifespan.
The third factor with the biggest impact on chicken life span is egg production. In the same way that larger birds need more energy and their bodies need to do more to stay alive, a chicken that lays five or six eggs a week uses up a lot of energy and nutrients to produce those eggs. At a certain point, the best care and diet in the world won’t make up for this, and that chicken is more likely to live to four or five years old instead of eight or nine. This principle is perhaps best demonstrated by Matilda, the previous world record holder for oldest chicken. She died in 2006 at the ripe old age of 16, having never laid a single egg.
There are exceptions to this, like the aforementioned Rhode Island Red which are long-lived reliable egg layers. But even among reds, laying hens from a production strain live shorter lives than their sisters from the heritage strain of the same breed. In general, the shortest-lived chickens are high-production hybrid egg layers, and the hens that lay the fewest eggs live the longest lives.
When asking how long does a chicken live, there’s one last thing to cover: the lifespans of roosters. They tend to be shorter than those of hens, even from the same breed and living in the same conditions. This flies in the face of the lifespan of chicken average that we’ve laid out above. Roosters don’t live a long time, and hens tend to live longer.
How Long Do Chickens Lay Eggs?
That brings us to the question of how many years a healthy hen will be laying eggs. Most hens start laying at around 18 months old, but they don’t generally continue into old age. Here again, there can be differences among breeds and drastic variations between individual chickens. And here again, the essential question is whether to prioritize high production or a longer laying period, as the two are usually mutually exclusive.
The trouble is that backyard chicken owners often want something very different from their hens than industrial producers. Industrial producers want chickens who lay eggs as fast as possible in as short a period as they can manage. This means a lot of production birds, especially the modern hybrids, are laying eggs almost every day for 18 months or two years and then stop or reduce capacity dramatically. This is fine for an industrial set-up where the bird can simply be replaced once she stops laying eggs, but less than ideal for many backyard homesteaders who want a steady supply over several years.
There are compromise choices, such as a production strain of a heritage breed. These birds still maintain frequent production, but they’ll last longer than the hybrids both as active egg layers and their overall life expectancy. Just the switch from an industrial hybrid to a heritage production strain will likely double the years of high-production egg laying to three or four years. Pure heritage breeds or infrequent layers will probably last the longest in terms of production at five to ten years.
But raw numbers don’t tell the whole story. “Five years of production” doesn’t mean five years of laying the same number of eggs as she did when the hen was only two years old. As anyone with aches and pains can tell you, aging (even gracefully) means slowing down, and this also holds true for hens and their egg laying. Most hens lay the most eggs in their first year of production and begin to drop off after that. Their egg production will continue to gradually decline until they eventually stop laying eggs altogether.
What To Do If You Can’t Keep Your Hens
Even for people who love their birds and are fully prepared to care for them for 15 years or more, sometimes it can become necessary to find a new home for their flock. Perhaps someone wanted to try out chicken-keeping and has come to realize it isn’t for them. Either way, rehoming chickens is tricky.
Your best bet is probably a local farm that already keeps chickens on a large scale, somewhere where adding your flock to the mix won’t require major recalculations. Search online or reach out to the local chicken-keeping community to find people who might be looking for a few more hens, or at least willing to take a few more on.
If that proves unsuccessful, a farm-specific animal rescue is probably the last best option. The local animal shelter is likely not equipped to take care of a flock of chickens, but depending on where you live there may be organizations that specialize in rescuing and rehoming unwanted livestock
Overall, the key takeaway is that keeping chickens isn’t a great activity to undertake on a whim. Unlike a DIY project you’ll never finish, chickens can’t be moved into the basement when you don’t want to deal with them anymore, and their life expectancy ensures you’re locked into a commitment of 10 years or more. Knowing this in advance gives you a realistic basis from which to begin, and you can prepare for a long-lived, healthy flock.
About our guest writer, Chris Lesley:
Chris has been raising backyard chickens for over 20 years. She has a flock of 11 chickens (including 3 Silkies) and is currently teaching people all around the world how to care for healthy chickens. She is the managing editor of the website Chickens and More.
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