When you purchase chicks from a hatchery or breeder, you know roughly how old they are. Most chicks are delivered within 72 hours of hatching, after all. But what happens when you’re gifted chicks or rescued some? Figuring out the age of chicks when you don’t know when they were born can be difficult. However, there are some simple ways to figure out the age of your chicks.
Let’s get started, so you can determine how old your chicks are today.
Overview of Chick and Chicken Ages
There are four main life stages in a chicken’s growth: chick, pullet or cockerel, adult (hen or rooster), and senior. Most chickens live between 6-8 years, though some breeds age faster or slower than others. This is a brief look at how fast chicks age and what to expect for developmental milestones:
- 0-16 weeks old: This is when a chick is fresh out of an egg all the way to the point it is considered a pullet or cockerel. During this period, chicks learn how to survive.
- 16-20 weeks old: This is when a chick becomes a teenager and starts to develop gender-specific traits. For females (pullets), this is around the time they start preparing for egg-laying. Some breeds, like Brahmas, take longer than 20 weeks, however.
- 12 months old: Your teenage chickens are now full grown. Your hens will have full egg-laying capabilities.
- 12-18 months old: This is when most chickens experience their first full molt.
- 2-5 years old: After two years old, many chickens start slowing down. Though they will live for many more years, hens older than 2 years tend to lay less eggs.
- 5 years and older: Older chickens are considered seniors and tend to slow down even more. Hens no longer lay eggs. Keep in mind that many breeds live up to 8-10 years, but if you care for your chickens well from birth, they may live past 15 years old!
If you’re focusing on figuring out the age of your chicks, then you are most concerned with looking at characteristics that develop between 0-16 weeks of age. After that, a chick isn’t a chick anymore but a pullet or cockerel.
How to Tell the Age of a Chick
Well, it happened. You have chicks of an indeterminate age and are now wondering, “How old is my chick?” Unfortunately, there is no way to pinpoint exactly how old a chick is if you don’t know when it hatched. That said, there are three developmental stages between 0-16 weeks that you can look out for. If you know these stages, as well as certain physical characteristics, making an accurate guesstimate is easy.
Fresh Out of the Egg
If you see your chicks come fresh from the egg, aging them is easy. For the first several hours after hatching, chicks look damp, as if they had fallen in a puddle. Laying under an incubator or with their mom will dry them out. Once dried, chicks have the characteristic fluffy down that everyone loves.
Within the first week, chicks experience rapid growth. Their down is replaced by feathers around the second week. You will notice that chicks during this phase look like they received a botched haircut.
Check The Plumage
Between 2-4 weeks, most chicks have started to develop their adult feathers and will look a bit disheveled. The feather-growing process may last up to 5-6 weeks, depending on the breed and diet. From there, your chicks will experience mini-molts every 6-12 weeks until the first full set of feathers grows in.
With each mini-molt, you will notice that your chicks start to change based on their gender. Cockerels will have pointier hackle feathers around the neck. Pullets’ feathers are slightly more soft and rounded. Additionally, cockerels get saddle feathers around the neck as they near adulthood. You can also expect the growth of sickle feathers in most roosters, whereas hens have less remarkable tails.
Go By Body Size
At birth, chicks are very small and weigh next to nothing — around 1.4 oz (40 g) each. If you are looking at small chicks, they probably are only a few days old.
Within the first month of life, chicks rapidly put on weight and grow. At the end of 12 weeks, the chick that originally weighed 1.4 oz will be around 2 lbs 6 oz (1 kg). Bantam breeds will weigh less than this, however.
With a larger size comes fuller, thicker feathers and legs. Chickens in the adolescent phase look gawky, while those nearing adulthood are more filled out.
Look at Those Legs
When chicks hatch, their little legs are long and thin. Around 12 weeks old, their legs are thicker and more sturdy than before. You will notice that the females have thinner legs than their male counterparts. Furthermore, some breeds (like ISA Browns) with different colored legs start to develop those colors.
Check the Combs and Wattles
Even when sex linked, most chicks do not have combs and wattles that are visible to the naked eye. You will have to go searching for these features. However, some male chicks may have more noticeable combs and wattles than the rest of the bunch.
Before 12 weeks old, you won’t notice these features much. Nearing adolescence, however, the combs and wattles are far more distinct. You might notice that the combs and wattles start turning red. Girls and boys now have more distinct appearances, especially since the males have more developed wattles and combs.
Young chicks are trying very hard to survive, so you won’t see much chicken-like behavior. Between 6-12 weeks, chicks go from taking in the world around them to working on the pecking order. Young males will start staring one another down and posturing or chest bumping.
Female chicks are much more subdued in their behaviors. While male chicks are at the head of the group, females tend to move to the back. They have a lower, more submissive stance among the group, and they won’t be as noisy as the males. Meanwhile, the males are far more confident. They look for challenges among the other boys.
Around 7-12 weeks, your male chicks will start crowing. By the twelfth week, as your chicks become pullets and cockerels, you will have a very clear idea about their sex and personality.
Taking Care of Your Baby Chicks
If you plan on bringing home baby chicks, you need to be able to gauge how old they are. While the hatchery should tell you when they were born, you can use the above methods for estimating their age. Once you know how old your chicks are, you can start creating a care plan for them. Also, you can use what your chicks need at any stage as further evidence to their age.
For example, before 6 weeks old, your baby chicks cannot take care of themselves all that much. Yes, they do start behaving more independently before 6 weeks, but they aren’t ready to take on the world by themselves yet.
Chicks that are younger than 6 weeks old will need to be kept somewhere safe, such as a brooder box. There, your chicks will be comfortable and have enough space to grow bigger and stronger. If you didn’t hatch eggs from your own chickens, you will need a heat lamp for the growing chicks to keep their body temperature up.
Before the full set of adult feathers comes in, chickens have a difficult time regulating their own body temperature. During the first week of life, your chicks will need the heat lamp to be set to 95 degrees F. After the first week, you can reduce the temperature to 90 degrees F.
Continue reducing the temperature by 5 degrees. Keep an eye on the chicks in the brooder box. If they are too hot, they will separate in the brooder box. If they’re too cold, they will huddle together for warmth.
Once your chicks have grown their first set of feathers (around 4-6 weeks old), they no longer have to remain in the brooder box. In fact, they may be already looking to exit the box and explore the coop!
There is no foolproof way to determine how old a chick is unless you have hatched and raised them yourself. While it is impossible to guess approximately the age of a chick or chicken, the best methods involve observing them and going from there. Chicks grow rapidly during the first 3 months of life, so keep an eye out for down becoming feathers, combs and wattles, and defining behaviors. From there, you should be able to zero-in on a close guesstimate. Hopefully, this knowledge will help you take care of your chickens so they are happy, healthy, and productive.
Valerie has been content writing since 2016 for websites and companies all around the world. A traveler, dancer, martial artist, Valerie loves gathering experiences and wisdom. Her travels have taken her to over 20 countries, and she hopes to see more of the world soon.