What is the Life Cycle of a Chicken?
Living creatures grow and change throughout their lives. While some animal life cycles are more dramatic than others (looking at you, frogs and butterflies!), chickens undergo some major changes over time. If you're a new chicken keeper, it's important to understand these changes and how to provide the best care possible during your chicken's life cycle.
Which came first, the chicken or the … ? In this case, the egg is certainly the first part of the life cycle of a chicken. Once a chicken lays an egg, the embryonic chick needs about three weeks to mature inside,1 utilizing the nutrient-rich yolk as an energy source and obtaining air for breathing through the surprisingly porous walls of the eggshell. (Fun fact: There are between 7,000 and 17,000 tiny holes in an eggshell to allow for the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide). The amazing shape of the egg comes in handy too. The arches are very strong and can resist the weight of a brooding hen.
After about 21 days of growth, the ready-to-hatch chick begins chipping away at its eggshell, creating a circular escape route it can break apart with its body.2 Keep newly-hatched chicks in the incubator for a day or so after hatching and then move them to the brooder. Remember, the baby chicks are still vulnerable and need protection from chills. If you're raising chicks without the aid of a mother hen, plan to keep the brooder (the chicks' temporary home) at a cozy 95 degrees Fahrenheit for the first week. Gradually lower the temperature as the chicks mature and grow their true feathers.3 How long do baby chicks need a heat lamp or other heat source? About five weeks — until the temperature in the brooder reaches around 68°F or “room temperature." The Thermo-Peep Heated Pad will help developing chicks stay warm until those feathers come in.
Once the fuzzy chicks have matured into not-so-fuzzy chicks at about 10 weeks old, they can start to make their way outdoors. Take great care when integrating new chicks with the rest of the flock. This process may take time to complete safely, as older hens may need a minute to accept these new additions to the flock. As with all chickens, your growing chicks will need protection from the cold, shelter, food and water. The K&H Poultry Waterer is a great solution to keep your chicks watered as seasons change because it comes in both heated and unheated models. And thanks to the no-perch top, the water stays clean longer.
Young hens (called “pullets" during their first year of life) often begin to lay eggs when they're about 18-22 weeks old,4 although egg production may be sporadic at first. When a hen is about 25 weeks old, she's in the prime of her life — ready for a few good years of pecking, scratching, hunting, foraging, dust bathing and egg-laying. The number of eggs a hen may produce in her life depends on several important factors, including her diet, health and ability to maintain her egg production during the winter months. It's important to note that not all chickens are equal egg-layers. Some chicken breeds are more prolific than others.
Most hens naturally lay fewer eggs during the winter and perhaps stop altogether during the months with the fewest daylight hours. Instead, they may choose to relax by hanging out on a Thermo-Chicken Perch. But when the weather warms up in the summer, egg production picks up again. Eventually, perhaps around age 5, your chicken's egg production will diminish, then stop completely, regardless of the season. The exact time frame can vary, and some hens may lay eggs into their teens.
You can still prize an aging hen that has stopped producing eggs. She can contribute to the flock's productivity through continued pest and weed control, compost production or even as a “watch hen." She could have a good many years left of this type of service and thoroughly enjoy her "retirement."
Understanding the lifecycle of a chicken will help you manage your expectations and enable you to keep your chickens happy and healthy for years to come.
1. Lyons, Jesse J., University of Missouri Extension. “Small Flock Series: Incubation of Poultry." February 2003, https://extension.missouri.edu/publications/g8353
2. PennState Extension Pennsylvania 4-H. “Hatching." https://extension.psu.edu/programs/4-h/counties/montgomery/programs/school-enrichment/embryology/hatching
3. Oregon State University Extension Service. “Raising baby chicks." https://extension.oregonstate.edu/animals-livestock/poultry-rabbits/raising-baby-chicks
4. Stuttgen, Sandra. University of Wisconsin-Madison Extension. “Life Cycle of a Laying Hen." https://livestock.extension.wisc.edu/articles/life-cycle-of-a-laying-hen/