It been a long running joke that at our house some years it feels like we have both a nursery and nursing home for chickens. This fall and winter the chickens have not been laying eggs after their fall molt. In the chicken world, they are deemed old. In our current flock, our youngest hens are four. Since the beginning of keeping chickens, I have always had the philosophy of allowing our hens to age and live out their natural lives. It wasn’t until I had geriatric chickens that I truly understood the virtues of keeping older chickens.
Chickens typically live five to eight years. In commercial chicken keeping, hens are processed close to their second birthday. This is because the first two years are the most prolific for hens. After that, egg production tapers off. But here in my household, I couldn’t fathom that thought. So, that is simply what I have always done and did and you know what, it turns out, it is pretty amazing having older chickens in your flock.
Some chickens breeds like Barred Rocks will live into their teens. They are known for longevity. All of our chickens have lived between five and eight years. It is never long enough in my opinion. I wish they could live much longer, because they are truly so wonderful.
Just like with humans, these elderly chickens have earned a place of respect and honor. The roles that they typically had in the flock may still be current but more often than not they have relinquished their prior posts. However, if you spend time observing, you will discover that the other flock member place the older chickens at a different level, not quite head chicken but certainly respected. They somehow, rise above the natural pecking order and their interactions with the younger more dominant birds are fascinating to observe.
These older birds also make wonderful teachers for the younger chickens in the flock. They are quick to share their knowledge about predators, secret locations, the area where they live, how to operate feeders, waterers and so forth.Theses chickens also help others recognize familiar and safe faces as well as threats. They “teach” them the ropes in the coop and while free-ranging.
Old chickens make excellent parents. Even if these hens are no longer laying eggs, the mothering instinct is still present. In the spring time, it is not uncommon to find them sitting perched upon eggs laid by younger chickens. I swear, sometimes it seems as if these old ladies go broody too. Upon a pile of eggs tucked gently in the feathers of their breast, they screech and collar and yell at you if you dare try to take them away. Not surprisingly, they assist the younger mothers with their mothering duties offering help to then and remind the younger ones of safety, care and situations.
Chickens do indeed have friends within the flock and watching companionship and friendships endure over the years is so wonderful. They have dust bathing buddies, free-ranging buddies and those they wish to roost next to at night. I think back so often to the bond that Oyster Cracker and Sunshine shared. The chickens also become friend with their human family too. They are constant companions and visitors when we are out in the garden, or on the patio. They know their names and they come running just to say hello and greet us. I’ve always considered them friends.
I think in society today, some are quick to forget the value of generations that come before us. It’s a great big circle of life. There is importance to having folks at the beginning, middle and end of their lifetimes simultaneously together. Each offers a unique and important perspective to those around them. History is not forgotten and knowledge is passed down. New young thrive and and dream of the future. In this case, perhaps a future where chickens dream of actually crossing the road and one day doing it too.