The question how long do chickens live? is not one that anyone used to ask, as poultry were rarely kept past their second year. As much as many of us love our chickens solely for their charm and character, it’s important to understand that historically their primary reason for being has been for food. Because laying hens are most productive in their first two years, they’ve never been designed to last longer. Even in the past, on small farms, laying hens were harvested for meat by the second year, as after that they are not even good for the soup pot. From a farmer’s perspective this makes sense. What this means for those of us who have chickens that become pets is that we have to deal with many issues that “real” farmers, even those who kept small homesteads in the 1800s, have never had to face.
The best layers are usually the first to die, probably because after producing many eggs in a short time span they are worn out. Some die suddenly; others look poorly for weeks on end. The hens that live into their third year and beyond each year lay fewer and fewer eggs. Their molts take longer, they forage less and they nap more. The majority of hens don’t make it past five, but a few will keep on, even producing an egg now and then. It’s rare that a hen dies naturally of old age. More likely, the bird succumbs to one of many ailments that chickens are prone to. Cancer is prevalent, as are tumors (often caused by the Marek’s virus.) Hens have a multitude of reproductive tract issues. Respiratory infections can sweep through a flock. And, regardless of how carefully you guard your chickens, predators will find a way in. A hen that lives to seven has defied the odds. It is rare, but it happens, that a hen will live for a dozen years.
It’s crucial that a person who is thinking about keeping a few chickens in their backyard takes into account that a hen can live for years after she is no longer productive. If there are zoning restrictions on flock size, what will you do when your hens are too old to lay? Some people chose to cull at two years when feeding the chicken costs more than the value of the eggs that she lays. Other will keep the old hens on as pets. If that’s the decision, then it’s also important to understand that hens get sick, that veterinary help is hard to find, and that when it is it available it’s prohibitively expensive and rarely effective. Sick hens often suffer for weeks before they die, as owners do not know how to make the final decision about euthanasia. Anyone who keeps chickens will face making very difficult end of life decisions.
Despite the ailments and lack of eggs, by the time one of my hens stops laying, she’s become part of the fabric of my backyard community. I do what I can to keep the old chickens around. My elderly Orpington, Buffy, has been pulled back from the brink many times, with the Spa Treatment and TLC. It is good to see her, doddering about the yard. As long as my old hens eat with vigor and cast a curious eye to the world, I know that they have more time. I’m committed to giving the older chickens a good quality of life until the end. But, I always keep in mind that long life is not the standard, and that it is okay when a hen has lived only a couple of years. Death is part of keeping chickens.
I’ve learned much about care of old hens from my own flock; it’s an ongoing education, and what I find out I share here on my website in the FAQs and blog posts.