The Comfort of Friendship in Old Age

Most chickens live in mind-boggling massive flocks that number in the tens of thousands. The animals are genetically almost identical and in that sea of feathers and dust there is no individuality. Although the hens know who each other are – they recognize each other by their combs which are as distinctive as human fingerprints – there’s little interaction among the birds in the stressed commercial flocks. Besides, it takes time to form relationships, and meat chickens live to be only eight weeks, and laying hens less than two years.

But, in my backyard the hens have the time to get to know each other. They have the space to decide who to spend time with and who to avoid (everyone avoids Lulu.) Chickens are not long-lived and some hens seemingly up and die by the age of three. But others live on. Blackie and Eleanor have been on death’s door for a year. Eleanor survived a bout of illness and a swollen abdomen (the cause undiagnosed.) Blackie is stiff and slow, probably filled with tumors, and is losing her feathers and sleeps most of the day. Her comb is grey. Neither has laid an egg for more than a year. They’ve become lawn ornaments. When they were young and active, Blackie and Eleanor ignored each other. The Barred Rock was aggressive and did not share food, the Australorp was shy and stayed at the perimeter of the flock. But, these days they are arthritic and calm. Both enjoy a sunbath. Together.


  1. It’s sad that chickens don’t live too many years because it’s easy to get attached to them. Your girls look so sweet together. I hope they leave together because it would be sad to see one left behind.

  2. What a sweet picture. I have a question. I have 3 leghorn hens we got from a local farmer last year. We do not know how old they are. One of them, pepper (all black) has developed spots of gray feathers on her head and wings. I did not know chickens gray. Should I be concerned or is this normal?

    • Chickens don’t gray, but I have heard of feathers coming in a slightly different color after a molt. If she’s fine in all other ways, don’t worry!

      • No, she has not molted and it is dots of white gray color that has developed in the last month. I thought it might be stress as I had to grab her to clean the poop off her vent. She was messy and it dried. It took a couple minutes to grab her and she was really vocally stressed.

        • Jude – no idea what’s going on! Perhaps she got into something that faded her feathers? Acidic? Any other signs of illness? Email me a photo if you can.

          • No, there is nothing for them to get in. She is her old self, eating, drinking. Maybe laying 1 egg per week. The (3) leghorn hens are the 1st to go in to roost at night and last to come out in the morning so I think age is catching up with them. I will email you a picture tonight when I get home from work. Thank you!

  3. We have 3 Barred Rocks and they are the old biddies of our flock of 22 hens. We also have a White-Crested Black Polish rooster (named: Einstein :-) They are both about the same size. Yesterday, I witnessed for the first time a rather amazing sight (well, at least for me it was). One of the old biddies was obviously aggravated with Einstein and they went at each other tooth and nail … just as though both of them were roosters. Neck feathers ruffled up, jumping up and attacking each other. And in complete *silence*. It went on for about 10 minutes, neither of them doing damage to each other (that I could see). In the end, Einstein backed off to run and hide in the chicken coop. A few minutes later, he emerged to crow. ::smile::

    But I had never seen a hen and a rooster go at each other in that manner before.

    Our old biddies are definitely mistresses of the chicken yard, frequently bossing the other hens around and running them off of a choice area for feeding.

      • I chuckled when I read the Polish’s name!!
        Hens will challange roosters for a higher spot in the pecking order or vice versa. Although a 10 minute squiremish seems longer than usual, both were determined.. In my experience a hen who is dominate over a rooster rarely let’s him mate with her.

    • I was wondering are Polish roosters easier to deal with than other rooster, or they as flighty and aggressive as other roosters ?
      I have heard that because of their feathers they can’t see as well and are calmer roosters because of that. Also has anyone ever heard or bought chickens from a site called ? They claim they can sex polish chicks.

      • I don’t keep roosters, so someone else will have to answer that. But, it is true that Polish don’t see well, but that’s only part of what makes them ditzy! I trim their top knot feathers, and they’re still silly birds! Most large hatcheries can sex their chicks – NONE promise 100% accuracy! (except for the sex-link hybrids.)

      • No they are not easier to deal with in my experience. It’s been a while since I’ve had a Polish rooster but they usually didn’t make it past their first birthday because of behavioral issues.

        • This question is for Ken. Can you eat the Polish roosters ? I have heard Polish are just feather and bones and you can’t even eat them. Yard decoration I guess is all they are good for. I don’t know why I like them so much over every other chicken breed I have seen. I guess I just like crazy, silly animals, I have enough siamese cats for that fact. And I like animals with featherings or puffs ontop, so that is why I have a Papillon for a dog.

  4. Terry, I so enjoy your blog post’s, you are a wealth of information and always so willing to share. I love my girl’s dearly and when their old age sets in, I will make sure their “retirement home” suits their need’s. May 11th, I have three Frizzle coming to reside here at Dog Trot Farm, I have been told they will do well in our climate, do you have any knowledge of this breed? I am a collector of chicken books and was wondering If I may be so bold as to inquire, might It be possibly for me to purchase an autographed copy of your book “Tillie Lays An Egg”? Also I just have to ask, was Martha friendly and approachable? Thank you, from all of us girls here at Dog Trot Farm, Winslow Homer too and Happy Spring!

    • Hi Julie- I don’t sell books directly – by the time I purchase them from the publisher and ship them out, I’d have to charge too much! But thanks for asking :)
      Martha’s producer was very, very nice. I didn’t meet Martha until I was sitting there next to her live on camera! After the show she was busy and I didn’t have any time with her. But the whole experience was a hoot and I’d be delighted to return.

    • re Frizzles: I’ve never owned any. They’re not really a breed – more a feather type. There are even geese with frizzle feathers. Because the feathers are twisted, they don’t insulate the body the way regular feathers do. I’ve read that you’ll need a heat lamp in the winter, and be careful that they don’t get stuck out in the rain. But, they’re fun looking birds! I think you’ll be taking a lot of photos :)

      • I’ve owned frizzles, I found them “frustrating”. Because of their bent feathers they can’t seem to “fly”. Meaning the hens couldn’t get up into the nest boxes and getting onto and staying on the roosts was comedy act all it’s own.

    • Terry, thank you for taking the time to answer my questions, I have ordered your book from Amazon and am looking forward to receiving it. I have done my homework in regard to the Frizzles, but am always open to any advice you may have. Thank you again, Julie.

  5. Hi, I was just wondering, how many chickens do you have altogether? Also, I really hope that Blackie and Eleanor live longer than ever expected :)

    • There are thirteen. Click on the “animal bios” on the navigation bar and there’s info about each of them. Blackie and Eleanor already have lived longer than expected! I honestly don’t expect them to last the summer, so each day that they are around is a surprise and a gift.

  6. I just steamed my eggs! I had to cook 2 doz for Passover, I put them into my spegetti pot that has a liner with holes in it. Usually I boil the eggs in the liner, in the pot, then lift the liner out and plunge into another pot of ice water, to cool quickly.

    Today, I took your advice….I boiled water in my electric kettle, and filled the spaghetti pot/ liner with eggs…. dumped the boilingater into the eggs, unstable barely covering the holes in the bottom of the liner….then let that boil for 20 minutes….checking every 5 to add more boiling water from the kettle.

    The eggs were PERFECT after 20 minutes of steaming! It usually takes longer to bring enough water to a boil to boil them for ten minutes, so this is great all around. Now to shake the pot to peel them. I love how shaking the pot makes the eggs leap outbof their shells!

    • Yay!Happy Pesach! Sadly, this year, my horseradish is just one tiny root (it turns out that goats love horseradish) so I’ll have to buy it – but I will have eggs!

  7. Hi Terry,
    I have a hen who is eight years old! Her name is Stitches( her comb was torn when she was younger). She is stiff of gait but she still rules the roost. My Rooster” Gregory Peck” does not mate with her. At least not when I’m around…. I just adore these creatures. It breaks my heart to think about the birds that are not well cared for. Is there an arthritis remedy for chickens?

    • Not much one can do about arthritis. But, in my observation, chickens perceive discomfort differently than people do. I believe there’s a disconnect, so that although they have symptoms, like stiffness or limping, they are able to ignore it and get on with daily life.

  8. I love this picture! It’s just so sad that they age so quickly. It’s very sweet that these two girls have made friends in their old age.

  9. Terry-
    Just curious: am I seeing a metal band on Blackie’s leg? If so, what’s it for?
    Also, just morbidly curious: what do you do with your hens when they die? I know it sounds cold, but I have to admit I put mine in the trash can.

    • All of my birds have metal bands put on by the state. The chickens are tested yearly for two diseases – pullorum and avian influenza. To legally transport the birds off my property they need these tests and the tags. Rather like dog licenses. Pullorum used to devastate hatheries. Very high morbidity. That was back in the 1930’s and the testing has been done ever since.

  10. What a precious picture. I’m so glad that they are able to live out a natural life without stress and strife. It is no less than criminal what goes on with the commercial farming system in this country. It is legalized animal abuse.

  11. I felt sorry for Blackie last night. Now that the hencam is more “live action” for me, I could see the hens roosting and I must admit, it was pretty facinating. I guess I still need a life.

    But, Blackie, I think, fell off the roost! Then one of the Golden Comets, the darker of the two, chased her around the coop. I was pretty surprised that she pretty much bullied everyone last night! The girl was in a mood. Finally, Blackie got away from her by settling in a nesting box.

    Interesting socialogical display.