Little Pond Farm Retirement Home for Old Hens

For the first two years of Petunia’s life she laid eggs all spring and summer, about 400 of them. In her third year, she laid an egg every couple of days. She’s now six and I don’t know how often she’ll produce eggs this year. Maybe none. I got Marge at the same time that I got Petunia. She’s still as noisy as ever, but also not laying.

Buffy is five years old. Two years ago she was quite ill. I nursed her back to health – it took months – she now looks fine, but hasn’t laid an egg since she got sick.

old hens

Eleanor is six years old, and she spends her days basking in sunbeams. Her sister, Edwina is more active, but probably not going to lay many eggs this summer.

Old Eleanor

I’ve been thinking about my old hens, and it’s dawned on me that these are the first elderly chickens I’ve ever had. I don’t cull for productivity, and if a hen gets sick, I try to save her (even though it doesn’t make economic sense.) This morning, I went back through my records. I even made a chart to make sense of what has happened to my hens. I’ve had chickens since 1996. I’ve  lost chickens to a vicious raccoon attack, to hawks and to disease. I was surprised to see that Eleanor and Edwina, Petunia and Marge are the most long-lived hens that I’ve ever had.

I like having old hens.

I like that I can recognize Marge’s buk-buk-clucking. I like seeing Eleanor laze about, her beady eye cocked up at me, clearly saying, I’m here and I’m not moving. So there. I like seeing how Buffy puts up with Lulu’s attempts at friendship. I know these hens. The chickens give me more than eggs. There’s something inexplicably satisfying about standing in the coop, early on a cold morning, tossing corn to the girls. They talk to me. I talk back. They go about their busy chicken day. I go back inside to mine, having gotten to a good start with the community in the coop.


  1. That’s the thing that just amazes me about my girls. I enjoy them so much. The eggs are fun, it’s Easter morning every time I enter the coop. But them make me laugh, they are calming to watch, and I just like having them! Even when Shark won’t let me check under her for eggs! LOL (Gee, I wonder why her name is Shark!)

  2. How beautifully put. We’ve had our oldest hens now for almost 3 years, that makes them 3 years 5 months old. Sylvie and Phoebe are now laying after a few months break for moulting and the dark days of winter. Ruby – I think her laying days may be over? She has laid one or tow lash since new year – and a few soft shelled eggs. She was head girl and now there’s a man around… it’s all a bit different.

    Like you, I love my ‘old girls’.


  3. I have to think about this for me. I love the images and the sentiment. I have been keeping hens for the first time in my life for about two years. Their egging years are probably about 1/2 over. I live in an urban environment, spent 1/2 of my adult life in long term care as a recreation therapist and the other 1/2 as an artist. The hens are an extension of my art that uses tossed out, obsolete things for inspiration and assemblage – all related to agriculture. Therein lies the symbiotic relationship of both worlds.
    When I got the hens I assumed I would stew them after they stopped egging. I look at my cats and tell them “You don’t give me any eggs!” 1/2 kiddingly – 1/2 not. We will see where this goes. I am learning and open.

    • I appreciate your thoughts on this aspect. I plan on having hens for the first time this year and that is a constant concern. How will I handle them when they are no longer laying? I’m a pretty practical person but I’m also one to appreciate animal behavior and I’m afraid I will come to love them too much to stew them. Will have to see when the time comes I guess.

  4. @Linda- I’ve never had cows…
    @Kathy -Shark??!! I’ve had some broody hens who would have fit that name
    @Magic Cochin- Are you adding oyster shells for calcium? That helped my old girls firm up their shells.
    @Cathi- I’ve friends who know going into it that they’re going to turn their 2-year old hens into soup. I’m fine with that! But, even these folks have a couple of favorite hens they keep around. I think that the fewer the hens, the harder it is. It’s also easier if you have over a dozen of the same breed. Then they act more like a flock and less like individuals.

    • I have Wrongway a polish hen she is 8 and several others that are now 6. I actually caught Wrongway in the nestbox the other day, not sure if she actually laid an egg or not, when I went back there were two white eggs in the box so it’s possible I suppose.
      I couldn’t agree more with you Terry. I find my chickens so relaxing and entertaining. I can’t wait for the first “warm” morning (maybe 55 degrees) to sit at my chicken patio with a carafe of coffee and just spend and hour or so on a Saturday just enjoying my flock.

  5. I don’t spend that kind of time connecting with my chickens. I do love raising them. I even have names for quite a few of them. But I don’t think I could afford to connect on a deep enough level to keep chickens that were completely unproductive (with a few minor exceptions). I’m fairly new to chickens, but it’s getting to the point where they gotta produce. Fertile eggs, unfertile eggs, or dinner. That kinda seems sad and heartless, I’m sure, but isn’t that what they are really for?

  6. Beautifully put! The girls are so much more than the sum total of the parts for me.

  7. Randy, you make very good points. I still have 4 stewing hens in my freezer from this past fall. One or two maybe chicken-n-dunplings or chicken pot pie this weekend as we are suppose to get more snow. I raise some white rocks for eggs then as stewing hens. I cull them the fall after their second hatch day.
    I have a very mixed flock and most I can’t cull. I simple couldn’t eat them. Wrongway was actually the extra chick in a batch of 25 white rock and rhode island reds I ordered from McMurray.

  8. Amen! I love my small flock and enjoy them greatly. I find so much peace in the yard with them. I love keeping their home clean and tidy. I enjoy walking out on cold or hot mornings and letting them out so they can run around and bask in the glory of the sun. I could never imagine eating them even if I were desperate for food. They are more like friends not dinner.

  9. We got a dozen Barred Rock hens last year, figuring that we would lose some in the first year. Nearly a year has passed, they are all still alive and cluckin’, and most are laying an egg a day (even in February!) We named them ALL “Minerva Louise”, because we really can’t tell them apart. Maybe that will make it easier to eat them? But I’m still not sure I could. Hmmmmm.

  10. One more comment on chickens in the back yard. I have one convert at my place of employment. She now has 12 hens and loves them. I am working on the second one. She asks me additional questions almost everyday. I am working hard on the mission of at least two hens in every backyard ;-)

  11. I am with you Terry..My girls stay with me until they die of old age..I just put them in the “Old Folks Home” and get some new ones to lay eggs, and then they just die happy….I like getting my dinner from the Farmer’s Market and all that “prep” to cull them….well..let’s just say I might not make a very good farmer unless I was REALLY hungry…BTW…I thought BROILER HENS are raised for meat and LAYING HENS are egg layers and too FATTY for meat? Please correct me if i am wrong?

    • I agree with Terry and I’ like to add a comment. Some broiler hens are breed to have so much meat that they die of fluid around their liver and heart if they live beyond the time that they should be “havested.” That happened to a couple of my buffs. They had so much meat on their breasts that they couldn’t fly.

      And in terms of fat. Fat is what gives a meat chicken taste. Tough chickens are ones that were not fed enough before they went to the butcher.

  12. Thank you all for chiming in on this topic. I do believe that what we do with our less-productive domestic farm animals is a continuum of choices. Although I like to have veggies from my garden and eggs from my hens, I don’t aspire to raising all of my own food, and I don’t have to get every last bit of financial value out of my hens. Besides, Donna is right, laying hens are not designed for eating. Actually, instead of being too fatty, there’s not much meat on them after a few years, and what’s there is only fit for stewing. (Broilers are less than 10 weeks old when slaughtered.) It’s a lot of work and mess to kill, dress (i.e. remove the feathers, perhaps it should be called undressing?) and prepare the birds to be eaten. I’m glad it’s not something that I have to deal with.
    That said, if you choose to raise and eat your animals, and if they have a good life from beginning to end, then I respect that, too. Farm animals must be used, or they will disappear. Take a look at the Rare Breed Conservancy’s ( list of endangered animals to see what happens when animals aren’t used for agricultural purposes anymore. I do my part – the only pork I eat is from pastured, traditional breeds. But my own hens? I’ll keep them around :)

    • Thanks Terry, that was useful info. regarding the quality of meat for layers after their prime. Also your perspective on the work involved with “undressing” them is helpful too. :)

  13. I have no problem with people culling their unproductive hens but I won’t do it. They are my friends. Although when the economy started to go bad we joked about having to eat our animals. We decided that the first ones to be eaten would be the chickens and then we’d work our way up to the pot-bellied pigs and goats. Luckily we still have jobs and don’t need to do that.
    Nothing at my place would ever be considered productive. I mean really, you could buy an awful lot of eggs for what it costs to feed and house those chickens especially considering we just went through winter and didn’t get an egg for months.

  14. Terry,
    Your hens are so beautiful, every single one of them. I have a few old hens too. If any of my birds get sick they go to the vet and I nurse them just like you do. They mean alot to me. I have a few ducks too and they act like clowns – they can always make me smile no matter what.

  15. I’m a Kindergarten teacher and chicken/goat/pony keeper and just found your book in the Scholastic book orders. This site will be perfect for my spring egg incubation at school. My love of chickens started 18 years ago when I hatched eggs for the first time at school and adopted Maizie as my first hen. Maizie was 15 years 5 months old when she passed away. She spent 12 years going to school and teaching children to love chickens. Your hens can have a long and happy life because you love them and are always vigilant about their care.

    • I have a hen named Maizie! A very pretty wyandotte. But I don’t have a pony :(
      Let me know when you are going to read Tillie to your class. I’ll put up a “hello” sign on the hencam homepage.

      • How wonderful! Thank-you! We won’t be reading until May. I bought six copies so that the children can enjoy it in guided reading groups. It will be fun to see the sign that day. I will let you know when. Thanks Terry! Joni