Diva spends her day lazing in the sun, taking dust baths and waiting for fat bugs to meander toward her so she can eat them with little effort. Dolly passes her time leading a troop of hens and pullets around the pasture, foraging for seeds and other autumn treats. Alex just watches everything from her favorite perch, hopping down every now and then to get water and food, then heading back out to perch.
Three different hens carry on in three different but totally typical ways. The only thing out of the ordinary is the age of our girls: They are all past eight years of age. According to the Ohio State University extension office, seven to eight years is the average life span of a chicken. This means our girls have reached their maximum age and surpassed it. Alex, Dolly and Diva are apparently oblivious to this, but we’re not. As our flock ages, we have taken several steps to ensure that our older birds can live the lives they are accustomed to enjoying. If some of your birds are reaching an elderly age, consider following these five suggestions.
1. Change Their Feed to Crumbles
Many poultry farmers feed their flocks layer rations in pellet form, which might become increasingly difficult to digest as gastrointestinal systems become sluggish with age. Help your older birds continue to enjoy their edibles by switching to crumbles. The smaller, more easily digested crumble require less effort to break down because of size. For aging bantam birds, the crumble is also easier to swallow.
2. Continue the Calcium Supplement
Your hens might no longer be laying eggs—or might produce only one egg per week—but you should still give them a calcium supplement. Loss of bone density can affect your flock as your birds grow older. The more frail the bone, the more susceptible to breakage it becomes, and an aging bird does not bounce back from an injury as swiftly as when it was younger. A hopper full of oyster shell is fine for a young flock. An older group benefits more from a calcium supplement that is more pulverized. Don’t use a powdered one—this could accidentally get inhaled and cause an aging bird respiratory issues. Instead, take a moment to further crush your crushed oyster shell into finer, more manageable bits.
3. Lower Their Roosts
The older they get, the harder it becomes for chickens to jump up to the heights they used to easily reach when they were younger. Jumping down to the coop floor from a high perch likewise becomes more difficult for older birds, especially larger standards such as Cochins, Brahmas and Orpingtons, whose greater body mass makes landing especially jarring on elderly leg joints. To lessen the possibility of injury (and to lessen the probability of older birds simply sleeping in the nest boxes), lower your flock’s perch by about a foot. Observe your birds to see whether you need to further adjust the height to make it easier for your flock to roost.
4. Examine the Run
If your flock spends their day in a run, examine the ground for perils that might send an old bird tumbling. Roots, rocks and large sticks are tripping hazards that could cause injury. Remove these from the area. Look for holes in the ground, including depressions created by dustbathing chickens. Fill these with sand or topsoil to provide your aging girls with an even ground to roam on.
5. Keep Older Birds With Young Ones
Older biddies have long had a reputation for being the queens of the roost, the sage, experienced birds that teach the young ones about being a hen. That is certainly true for Dolly, who takes her young troupe around the yard every day, showing them where the best treats are, where to take shelter should it rain and where to find the best spots for sunbathing.
Some older hens are a little less hands-on (wings-on?) about their guidance. Diva was always the first to lay every morning. Where she laid is exactly where all the other hens in the coop chose to lay. Diva doesn’t lay any more, but the hens still lay in her favorite nestbox. Elder hens even help keep young cockerels in line. When we introduced Thomas Orpington to Diva’s and Alex’s coop, that poor boy was henpecked for days until he realized that the senior hens would always be senior to his Alpha rooster status.
Don’t isolate your aging birds from their flock out of concern that the younger members might harm them. There might be some pecking-order changes if the aging bird is a rooster, but, for the most part, the young give the older ones a new purpose once their laying days are done.