All poultry farmers experience this at least once in their chicken-keeping career: one, a couple or an entire flock of birds reaches an advanced age.
Some flock owners sell off or cull their older birds. But many—especially those who follow conservation practices—allow aging chickens in their flock to live out their lives in the comfort of the coop they know.
But comfort is relative. And a geriatric bird has different needs than it did when it was a spring chicken.
If a member of your flock is getting long in the tooth, take these six steps so they can live their lives out in ease.
Switch the Feed
As we age, our digestion begins to get sluggish and pickier about the food we eat. The same holds true for your old biddies, who may find pellets harder to handle with geriatric beaks.
The smaller crumbles can be easily scooped up by birds having coordination issues. Crumbles are also less taxing on an aging digestive tract, as they are tiny in size and easier to process.
Consider switching to grower crumbles, which contain a healthy combination of proteins, carbohydrates, natural fats and vitamins for older chickens … minus the high calcium levels required by layer hens.
Switch the Feeder
I had wondered why our seven-year-old Buff Orpington, Flapjack, was looking thinner than her younger flockmates. I chalked it up to age until one afternoon, when I brought a crockful of kitchen scraps to her run.
As Thomas Orpington called his hens to the tasty morsels, Flapjack carefully stood back, away from the gorging girls. She finally advanced and aimed for a hunk of stale bread. But the poor girl tottered each time she leaned down to peck at her treat.
Age had made her balance precarious.
I realized then that Flapjack must be having difficulty eating from her coop’s feeder, which hung at just about leg level. Bending down to eat was undoubtedly throwing her balance off. She struggled to grab more than a couple of beakfuls.
While raising the feeder helped her stay stabilized, the narrow saucer proved too much of a challenge for her decreasing coordination. My solution? A heavy-duty rubber bowl of crumbles, elevated six or so inches off the ground.
Flapjack could feed without falling over and without any obstacles blocking her access to her food.
Lower the Roost
Coordination is not the only aspect affected by age. A chicken’s ability to jump up—and down—from their perch becomes increasingly difficult for aging chickens, especially for larger birds in the flock such as Cochins, Australorps and Orpingtons.
To prevent elderly birds from injuring their legs hopping down from their perch, lower the perches in your coop to a height of 12 to 18 inches above the coop floor. This will allow your aging chickens to still be able to roost with younger birds in the flock and maintain their daily routine.
Pad the Floor
Some older chickens eventually decide that they are done with jumping up and down from their perches and choose to settle down for the night on the coop floor. To keep these henhouse elders comfy and cozy, increase the amount of bedding on the floor to a thickness of two inches minimum.
Remember to remove soiled litter frequently so that your older birds don’t bunk down on droppings.
Be observant. Some hens might prefer to bunk down in the nestbox, which will need to be cleaned out daily so that any eggs laid there during the day remain clean.
Ramp It Up
If your coop entrance is accessed by an entry ramp, gauge if the slope is too steep for the elder members of your flock. Slow, deliberate steps at lock-up serve as an indicator that the incline might be too acute for tired, older birds.
Consider extending the ramp further into the run. It may seem to cut into the flock’s free space, but the gentle ascent will be kinder to senior birds. And everyone will enjoy the additional shady spots beneath the extension.
Even Out the Run
Decreased balance and coordination, combined with increased fragility, mean that a chicken run might morph into a minefield for your aging birds. Any dips in the ground—indentations left by dustbathing hens, chipmunk burrows, natural divots—can potentially trip an unsteady, older chicken, as can such obstacles as rocks, sticks, and thick weed growth.
Take a rake—and if necessary, a power trimmer—to your flock’s run regularly to smooth out the walking surface and provide a safe space for your elder birds to spend their days.
Dolly and Alex are the grande dames of our flocks, at almost 8 years of age. Both are still going strong, with Dolly still laying an egg or two per week.
Thanks to the adaptations we have made to their coops, runs and feeders, these girls—and the ones just a year or two behind—can continue living comfortable, fulfilling lives on our farm.