Do you remember how adorable those cute chicks were when they first hatched, seemingly just a few days ago? Do you recall how dependent those little puffballs were on their mother hen, and how they ran to her every time she gave the food cluck?
Now, some eight weeks later, these once fetching little creatures are gangly little cockerels and pullets with scruffy feathers and big feet (especially the males). Worst of all, they often flaunt a little bit of an attitude—constantly bopping each other with their wings or using their tiny beaks as weapons.
Welcome to the world of teenage chickens, that in-between stage when our chooks are no longer chicks but they certainly aren’t full-fledged (pun intended) roosters and hens, either. This time period is also when the mother hen and her offspring basically seem to mutually agree that the time of mama shepherding them through their day is kaput.
Tom Watkins, president of McMurray Hatchery, gives insight on this trying time for chicken raisers.
“Basically around 6 to 8 weeks after hatching, the mother hen senses it’s time to stop protecting her chicks,” he says. “If the mother and her young are in a run with other hens and their young flocks, the hen may not even know or care which chicks were once hers.
“On the other hand, the former chicks are no longer looking for their mother to provide protection or food. Besides, the mother is likely no longer giving the food cluck to her young. If she’s found some kind of bug, for example, she’s likely eating it herself.”
Ironically, when I was assigned this story, my heritage Rhode Island Red hen, Charlotte, had recently stopped caring for her five chicks, which consist of four females and one male. Three-year-old Charlotte had nurtured her flock for 10 weeks, which is the longest she has ever done so during the three summers she has gone broody.
I attribute the longer mothering period to the fact that I gave her a chick, named Lucky, that had hatched inside an incubator. The other chicks were 10 days older than Lucky, who had become exceptionally dependent on Charlotte because of the former’s small size and having older, larger chicks nearby.
Interestingly, during weeks eight through 10 of the “mothering period,” Tom, Charlotte’s sole cockerel, was extremely combative toward her and the rest of the flock. One morning when I opened the henhouse door, Tom rushed out, chest bumped his fellow flock mates, then headed for Charlotte and pulled the same maneuver on her.
She suffered the initial blow but retaliated with four hard pecks to his head and torso, which sent Tom squalling to the remote regions of the run. The next three mornings, it was Charlotte who initiated the assaults, using her beak to hammer her teenage male into submission. At this writing, Tom has never challenged his mother again.
I asked Watkins about this behavior.
“After the mother hen is through raising her chicks, she is still going to want to be on top of the pecking order. It’s instinctive,” he says. “But I also believe the cockerel’s behavior you described had little to do with his sex nor is it a breed-specific behavior. The behavior had little to do with an individual chicken’s personality, either.
“Although the drive to become the alpha is more likely to come from a young rooster, I would also add that if the cockerel hadn’t challenged the mother hen, sooner or later one of the pullets would have. Again, it’s instinctive in a chicken to be the dominant one.”
Kids Want Freedom
Watkins relates that conflicts among teenage chickens become fewer if our birds can be put out to pasture. When a teenage chook has a chance to escape its tormenting flock members, skirmishes are less likely as each pullet and cockerel is off doing its proverbial own thing. Indeed, at this contentious stage of chicken development, letting your birds range about for a few hours every day is one of the best ways to defuse issues among flock members.
“I don’t care whether you have six birds or 200, letting your chickens free-range for at least a short time every day is good for them and heads off problems that result from being cooped up,” Watkins says.
“Being outside on pasture also helps chicks and teenagers develop earlier. The birds seem to feather-out sooner, as well, and their foraging skills develop quicker. I believe that chicks raised under a heat lamp are the slowest ones to develop. Being outside and on pasture helps chickens develop in a survival of the fittest-type way.
“Being outside also helps develop your chicken’s curiosity. There is so more to do outside: searching for bugs and seeds, for example. I also think being outside at a younger age enables birds to leave their mother hen earlier in their lives. But that’s just an opinion.”
Certainly two of the more interesting aspects during the time when a chick transitions into the teenage period is the development of sex-related anatomy and the change in behavior.
“People send pictures all the time to McMurray Hatchery wanting us to identify whether a chick is a male or female,” Watkins says. “Some people claim that they can sex chicks when they’re 2 weeks old, but I’m much more confident about predicting their sex when the chicks are about 6 weeks of age. The waddles and combs of the cockerels are well developed by that age.
“But, on the other hand, some roosters and hens are much slower to develop, and it’s very easy to make a mistake when that is the case. A lot of people will get fooled when they see the first little stub of a comb appear, and they think that has to belong to a rooster. But that little comb could turn out to belong to a fast-developing hen.”
I agree with Watkins’ assessment. For example, last spring my wife, Elaine, and I had two different sets of chicks, six in one flock and five in the other. At week four for the former congregation, I told Elaine that the ratio was four females to two males, whereas in another two weeks, it was clear that we possessed equal numbers of pullets and cockerels. At week four for the second gang, I guessed the tally was three males and two females. A fortnight later, Elaine and I were clearly the caretakers of four pullets and one cockerel. In short, by the time the mother hen is finished taking care of her offspring, chicken raisers should be able to easily identify their genders. Before that period, guesses are only guesses.
During the teenage period, both sexes’ growth rates continue to be quite rapid. By week 16, the general advice is that we should stop giving our young flocks chick feed and replace it with layer rations. Elaine feels that our flocks of this age do better with a mixture of the two until the chick feed, which is such a high-protein diet, disappears.
This time period also brings forth another behavior.
“At 16 weeks, cockerels can become more sexually aggressive toward the hens and more combative with each other as their hormones rise,” Watkins says. “A lot of young roosters like to fight with each other.”
By weeks 20 to 22, if not before, breeding attempts will be common among teenage males. The cockerels will frequently try to mount the hens and pullets. From my observations, older hens will often respond with aggressive moves, especially pecking, toward the unwanted advances while pullets will attempt to escape a cockerel’s advances. If a cockerel does succeed in cornering a pullet, his initial mounting attempts at this time often fail because the male loses his balance. Eventually, of course, the cockerels display competence in this area.
Another of the most fascinating aspects of this time period is a cockerel trying to crow for the first time. The poor creature can’t seem to progress much beyond the first syllable of the “cock-a-doodle-do,” and even that opening volley of future rooster-hood being announced is more comical than majestic.
But gradually over the next four weeks or so, the budding roos do become more adept at crowing. And the feistiness between all these hormonal males can become even more intense. It’s at this time that chicken raisers, if they haven’t already, should strongly consider culling their cockerels or try to find a new home for them.
Watkins says one cockerel for every eight to 10 hens is sufficient, and there is really no biological reason to keep more.
Elaine and I don’t wait until week 16 to begin culling. At week seven (when we are absolutely sure of every bird’s sex), we position different colored leg bands on every cockerel so that we can begin to recognize different behavior characteristics in each young male.
For example, in our flock that featured three each of cockerels and pullets, one of the former tried to bite me every time I picked him up. He was the first to be culled, in week nine.
His two cockerel flock mates also met a similar fate because of the presence of an outstanding young male in the adjoining run, the aforementioned Tom. He was submissive when I picked him up and, despite his earlier scuffles with his mother, sported a stately, aloof nature and a calm disposition. With our 3-year-old rooster Friday ruling the adjoining run, Tom was the only additional roo we needed.
The Epic Day
The teenage weeks and months eventually end, of course, and the best sign of that is when pullets produce their first eggs. From Elaine’s and my experience, that’s around weeks 20 to 22 for industrial birds and approximately 24 weeks for the heritage Rhode Island Reds we now raise. For example, this past October when Elaine came out at midday to check on our two flocks, she found a tiny, round, brown egg near the waterer in the run where the pullets live.
Again, from our experience, pullets seem to be taken by surprise when that initial egg develops within them. That’s why, at this time, we search for random eggs in random places around the run. Nevertheless, by week 25 last October, as is typical, all three of our pullets were laying eggs in the henhouse’s nesting box.
Human parents aren’t the only creatures that experience trying times with teenagers. The teenage weeks and months can obviously stress us chicken enthusiasts, but when our cockerels give their first full-throated crows and our pullets lay their initial eggs, we forget the previous troubling times.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2023 issue of Chickens magazine.