When considering the life expectancy of backyard chickens, several factors come into play. A good amount of these factors are dependent upon their specific breed, parent stock at the hatchery, how they were hatched (hatchery vs broody momma) and how they were raise from chick hood. A chicken keeper has control over some of these factors and no control over others.
Some breeds are just more delicate than others. For example, the Polish and Silkie in particular are a bit more susceptible to illness such as Wry Neck which can cause death if not treated quickly and effectively. You also have their sensitivity to winter weather in these and other breeds; which can make them less hearty in colder climates especially in winter. However, with proper care and provisions these breeds can and do live in colder climates without issue. I currently have quite a few birds of these breeds, some of which are going on their 5th winter as of this year. They to take bit more care, but for the joy they bring they are worth it. To read my posts on care for these breeds click her for Polish and her for Silkies.
However, these factors aside, there are many things that an owner can do which will contribute to an overall long life expectancy of their flock. In this post, I will share with you practices I have implemented in caring for my girls which have attributed to my oldest ladies celebrating 10 years of living the good life.
Here on the Kuntry Klucker Farm my ladies are pets and treated well even beyond their productive years. Even at 10 years of age they still lay. They do not lay as dependably or even as often as when they were younger, but they lay enough to let me know that they are still healthy and happy. Not all backyard chicken keepers allow their birds to remain on their farm past the point of productivity. Correspondingly, this blog post is specifically directed towards those who plan to allow their ladies to live out their natural lives long past their productive years. So, without further ado, allow me to share with you methods that I have implemented to ensure a long and happy life for some of my senior ladies.
I have been at this little backyard chicken hobby for 10 years now. My first flock started with 17 Buff Orphington chicks. I had no idea when they arrived in their little peeping box what joys were in store for me. I instantly fell in love with them thus began the greatest adventure of my life. Out of the original 17 that I started with, 5 remain. These are my oldest ladies now at the ripe old age of 10. For any chicken to reach 10 years of age is in and of itself a feat that defies the odds. Most backyard chickens, even raised as pets rarely make it past the age of 7, which is still considered a good long life for a pampered hen. There are cases here and there of a pet chicken making it to 15 years and beyond. However amazing, these instances are rare and far and few in-between. Most backyard or pet chickens fall somewhere between 5-7 yeas as a general life expectancy. However, if they are well cared for this expectancy can be extended by several years and beyond. Here I will list care taking techniques that have brought my ladies 10 happy years and hopefully many more to come.
Feed and Treats: All physical health begins with diet. For both human and animal, what you put in is what you get out. I have always been a consciouses eater, I do the same for my pets which consist of both mammal (3 cats) and avian (50 or so girls and gent). I see to it that my ladies get a complete poultry feed that accounts for all of their nutritional needs. I am not a poultry scientists so I do not rely on my own knowledge to feed them what I think is a correct diet. Laying hens have a lot of specialized needs that need to be meet in order to lay well and remain healthy. For this reason, (contrary to opinions of other backyard chicken keepers), I allow my girls to have treat very rarely. I do not want to dilute the nutrition they really need from their feed by filling them up on treat which will only serve to reduce these essential nutritional requirements. Many treats commonly fed to chickens are not good for them. Items such as cracked corn, scratch, oatmeal, and other kitchen craps not only hinder their daily nutritional needs but can cause unhealthy weight gain and affect the absorption of various vitamins and minerals needed which is provided in their feed. Many keepers like to feed their girls treats, but in reality this is not in their best nutritional interest. I do however make one exception.
On occasion I will feed my girls dried mealworm. These little goodies contain nutrition that is essential for their health such as a good source of protein. During the summer months when they are free ranging, they will eat their fair share of insects which provide them with suitable amounts of protein. During the winter months this source of protein is not available, so I will supplement this natural part of their diet with dried mealworms. They are beyond excited when they hear the mealworm bag. I will sometimes use the mealworms as boredom busters. During harsh winter weather, issues such as pecking can result when the flock is “cooped up” for too long. I make entertainment and games for my girls to distract them from picking at each other during these times. But outside of this, their diet consist of a poultry feed developed to meet all their specialized nutritional needs. As a general rule, I will only feed my girls Purina Premium Poultry Feed. I have tried other brands on occasion but I find that when I feed them Purina they are much healthier, their egg shells are stronger, and their feather quality is much better.
Fresh water, vitamins, probiotics and electrolytes: Every day my ladies get fresh water. Additionally, especially during hot and humid weather, I will add poultry vitamins and electrolytes to their water. Living in the south we get extremely hot summers with lots of humidity making outdoor conditions nothing short of miserable. To assist my ladies in combating this weather, I make sure that they remain well hydrated. The vitamins give them an extra boost to keep them healthy due to reduce consumption of feed in response to the heat. These vitamins also contain electrolytes which further keep their bodies balanced during the heat. Several times a week I will add poultry probiotics to their water to keep their gut health in check.
The heat of summer is a great stressor on their little bodies its more dangerous then wet and cold weather combined. If you have large standard size breeds with ample feathering such as the Orphington or Cochin the heat is further compounded. I have over the years lost several girls to the heat but never to the cold or prolonged wet weather. Just like for us, high heat and humidity can be a swift and fast killer. To make these conditions easier on their bodies, I supplement their nutritional needs in their water.
During the hot summer months they will drink more than eat especially their feed. They will spend most their time grazing on the grass and other delectables they find in the form of insects and other creepy crawlies. Since I have supplemented their water, I have not lost any more of my girls to the heat. This has no doubt aided my girls in a log happy life of 10 years. During the winter I still add vitamins and probiotics to their water, once a week or so acting more as maintenance rather than essential survival of harsh summer weather conditions.
Clean and Dry Digs: Just like us, your girls also need a clean and dry place to call home. To underestimate the importance of a clean coop would be a detrimental condition for your girls. Although it is true that chickens are messy creatures, that does not mean that they can live in filthy unsanitatry conditions. If allowed, disease and other illness will run rampant in a coop that is not cleaned and maintained on a regular basis.
A chicken coop needs to be cleaned on a daily basis. Everyday the poop from the overnight shift needs to be removed and disposed of. If needed, the coop may need sprayed out with water and the pen cleaned depending of which method of litter you use. As for my flock, all my coops get cleaned daily. I removed the poop on the poop boards from the previous night. During the summer in order to keep the fly population down I spray off the boards to get them extra clean. I then replace the clean boards then move onto the pen. Removing from the pen floor poop and other debris whether it be feathers or what not from the previous day and night. Another reason you want to clean their coops daily is to keep a good watch on the conditions of their poo. As with all animal, fecal matter tells a story of what is happening inside the body. If you find blood or worms on the poop boards from the previous night a closer look may be warranted. I plan to do a post on chicken health in the near future that will help you diagnose and treat common aliment conditions. But for the sake of this post, keeping a close eye on your ladies poo can help you catch health conditions before they become severe or beyond treatment.
In addition to maintaining you coop cleanings you also want to make sure that they have dry digs. The coop should not leak, if it does some calking could go a long way. If you have a covered run repair any leaks that may have developed over the past few months. You want your girls to have a clean dry place to call home. These regiments will go a long way to having a healthy and happy flock. If you girls have a clean place to live, disease and other illness will have little opportunity to infect your flock. If you want your ladies to have a happy and long life it starts with a clean coop and pen. As they say, happy hens lay better eggs.
Protection from Predators: On the hills of a clean and dry coop comes a secure coop. It is no surprise that chicken tastes good. Many predators feel the same way. It is one of the major jobs of any backyard chicken keepers to make sure that your girls are off the menu of many predators which would love to shop in your yard for their next meal. This is one of the reasons that we keep our backyard ladies in coops and pens that are constructed with their safely in mind. Predation is early the most significant factor affecting the life expectancy of backyard chickens. Even when we do all that we can to insure their safely, unfortunate things can still happen. No only is this a disastrous event for a keeper, it’s a very stressful situation for the flock as well. If a keeper wants to give their flock some free range time to hunt and peck in the yard, this becomes ever more present on the mind of a dutiful keeper.
Although these dangers exist, I still chose to free range my flock during the day, weather permitting. One way that I have insured their safely even while free ranging it to fence in my backyard with a 6ft wood privacy fence. Additionally, running the perimeter of the fence on the outside, I have installed an electric fence to discourage any climbing or digging would be chicken dinner seekers. This has narrowed my predators down to the flying (such as hawks) and crawling (such as snakes) verities. In the 10 years that I have kept chickens I have never lost a member to predator attacks. Since I live in the country I keep several roosters out with the girls providing additional protection. My gents have detoured their fair share of take out runs by hawks and other arial predators. I have even documented such an event. You can read the harrowing story of my Rooster Roy here and his tangle with a hawk which saved the life of my girls.
To insure a long natural life of your ladies, it is imperative that measures be taken to insure their safety and protection from predators. I have found that its a fairly straightforward procedure to protect your girls from the most common predators that will seek to dine on your flock. The only predators that are virtually impossible to protect your flock against is that of a bear or mountain lion. Although extremely rare, some cases of bear attacks have been recorded but bears are probably something that most of us are not going to even have to tangle with. Become familiar with the predators in your area and do your best to ensure your girls safely, discouraging them from taking interest in your flock.
Routine Care for Internal and External Parasites: The final point that I will make in regards to extending the life your backyard girls is care for the creepy crawlies specifically mites, lice and worms. Just like your dog or cat will need routine flea or worm care, so do your girls. Taking care of the external and internal parasites is a very simple and straightforward operation. Unlike your dog or cat the assistance of a vet is not needed.
At some point in your adventure with keeping backyard chickens they will get a case of mites or lice. Don’t worry though, you cannot get these mites or lice they are species specific (none zoonotic) and only affect birds. Your girls can however get mites and lice from wild birds. You don’t need to keep your girls locked up in solitary, they can be out in the yard and enjoy their normal activies because treating mites and lice is not difficult at all. If you look on the internet there will be millions of methods presented to treat mite or lice infestations. I will say this though, the natural methods do not work well. DE or diatomaceous Earth is not effective on mites or lice. Not only it is one of the least effective treatments it is very dangerous for you as well as your girls lungs. I would stay away from this as a treatment option. I only treat for mites and lice when the problem arrises. For the most part the ladies themselves will take care of their own external parasites by dust bathing. The act of dust bathing smothers the little beasties and cleans their feathers all at the same time. A good way to assist them in this endeavor is to make sure that they always have access to dust bathing medium, either through free ranging or by providing them with a sand box with a mix of dirt and sand in it for them. But, if the condition arises that you notice little bugs crowing on your ladies its time to bring out the big guns and nip this in the butt before it gets worse.
A heavy mite or lice load on a chicken can and will kill them. The little beasties suck blood to the point where they can become anemic and weak, if not treated it can cause death. To treat mites and lice I use a very simple yet effective product. Its called Eprinex, developed for cattle, at low doses its very effective in treating mites and lice on chickens. Eprinex can be found at Tractor Supply and other feed stores in your area. Its about $50 but since you use so little it will last you years. Simply get a syringe (remove the needle) and apply the liquid directly to your birds skin like you would a cat or dog (on the back of the neck). For a large or standard bird apply 1/2 cc or ml for a bantam bird apply 1/4cc or ml. If you have birds that have a crest such as the Polish or Silkie, apply a drop or two on their crest. These breeds are susceptible to mites and lice due to the fact that they cannot groom these areas. Reapply in 10 days, its that simple! I have found that I tend to have more of a problem with mites and lice in the colder months, specifically February and March. I am convinced that it is cold weather related as the birds provide the warmth and blood supply the beasties need during these winter months.
Now for the internal parasites. At some point or another you will run into a situation where your flock will need wormed. Chickens naturally will have a worm load inside them. Usually they manage it pretty well but at times such as times of stress they can become overwhelmed. Typical signs of worms are weakness, weightloss, fatigue and in a worst case scenario finding worms in their poop. Don’t freak out though, treating worms in your flock is very simple. As with the mites and lice there are many treatments out there. Again I will reinforce the fact that natural methods of worming are not very effective. If your flock or several members have worms you need to acquire an affective treatment and get rid of the little nasties before they kill your chickens.
Worms in chickens can kill them very fast, faster than you would expect. Additionally, if they have a heavy worm load you may even find worms in your eggs. If you ever see a spaghetti noodle in your egg yolks do not eat it! its not normal and the last thing you want it to get worms as well. My product of choice is SafeGuard. Originally developed for goats it is very effective at small doses for worming chickens as well. I specifically like this product because it is a broad spectrum wormer as well. It will not only take care of round worms but it will also take care of tape, flat, gape, lung and other worms that chickens can get. Some other wormers are only effective on round worms. Although round worms are most common in chickens they can and do pick up other worms in their environment. You can find SafeGuard at Tractor Supply and other feed stores. It usually runs anywhere between $30-50 depending on location.
To use SafeGuard to worm your girls you need to give this to them orally. The easiest way I have found to worm them it to put the wormer on a small piece of bread and feed a piece to every member of your flock. Once again use a syringe removing the needle. For a standard size bird you will need to put 1/2cc or ml on a piece of bread and have them eat it. For a bantam size bird you will need to put 1/4cc or ml for them to eat. Repeat this process in 10 days. The first dose kills all the live worms in their body, the second kills all the worms that were eggs at the time and hatched. After two worming sessions you are done and your girls are free of worms.
A word to the wise-there is a 10-14 day egg withdrawal during this period. After worming your girls, do not eat any of the eggs from those ladies. Since this is given orally the wormer will pass into the eggs and if you eat the eggs you will also ingest the wormer. After you worm them the second time wait the allocated 10-14 days, after that point you can begin eating the eggs again. I hate to waste the eggs so I use those eggs for crafts such as making ornaments and other things so that I am not just simply throwing them away. Other people might not care as much but since I decorate my house in chickens I like to make as much as I can using supplies donated by my girls. I will have to do a post on some of my craft projects to show you some of the things I have made. It’s a wonder how many cute things you can make with feathers they shed and eggs that are preserved as decorations. Anyway, SafeGuard is a very safe and effective treatment for worms in your flock. Just like the mites and lice, I only worm when I notice the need. Chickens are usually able to manage a small worm load but once it reaches a point they need a little bit of help.
Taking routine care of internal and external parasites will go a long way to extending your ladies lives. If they are free of the pests that can make them sick or even kill them their bodies are in a much healthier state. Over the course of 10 years I have only really had to worm them a handful of times. I usually have more of an issue with the mites and lice during the colder months of the year. But even those situations are very easy to address and eradicate. Just like you extend the life of your cat or dog by keeping them flea and worm free the same applies to your chickens. In doing so you have bought yourself much more time to love and enjoy their company.
I hope that you have found this post informative or helpful. If you have any questions feel free to post them in the comments. I check my comments regularly and will get back to you as soon as I can.
As Always, thanks for reading. Till next time, keep on crowing!
~ The Kuntry Klucker Crew ~