One of the first steps our family took toward living a more sovereign lifestyle was the ownership of chickens for meat and egg production. These creatures are easy to care for, a joy to have around, and they eat all sorts of little pests that could otherwise end up in your home or garden! Some people find them a bit messy, but our family has found you can direct the mess (poop and scratching) by setting strong boundaries. They also provide the opportunity for you to start a small agorist side-business in homegrown eggs. Not to mention chickens allow you to disconnect yourself from a centralized food supply chain for your breakfast meals and dinner!
Chicken Life Cycle
Before you engage in the amazing journey that is chicken ownership, I think it's important you understand the lifecycle of a chicken. A chicken develops first from an egg into a chick, then from a chick into a pullet or cockerel, and finally into a full grown hen or rooster. Around six months of age, they begin to lay eggs. They will lay approximately one egg per day for several years, followed by a declining rate until their death.
Eggs develop inside the body of a hen. Once she has become an active layer, she will always have several developing eggs inside of her at any given time. Our family was able to witness this developmental process first hand when we made the novice mistake of allowing a stray dog around our chickens. The dog broke the neck of one of our most active layers and we immediately slaughtered her. During the slaughtering and butchering process, we were surprised to find a chain of developing eggs inside of her; there was an egg ready to be laid followed by an egg with a soft shell, followed by an egg with a soft translucent shell, followed by an egg without a shell, followed by just a yolk.
You may be surprised to learn that the yolk is not what turns into a chick; it is actually the food for the chick to eat while developing inside the egg! In fact, the nutrients in the yolk can keep newly hatched chicks alive for up to three days, even without access to additional food or water! This is why people are able to send day old chicks through the mail.
While these eggs remain inside their momma hen they have the potential to be fertilized by a rooster. He does this by jumping on her back and rubbing his reproductive organs on hers. The hen then lays the eggs for you to eat and you will rarely know which eggs are fertilized and which ones are not unless you take additional steps to find out.
One way to tell if an egg has been fertilized is through a process called candling where you hold a light up to the bottom of the egg (or a candle) and take a peek inside. If the egg is fertilized, you will often see spots of blood and a small developing embryo. I have found it easier to tell if your eggs are fertile or not once they’ve already begun the incubation process, then the embryo is much larger and easier to identify.
Incubation / Brooding
After a fertilized egg has been laid, it will start to develop a chick when kept at 99.5 degrees Fahrenheit. This happens when people put the eggs inside of an incubator or when a momma hen becomes “broody” and begins to sit on a pile of eggs. After 21 days of the right temperature conditions, a young chick will begin to peck its way out of the egg. When you hear the chick tweeting from in the egg it is commonly called “pipping”. When they start breaking a line through the shell with their beak it is commonly called “zipping”.
Once the egg has hatched, the young bird is called a “chick”. At this stage of its life it is fuzzy or furry and looks like a little poof ball on legs. This is the most vulnerable stage of the bird’s life outside the egg. If hatched in an incubator, they will need a heat lamp for warmth for several weeks. Mother hens provide this warmth until the birds are big enough to sleep alone at night.
Pullets and Cockerels
Once the fuzz begins to be replaced by small feathers, the female is now called a “pullet” and the male a “cockerel”. These birds do not yet lay eggs because their bodies are focused on gaining weight and becoming full sized. Most people cannot tell the difference between a rooster and a hen until they are late in this stage and begin to develop distinguishing characteristics.
Hens and Roosters
Around age six months, your birds will enter the adult stage of their life where they are considered a full-grown hen (female chicken) or rooster (male chicken).
Males have a more upright posture, big arching tail feathers, and long talons on the back of their feet. While their appearances can be extravagant, the most obvious indication that you are dealing with a rooster is their infamous crow (“cock-a-doodle-doo”!).
Hens are less ornamental, stand less perpendicular to the ground, and have a smaller overall stature. I should note that some hens in a rooster-less environment have been known to take on the role of crowing, though it is rare.
For more information on raising backyard chickens, buy Catherine's E-Book, Sovereign Living Guide to Backyard Chickens here, or click on link below: