The average chicken will live for anywhere from three to seven years. Why such a wide range? Mostly because there are so many different kinds of chickens living under a wide range of conditions. A well-cared-for hen that is kept safe from predators, for example, could live as long as 12 years. Chickens bred for meat, on the other hand, don't enjoy nearly as long a life.
Since there are so many breeds of chicken — each with their own unique life span — the question of chicken longevity is best approached on a case-by-case basis.
Heritage versus hybrid hens
In humanity's ongoing quest to satisfy our cravings for chicken noodle soup, wings, thighs and nuggets, scientists have had to re-engineer the food chicken.
In fact, in just 70 years, we've managed to build a brand-new chicken. It's a bird with feet that never leave the ground, wings that scarcely flutter, and bellies that only grow bigger. It's the hybrid hen — perhaps, the world's first purpose-built animal. And that purpose is eggs. Or drumsticks.
At any given time, there are about 23 billion hybrid hens alive on this planet. But not for long.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture allows companies to slaughter 175 birds per minute — and considering our appetite for all things chicken, companies don't let a second go to waste.
Understandably, one thing these chickens aren't engineered for is a long life. The Super Bowl is, after all, just around the corner.
As a result, the modern broiler chicken, also known as Gallus gallus domesticus, has a life expectancy of around seven weeks. Because that's about when we like to eat them.
Egg-laying chickens — at least the kind that are raised on commercial farms — have similarly abbreviated lives. They scratch out an average of two years before they start to slow down their egg production and make the transition to poultry. Even if an egg-laying hen avoids the slaughterhouse, it's likely to succumb to other diseases associated with all that genetic tinkering, like reproductive tumors and egg yolk peritonitis.
In contrast, what's known as a heritage hen is similar to the chicken your grandmother may have had pecking around the back door. These are chickens that haven't been bred for the dinner table. Nature alone holds sway over their genes.
As a result, heritage hens live about eight years. They're often kept in backyards, where there isn't such an imperative to maximize egg production or bulking up their meaty bits.
What factors play a role in a chicken's lifespan?
While being born as a heritage or hybrid chicken is a pretty crucial factor in determining how long a chicken will live, there are plenty of other life-extending, or life-abbreviating, issues to consider.
Chickens get diseases, too. While some infections caused by parasites like mites and ticks can result in skin-deep irritations, others can seriously curtail a chicken's life.
Coccidiosis is chief among them. Spread by the eponymously titled Coccidian protozoa, the disease targets a chicken's gut. It ravages those intestinal cells to the pint of extreme appetite loss and an inability to absorb nutrients.
Another disease, called fowl pox, can stunt the growth of birds and — perhaps even more critical to life expectancy — dry up egg production. For a commercial egg-layer, nothing may be more dangerous to its health than an inability to lay eggs.
Fowl cholera, also a chronic disease, goes mostly for a chicken's organs and joints. And, it can bring about sudden death in affected birds. Hens don't have to stress it quite so much, as the disease is known to affect roosters more often than hens. Also, since it tends to hit more mature birds, those affected by it have likely lived to a ripe age already.
Another life-shortening disease is salmonellosis, a bacterial disease affecting young chickens. In itself, it may not directly kill a chicken. But since humans are sensitive to salmonella-infected meat and eggs, an outbreak could result in a massive cull at its source.
And let's not forget about the headline-snatching avian influenza, or simply bird flu. A viral infection, it spreads not only from bird to bird, but also to humans and other animals. As with salmonella, mass chicken culls are the go-to response to bird flu outbreaks. Thousands of chickens — many of them in the wrong place at the wrong time — have been killed in the effort to stymie the disease.
Boosting natural defenses
Additives in food, particularly those that bolster the immune system, can go a long way toward protecting chickens from disease. Also, many chickens are immunized at an early age, with vaccinations proving successful against deadly diseases from fowl cholera to Newcastle disease.
Keeping birds parasite-free is also essential to helping them live a long life, as mites and ticks are known to spread disease.
Food additives and vaccinations may play an important role in keeping a chicken around longer. But it's also important to keep a chicken healthy, happy and sheltered.
Want a chicken to lead a long life? Keep them safe from predators. Let's face it, you're not the only animal who thinks chickens taste like, well, chickens. Chickens running loose are easy prey for foxes, owls, raccoons and even dogs. Backyard chicken owners who haven't built adequate physical protection for their birds are also known to lose them to the more-than-proverbial fox in the henhouse.
Fortunately, there's a lot you can do to keep them safe. Some tips, as Morning Chores notes, include:
- making the latch to their enclosure high off the ground and hard to open
- liberal use of chicken wire
- be vigilant for holes that appear in the fencing
- keep the coop closed at night
- keep a rooster around to sound the alarm bell and maybe even freak out a predator
- guinea fowl are even louder and more obnoxious than roosters
It's one thing to build a fortress for chickens to feel safe inside, but a chicken's lifespan is also tied to its life quality. Housing plays a major role in that. Chickens need enough space in their coops to avoid being trampled by their nervous neighbors. They also need a temperature-controlled environment. Having a roof over one's head to protect against snow and rain is always a good thing. But what happens when it gets sweltering hot under that roof? Likewise, a coop needs heating in bone-chilling winter.
Even dust and dirt add up, causing respiratory issues for birds kept in tight quarters.
Health professionals for chickens are hard to come by
Just like seeing a doctor on the regular can help humans lead a long, healthy life, so too can a veterinary visit add to a chicken's years. The trouble is, it isn't always easy to find a good vet for chickens. As pets, chickens still lag far behind dogs and cats. For most vets, the most exotic patient to scamper in the door would be a hamster. Hence, you have to look far and wide for a little professional help in times of medical distress. Often, chickens will pay for that dearth of medical assistance with their lives.
The big breeds and how long they will live
Housing, living conditions and access to medical care are key factors in determining whether a chicken will go the distance. Not to mention the very important distinction between a heritage hen and its hybrid counterpart.
But genetics can be subtle. And whether a bird that isn't bred for the dinner table lives an extra year or two may come down to its breed.
Here are a handful of the most popular kinds of chicken:
Rhode Island Reds
Chances are you've seen a Rhode Island Red. Since it first showed up in America back in back in 1854 — the product of a Malay rooster and a local chickens. Heck, it's the state bird of Rhode Island. As the name suggests, these birds are clad entirely in dark red feathers. But being considered both an egg-layer and meat provider means these birds don't exactly enjoy the longest lives.
Still, a Rhode Island Red allowed to live out its life will typically scratch out more than eight years, according to the Happy Chicken Coop.
These gloriously named chickens dominate the egg-laying industry. And, as high-volume producers, they're prone to all the health vulnerabilities that brings. Even if they don't fall victim to a tumor in the digestive tract, they're unlikely to reach their full natural lifespan. which is estimated to be 10 to 15 years.
These pretty speckled fowl are also good egg-layers. But they haven't experienced quite so much genetic tinkering. In fact, they're still considered heritage hens — which helps ensure they don't fall under the commercial yoke, and the attendant premature death that brings. As a backyard chicken, a Wyandotte can live anywhere from six to 12 years.
Saddled with the kind of name you just want to say over and over again — (Go ahead and try it at home ‘OR-PING-TON') — the Orpington falls in line with other birds of a similar feather, eking out anywhere from five to, in exceptional cases, 20 years. As prolific egg-layers, however, they can also fall prey to the intestinal issues that come with the job.
Who says chickens get no glory? This handsome bird was actually named after America's crowning moment — the disembarkation point of the earliest Pilgrims in Massachusetts. Unfortunately, this hen didn't get to share in the wealth of the New World, being considered an excellent source of both meat and eggs.
In fact, in the early 20th century it was the most popular chicken in the New World — which definitely left a mark on its life expectancy. But this chicken, if left unmolested by egg and poultry lovers, could live for between 10 and 12 years.
We'd be remiss not to mention these titans of the chicken world. Okay, so, strictly speaking they're not giant chickens, towering over humans and daring them to snatch one of their eggs. But they are, as far as chickens go, pretty tall customers.
Like other animals that come in larger sizes, their lifespans are proportionally shorter. A Jersey giant, if well cared for, will likely live around six years.
And how about those roosters?
Farmers generally don't appreciate roosters. In fact, unless they don't have an alarm clock and need to get up at the crack of dawn every day, farmers probably won't let them live for long. That's because roosters are considered a nuisance. And without the charm of laying eggs, they're often unwanted among the flock.
As such, a rooster's lifespan is heavily influenced by environment. If that environment happens to be rooster-friendly, this outspoken bird will likely live as long as the average hen: between five and eight years.
What about love?
There's one factor that's often overlooked when it comes to helping chickens lead a long, healthy life.
It's probably the same unquantifiable factor that weighs on all humans and animals: The amount of love they get. No one can say for certain how much getting caressed and spoken warmly to impacts life expectancy. But backyard chicken owners swear by the virtues of kindness — and how it keeps their feathered friends around a lot longer than anyone expected.
"Never underestimate how much an animal is understanding; they are far and away more perceptive than most people think," write one chicken friend in a forum for Backyard Chickens.
So go ahead and love your chickens. Just try to avoid, if at all possible, kissing them.
And if you happen to need any help cultivating a love for chickens, have a gander at this video: