People have gone cuckoo for chickens in recent years, perhaps because the pandemic forced everyone into isolation and self-reliance, or perhaps because society is increasingly aware of the widespread abuse of chickens on factory farms. Many would-be homesteaders may have been enticed by the idea of having access to factory-free eggs rather than setting out to adopt chickens as pets. But living with these sensitive and intelligent creatures is opening people’s eyes to these birds as more than just egg-producing livestock.
Where Do Chickens Live?
Though often pictured as white or reddish-brown birds pecking around scattered straw on dusty farms, chickens are descended from colorful junglefowl that thrive in the tropical forests of Southeast Asia. These birds, who don’t migrate on their own, were spread all over the world as Old World civilizations traded them for other items and new sources of food.
Over time, and especially over the last century, chickens have been bred so excessively that they now outnumber all other bird species combined. On any given day, there are roughly 33 billion chickens living around the world—the vast majority on factory farms. It’s not just the chicken population that has boomed, but the size of each individual bird. Selective breeding and overfeeding have forced chickens to grow much larger. In the last 70 years alone, factory farming has more than quadrupled the size of the average chicken. The sheer weight of these “broilers” is a burden on their own bodies, meaning all these billions of farmed birds live in constant pain.
How Long Do Chickens Live in Captivity?
For the vast majority of chickens, living in captivity means living in the confinement of a factory farm. All farmed animals have their lives cut short, literally.
How Long Do Chickens Live Before Slaughter?
Broiler chickens are only six to seven weeks old when sent to slaughter. To put that in perspective, consider that chickens don’t reach maturity until between 16 and 24 weeks. In other words, when people eat chicken, they’re eating the children of the species.
How Long Do Chickens Live in the Wild?
Though living in the wild presents its own challenges, including natural predators, wild chickens outlive farmed birds by up to seven years and sometimes even longer.
How Long Do Chickens Live as Pets?
A pet chicken, particularly one who’s healthy and cared for, can live 10 or more years, depending on the breed. Even farmed chickens can enjoy longer, happier lives if sent to rescues or adopted to loving homes.
What Do Chickens Usually Die From?
Considering that the vast majority of chickens are born into an industry that makes money from dead chickens, perhaps it comes as no surprise that the leading cause of death for chickens is slaughter.
What Other Factors Affect a Chicken’s Lifespan?
Gender and Eggs
In the egg industry, female chickens are allowed to mature into egg-laying hens, known as layer hens. But even then, these birds are only allowed to live as long as their bodies churn out roughly an egg a day. Unfortunately for layer hens, egg production tends to peak at 18 to 24 months. When they are no longer useful to the egg industry, the majority of these hens are sent to gas chambers.
Because the egg industry has no use for male chicks, factory farms gas and macerate over 6 billion newborn male chicks a year.
On factory farms, chickens are forced to live in miserable conditions. Crowded together in cages, most farmed chickens can’t even spread their wings or walk. With little room to move and stretch, and with no mental stimulation, many captive birds become aggressive toward each other, resulting in injuries that, in the unsanitary environment, are prone to infection.
Just like dogs, some chicken breeds tend to live longer than others. And just like any pet, quality of life is what’s most important.
An Environment That Breeds Disease
The excessive numbers of factory-farmed birds produce large amounts of waste that result in high concentrations of ammonia and hydrogen sulfide. As if being denied fresh air and sunlight wasn’t bad enough, the toxic air makes chickens—and poultry workers—sick with respiratory infections including chronic bronchitis and respiratory tract paralysis, and can damage the immune system.
In addition to various respiratory illnesses, chicken farms provide breeding grounds for avian influenza. The current avian flu outbreak is breaking records, having already infected 38 million chickens, and is now threatening wild birds and other wildlife, as well as humans.
Broiler chickens and layer hens, like all factory-farmed animals, have been selectively bred into mutated versions of their wild counterparts.
In nature, wild chickens and red junglefowl weigh around 2 pounds on average as adults. That’s what two-month-old broiler chickens weighed in the 1950s. Now, broiler chickens strain under a whopping weight of 9.25 pounds.
Diet and Nutrition
Broiler chickens have been bred to overeat. The industry takes advantage of that selected weakness by serving the birds a high-calorie, all-you-can-eat buffet. Chicken feed contains a variety of grains chickens might eat naturally. But it also contains slaughterhouse byproducts such as meat and bone meal, blood meal, fish meal, and even poultry and feather meal made from the discarded parts of other chickens.
Despite all the health risks inherent in factory farming, the overwhelming number of animals means that illnesses and injuries usually go unattended. In fact, instead of tending to animals, poultry veterinarians generally only work with farmers as consultants.
Which Chicken Holds the Record for the Longest Lifespan?
According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the oldest living chicken was Muffy, a pet Red Quill Muffed American Game hen. She died in 2011 at the age of 22.
What You Can Do
Take note of everything done to chickens on factory farms—and do the opposite.
Chickens are social flock animals, so plan to adopt more than one. Note that chickens can’t be housebroken, so you’ll probably want to house your new feathered friends outside.
Housing should be generous, allowing at least 5 square feet of space per chicken. To protect chickens from potential predators, make sure the bottom of all fencing is buried underground and enclose the top of the coop with chicken wire or netting. To give chickens shelter from severe weather, be sure to include a covered area inside the coop as well. Lastly, cover the floor with a couple of inches of straw, so the chickens can make their beds. Check the coop often to make sure waste isn’t piling up, and plan to clean the coop at least once a month.
Provide chickens with access to fresh water and fresh food. To minimize the risk of disease, feed should be free of slaughterhouse byproducts. Chickens will eat grains, as well as cracked corn, oats, and a variety of vegetables and fruit. Chickens are naturally omnivorous, so they might also find and eat bugs.
When your coop is set up and you’re ready to adopt, check with your local animal shelter, as stray and abandoned farmed animals often find their way to the same place you might adopt a cat or dog. You can also check resources like the Adopt A Bird Network, which lists chickens and other birds in need of homes.
If you’re not ready to open your home to a chicken but still want to help a bird in need, you can symbolically adopt or sponsor any number of animals through rescues like Farm Sanctuary and Animal Place.
Shad Clark is a writer and filmmaker. His credits include Through the Eyes of a Pig and Side Effects May Include.