In the chicken world, you may often find yourself reading an article or talking to a chicken keeper and realize you have absolutely no idea what they are talking about. Of course, this scenario applies to just about any profession or hobby across the board. There are simply different terms and words for everything out there, from chicken keeping to vehicle mechanics.
If you plan on immersing yourself in chicken keeping, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with common terminology to help you better understand the world of chickens. Pretty soon, you’ll be talking like a seasoned expert!
What to Call a Chicken Based on Age and Sex
A chicken is a chicken, right? Well, if you plan on getting specific with your chicken descriptions, you’ll need to learn what to call that specific chicken. As humans, we have different names for different stages of life such as infant, toddler, teenager, and so on. It’s important to know what to call your chicken in cases of marketing, showing, or investigating health issues.
Like any young bird, a baby chicken is called a chick. Any chicken from freshly hatched to around eight weeks of age would classify as a chick. A male or female baby chicken could be referred to as a chick.
2. Straight Run Chicks
‘Straight run’ is a common term used when referring to chicks, but it’s not a very self-explanatory term. Simply put, straight run just means unsexed. You will often encounter this term when ordering chicks and all it means is that the chicks will be sold as hatched and you will receive a random mixture of male and female chicks.
The opposite of straight run chicks would be sexed chicks, where you can order chicks based on their sex.
As your chicks grow up, they reach a point where they aren’t chicks anymore, but they aren’t adults either. By now, you can usually sex your young birds and you can refer to them based on gender.
A pullet is any female chicken under the age of one. Some people will often refer to a young female chicken as a pullet until she begins laying. Either way, when you hear the word pullet, it means a young female chicken.
When your chicks grow up and the genders of the birds become more and more apparent, it’s not hard to pick out a cockerel, which is a young male chicken. Cockerels will often have larger, redder combs and wattles than young pullets of the same age. If you have a young rooster on your hands, the proper term for him is a cockerel.
Once your pullets are fully mature, they can now be referred to as hens. A hen is physically and sexually mature and will lay eggs as well as possibly sit on clutches of eggs to hatch them.
As your cockerels blossom into fully grown and sexually mature chickens, they are now full-blown roosters. Roosters can be an excellent asset to the flock for protection as well as egg fertilization.
Now, here’s a term you may not encounter in everyday chicken situations, but it’s useful to be aware of. A capon is a castrated male chicken, just like a steer is a castrated bull in the cow world.
Caponizing roosters is a less common practice than it used to be, but it does serve a useful purpose. Capons will fatten up much better than a rooster, which makes them more desirable for meat production. In addition to fattening up easier, capons don’t tend to fight with each other, which makes it easier to keep a large number of them together.
Understanding Chicken Anatomy
Knowing basic chicken anatomy can really come in handy, especially when dealing with health issues. While many of the body parts on a chicken are self-explanatory, like wings and feathers, some are quite unique.
Combs can come in all different shapes and sizes, but every chicken has a comb. For most chickens, it is the obvious red, fleshy ornament on top of the head with spikes that could resemble comb teeth. Other chickens have smaller, cushion looking combs that don’t grow as tall but serve the same purpose as other combs.
Combs help regulate body temperature in chickens, as well as serve as one of the easiest ways to sex an older bird. Roosters generally have much larger and redder combs than hens.
The wattle is in plain sight on every chicken, but not everyone knows exactly what it is called. Wattles are the red flaps that dangle beneath every chicken’s beak. Just like with the comb, wattles serve as a way for chickens to cool themselves down on hot days.
Unlike the ears themselves, chicken’s earlobes are quite visible. Earlobes are usually red or white and are located slightly below and behind the chicken’s eyeball on the head of the chicken.
One interesting thing about earlobes is that you can sometimes use it to tell what color egg your hen will lay. A chicken with a white earlobe is likely to lay white eggs while chickens with red earlobes will probably lay brown eggs.
The first time I heard someone refer to a vent I was just a tad confused. Turns out, a vent is just a fancy word for the anus on a chicken. Just inside the vent, the cloaca and the oviduct meet so the bird’s waste and eggs come out of the same hole.
When it comes to roosters, they can end up with some pretty intimidating spurs on their legs. Spurs, which resemble an antelope-like horn, are located just above the foot on a rooster and they’ll grow quite large. If you’re dealing with an aggressive rooster, there are ways to remove spurs to help his attacks have a little less blow to them.
If you’ve ever seen a chicken eat a full meal, chances are you’ve noticed a breast looking bulge on the right side of its chest. When a chicken eats a large amount of food at once, it can’t immediately digest all of the food. The crop essentially holds the food until it can be digested bit by bit.
After the food leaves the crop, it makes its way into the gizzard where the food really begins to get digested. Chickens store grit, such as little sand and pebbles in their crops to help grind the food down, basically chewing the food for the chickens since they don’t have teeth.
Feathered Features of Your Flock
A well-feathered chicken is certainly a sight to behold! Roosters in particular can grow long, flowing tail feathers with stunning features that will make anyone take a second glance. You may have noticed that they also get much longer feathers on other parts of their body like the neck and back. Now you’ll know how to identify these feathers!
1. Hackle Feathers
Hackle feathers are the neck feathers on a chicken. Roosters will grow long and pointed feathers on their neck with age, while hens keep the less showy neck feathers. In cases of well-matured birds, looking at the difference in their hackles is an easy way to sex them.
2. Sickle Feathers
If you’ve ever stopped and noticed how beautiful a rooster’s tail is, you were likely admiring his sickle feathers. The long feathers that seem to form the rooster’s tail are referred to as sickle feathers in technical terms.
3. Saddle Feathers
As you may expect, saddle feathers are located on a chicken’s back in the “saddle” area. Roosters, in particular, have long, draping feathers just before where their tail begins that make the saddle feathers easy to pick out.
4. The Cape
Knowing what the cape is and how to use it comes in handy especially if you are a fly fisher or plan on selling fly tying capes to fly fishers. All of the hackle feathers on a rooster make up the entirety of the cape.
Capes are harvested by skinning the neck and keeping all the feathers intact on the piece of skin that you remove. As you may have guessed, curing the skin is imperative in order to make sure you don’t end up with rotten flesh all over your fly tying feathers.
The Sounds Chickens Make
The more you’re around chickens, the more familiar all of their sounds become. Knowing the pitch and frequency of chicken talk is something you’ll learn simply from observation. Some of the sounds chickens make have cute little names and others are simply just little parts of the chicken talk that only chicken keepers understand.
We all know that crowing is just part of the joyous perks of having a rooster on the farm. Many people believe that roosters only crow in the morning, but they will in fact crow 24 hours a day. In some rare cases, hens will take on rooster-like traits and begin to crow themselves, although they don’t have the art perfected quite as roosters do.
Check out our post on Chicken Noises with audio examples for all the interesting examples.
Hatching and Incubating
A hatching process has a dictionary all of its own, but there are some terms I use quite regularly that get me a surprising amount of confused looks.
Lockdown concerns the latter part of every hatch period no matter if it’s duck, chicken, or emu eggs. For chicken eggs, lockdown occurs on the 18th day of incubation. When eggs go into lockdown, it’s time to stop turning eggs and increase humidity in the incubator. Chicks will position themselves to hatch during the lockdown and the increased humidity will make hatching easier when the time comes on the 21st day.
2. Pips and Zips – Oh My!
When it comes to hatching, there are two different terms that commonly refer to the hatching stages.
A chick “pips” by making the initial crack in the egg. At this point, the chick will rest from 8-12 hours before making the final push out into the world. If you’ve ever heard someone refer to a pipped egg, it just means it has shown the first external signs of beginning to hatch.
When the chick is all rested and ready to venture out of the eggshell, it will begin the process of zipping. Chicks will slowly but surely rotate around the egg chipping a line of eggshell bits away. This is called zipping because it seems the chick is zipping itself outside of the egg.
The Things They Do
Chicken mannerisms are quite an amusing sight to observe among your chickens. Our feathered friends certainly have some of the most charming lives in their own little worlds. You may be surprised to learn that some of the things you’ve observed in your chicken coop actually have a name!
For chicken flocks with more than one rooster, sparring may occasionally or frequently occur depending on the dynamics of your flock. Sparring is basically just a fancy word for when roosters are fighting.
At times sparring can just be a slight tussle for dominance and other times it can get out of hand. If your roosters are getting a little too out of hand, it’s a good idea to figure out some management to avoid injuries.
From a young age, chickens have the instinct to ‘roost’ when they go to sleep every night. When chickens go to roost, they enjoy perching as high up as possible because they feel safer this way. At times, this can cause issues because your birds may choose to roost in trees instead of their safe chicken coops.
That victory walk your rooster proudly displays as he surveys his flock of ladies? It’s safe to say that roosters definitely have the art of strutting down to a T.
Tidbitting has to be one of my favorite things to witness in the chicken coop. If you have a rooster in with your hens, you’ll likely see a rooster tidbitting at some point when you know what to look for.
When a rooster tidbits, he finds a morsel of food that he thinks his hens will like and proceeds to get their attention. A tidbitting rooster will dance around the food all while excitedly clucking quite rapidly to alert the hens of his discovery. It’s quite the adorable sight to witness a rooster eagerly showing off his food and watching the hens gather around him to see what he has to offer.
Have a look at Nr 2. in our Chicken Sounds and Noises article.
In the spring and summer, there’s a good chance you’ll end up with at least one broody hen. When a hen goes broody, her body has experienced a change and she has gone from laying eggs to sitting on eggs.
Broody hens want to sit on eggs all day long in hopes of hatching a clutch of chicks after three weeks. Watch out, when a hen goes broody, she goes moody too!
Just For Fun
Chickens have been observed a great deal over the years and all their funny little quirks often get encapsulated in timeless idioms and sayings.
Business is never so healthy as when, like a chicken, it must do a certain amount of scratching for what it gets.Henry Ford
The key to everything is patience. You get the chicken by hatching the egg, not by smashing it.Arnold H Glasow
We can see a thousand miracles around us every day. What is more supernatural than an egg yolk turning into a chicken?S. Parkes Cadman
We certainly have a lot we could learn from our little feathered friends. I’ll never get tired of learning new chicken terms and phrases! Hopefully today you’ve added a few new nuggets of knowledge to your chicken keeping toolbox. Go out and see if you can observe any of the behaviors we’ve learned today and happy chickening!