Know Your Backyard Chicken Terms!

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Glossary of terms every backyard chicken keeper needs to know

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What’s the difference between a chicken and a hen? What is a young chicken called? What’s a broiler? We’ve compiled a glossary of chicken terms that every backyard chicken keeper needs to know.

All the terminology used for chickens can get quite confusing, so we’re here to tell you what it all means and why it matters. 

First, here’s a simple list of different chicken terms to reference

List of Chicken Terms to Reference

  • Bantam: A diminutive breed of domestic fowl. Find out more about other chicken breeds.
  • Boiler: A chicken 6 to 9 months old.
  • Broiler: A cockerel of 2 or 3 pounds, at 8 to 12 weeks old.
  • Cock: A male chicken, also called a rooster.
  • Cockerel: A young rooster, under 1 year old.
  • Fryer: A chicken of 3 to 4 pounds, at 12 to 14 weeks old.
  • Hen: A female chicken.
  • Nest Egg: Literally, a china or wooden egg placed into the nest to encourage laying; figuratively, something set aside as security. Learn more about egg production in your chicken coop.
  • Point-of-lay Pullet: A young female, just about to lay, near 5 months old.
  • Pullet: A young female chicken, under 1 year old.
  • Roaster: A chicken of 4 to 6 pounds, over 12 to 14 weeks old.
  • Rooster: A male chicken; also called a cock.
  • Sexed Chicks: Separated into pullets only or only cockerels
  • Straight Run: Pullets and cockerels, mixed (unsexed or “as hatched.”)

We’ll further explain the difference between a hen and a chicken, and then break down the distinctions between various terms for different kinds of chickens based on their age, sex, and purpose.

What’s the Difference Between a Chicken and a Hen?

Depending on how much experience you have with chickens, you may think the difference between hens and chickens is so obvious it can’t possibly need explaining, but this is actually a common question so we’ll start there.

What is a Chicken?

A chicken is any bird of the species Gallus gallus domesticus, the domesticated descendants of the ancient red, grey, and Ceylon jungle fowl of Southeast Asia. These birds are believed to have first been domesticated in Thailand 8,000 years ago, though this remains the subject of debate. From there, they spread slowly across Asia, reaching China and India 2,000 years after they were first domesticated, and then reaching the Middle East, Egypt, the Mediterranean, and eventually Europe—6,000 years later. 

During most of this epic journey, though, chickens weren’t the staple food source we use them for today. Instead, it is believed they were first domesticated and raised for sport—specifically, cockfighting. It wasn’t until they reached Greece in the 400s BC that they began to be widely kept for food production, though cockfighting remained central to their appeal for another thousand years and in some places is still practiced today.

The chicken is now the most widespread domesticated animal in the world, outnumbering humans by more than two to one.

What is a Hen?

A hen is a sexually mature adult female chicken that has begun laying eggs. Birds usually begin laying at around five months old, although this can vary a lot by breed and among individual birds. 
Most hens then continue laying regularly until they are around three or four, though this again can vary widely. Older, heritage breeds will lay fewer eggs than modern production lines, but they will lay reliably for longer, often into their fourth year. Production birds meanwhile, burn out quickly because of the high number of eggs they are expected to produce and often stop laying regularly by the time they’re two years or even 18 months old. 

Hens can continue laying for most of their lives – they can live as long as 15 years, though seven or eight is much more common – but egg production generally falls of dramatically and becomes much less regular after the first few years. Even when they stop laying, though, adult female chickens are still called hens.

A hen sitting in her coop. Credit: Songserm

What are Layers and Broilers?

Layer and broiler are terms the differentiate chickens by purpose, not sex or life stage. 

  • Layers, unsurprisingly, are hens raised for the purpose of laying eggs. They are generally breeds that have been selected to produce as many eggs as possible. Find out how many eggs chickens lay a day
  • Broilers are birds that are raised primarily for meat production, i.e. to be broiled. These breeds are generally larger and grow quickly, facilitated by a high-protein diet.
The words “roosters” and “cocks” are interchangable. See why roosters crow and 10 rooster facts!

Hens Versus Roosters Versus Cocks

Hens are sexually mature female chickens, and roosters and cocks are sexually mature males. 

The words “roosters” and “cocks” are interchangeable; rooster is preferred in the United States, and cock is more common in the rest of the world. Unlike with hens, there is no clear physical marker when a male bird becomes a rooster or cock; instead, the term is applied to any male bird over one year old.  

Buff Orpington pullets. Credit: AlohaOla/Shutterstock.

What is a Pullet?

Like hens, pullets are exclusively female; they are young “teenager” birds that have not yet begun laying eggs. Definitions of pullets can vary widely; some people say they are any female under one year old, others that the term only applies to birds between 12 and 16 weeks old. Some people will even argue that female birds are pullets until their first molt, which doesn’t occur until 18 months, long after they start laying. The most common definition, though, is that a female bird is a pullet from around 12 weeks old until she lays her first egg, which is usually between 16 and 20 weeks old.

Roosters vs. Cockerels 

Just as roosters are the male equivalent of hens, cockerels are the male equivalent of pullets. Any sexually immature male – under one year old – is considered a cockerel. As stated above, there is no clear physical transition between cockerels and roosters or cocks; instead, the distinction is measured purely by time.

Roosters vs. Capons

A capon is an adult male chicken that has been physically or chemically castrated, which produces a much larger, fatter bird. The practice of “caponizing” chickens has existed for thousands of years, possibly dating back to ancient China, ancient Greece, or the Roman Republic. The practice continues today, producing some of the most highly valued chicken meat in the world, especially in France and Spain.

Fuzzy chicks with mama hen. Credit: Amani A/Shutterstock

What is a Chick? 

The word chick applies to any chicken under 12 weeks old, regardless of sex. There are no terms to differentiate birds this young by sex, in part because many breeds are almost impossible to distinguish by sex at this age. It is only relatively recently in the history of chicken-keeping, in the early 20th century, that people developed a method for determining the sex of a chick, by squeezing the bird and feeling for its internal reproductive organs. Before then, it was necessary to let the chick reach adolescence to determine its sex. 

Chicks look very different from their adult selves, with fluffy down instead of long, elegant feathers. They will start developing their first adult feathers at around five weeks old but won’t have their first full molt until they’re a year and a half old.  

Given the long, long history of domesticated chickens, and the wide variety of purposes for and places in which they have been used, it’s no surprised that such a rich vocabulary has grown up around them. Luckily, you’re now ready to swap tales about hens, roosters, pullets, cockerels, and chicks with even an experienced chicken keeper.  

Are you interested in raising chickens? Find out how to get started!

About The Author

Chris Lesley

Chris Lesley has been raising backyard chickens for over 20 years and is a fourth-generation poultry keeper. Read More from Chris Lesley

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