Buying Chickens...
So You Don’t End Up With Lemons.

People buying chickens for the first time are often understandably excited, poorly informed and thus easily duped! Are you a chook newbie? Here are a few facts about chickens to help you end up with the right chickens when you buy.

First do a little research to narrow down the types of chickens that match your aspirations. For example, will you be raising chickens for eggs, meat, or both?

Do you intend raising chickens in your backyard, raising chickens in the city, or raising free range chickens? Is your climate subject to extremes of heat or cold? Do your homework before buying chickens so you can zero in on the handful of breeds that suit your situation best!

Also, plan your buying properly so that you are properly equipped with an adequate cage furnished with water - and food if it is a long trip - and will not be subjecting your new chickens to extreme heat or cold during transit.

Are You Buying Chickens or Lemons?

Understand that anyone who keeps or breeds chickens will have to cull unproductive birds from time to time. Since most of us would rather not go through the unpleasant task of knocking them on the head to stick in the pot, the chickens are frequently offered for sale to chumps like you!

Here we are talking about hens that are past their best egg-laying “use by date”, as well as young cockerels and roosters (you only need one per dozen hens after all).

Buying Chickens - Selecting Pullets

A pullet is the name given to a young hen just before she commences laying. If they are advertised as “point of lay” then they should be between 16 and 18 weeks old. Laying generally commences at about 6 months of age, or 7 months for the heavy breeds.

Go for the largest, most active pullets, as these usually make the best layers and commence laying earlier than smaller, less developed birds.

Buying Chickens - Selecting Adult Hens

The peak egg production in hens occurs in their first few years of life. After that, egg production wanes steadily. What you don’t want to be stuck with are the old hens that someone else has weeded out of their flock due to poor egg production.

As a rule, go for bright eyed, active birds with bright, red combs rather than those that look dull and depressed.

Also, as a hen (or rooster) ages, its comb generally gets bigger, duller and more “worn” looking. However, given the wide variation in comb types between breeds, selecting on size of comb is not a hard and fast rule. Nevertheless, if you are familiar with the breed, you may be able to tell from comb size whether the bird is young or old.

Is that Hen a Layer or a Lemon?

If you intend raising chickens for eggs, then it is important to buy hens that are good layers. Also, if you need to cull birds out of your flock, it is useful to be able to tell those that are laying from those that are not!

Here’s a bit of priceless wisdom from the 1943 book “Chicken Raising Made Easy”:

In a hen that is actively laying, the pelvic (“hip”) bones are widely spaced, and the keel (breastbone) is tilted downward. These two changes provide more room for the development of eggs inside the abdomen.

On the other hand, a non-layer’s hips will be narrowly spaced, and less distant from its breastbone.

Buying Chickens - Is that chick a rooster or a hen?

If you intend raising chickens in the city, accidently buying one or more roosters is a definite disaster. If you are rasing chickens for eggs alone, a rooster is not needed at all. And to service up to 12 hens, only one rooster is needed.

So it’s easy to inadvertently wind up with an oversupply of roosters. How can you tell which is which?

I often see a cage full of rooster chicks offered unsexed to unsuspecting buyers. It is thus imperative that you get a grip on how to tell a rooster chick (cockerel) from a hen chick (pullet).

Cockerel chick about 6 weeks old.
Note small, rounded tail, and less developed feathering.

Unless the chicks have been bred to show sex-linked color differences between the cockerels and pullets, you’ll have to go on other signs.

And you may need to see cockerels and pullets of similar age together to be able to compare and thus easily distinguish the two.


All of these general indications are signs not certainties. There are always exceptions to the rule as not all breeds will conform to the general indications.

By one week old…

Pullets usually have wing and tail feathers developing earlier than cockerels.

Pullet chick about 6 weeks old.
Note well developed tail, and overall feathering.
Note downy neck of cockerel chick in foreground.

By five to six weeks old…

• Cockerels are usually bigger than pullets.

• Cockerels have a bigger, redder comb.

• Cockerels are braver and more friendly.

• Cockerels have longer, thicker legs.

• Cockerels have a curved, stumpy tail.

• The feathering in cockerels is less developed all over - on the legs, back, side of neck, crops, wing bows and flank you may see quills or down rather than well developed feathers.

Another great trick to try is to note their behavior when you sail a hat over their heads. Pullets will cower down, while cockerels will stand erect and make a warning sound.

Quarantine Measures When Buying Chickens

Caring for chickens is a lot more satisfying if you avoid importing parasites and diseases in with new stock.

To avoid potentially devastating poultry diseases endemic in your region, if you have a choice, always go for vaccinated stock.

And for all birds you bring in, a 2 week quarantine period is mandatory. During quarantine the new chickens must be kept separated from your home flock so that there is no possibility of transfer of snot, feathers, feces etc between the two groups.

Carefully inspect your new chickens for body lice and scaly leg mite and treat such infestations accordingly. As a routine, also worm them for intestinal parasites. Check them for signs of ill-health such as snotty noses and runny feces.

Feed them well, including plenty of fresh, green material.

Only release them into the general flock after the quarantine period and when they are completely well again.