Chicken Terminology Explained

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If you are new to raising backyard chickens, there can be lots of chicken terms you may be unfamiliar with. Hens, roosters, pullets, and cockerels call all be used to describe chickens. But does each chicken term mean?

And what about broody hens? Layer hens? Sex-linked chickens? What the heck is a crop? This post explains many of the common chicken words so you can speak about your flock with confidence using the correct chicken terms.

If you are looking to name your chickens, this post shares lots of names to call your chickens.

a golden laced wyandotte hen
A Golden-Laced Wyandotte hen posing for the camera

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There can be a lot of confusion about what to call a chicken through the various stages of life. Let’s explore these chicken terms so you can determine what to call your chickens as they grow.

What are Chicks?

baby chicks in the clover
Baby chicks enjoying a few moments outdoors.

Chicks are basically young chickens. The term chick is usually used to refer to any young bird, male or female, from hatch to 12 weeks old.

What is a Pullet?

A pullet is a teenage female chicken. Usually, a chicken is considered a pullet from 12 weeks of age to 12 months of age or until it lays its first egg.

Are Hens Chickens?

Are hens chickens? This is a surprisingly common question. Yes, hens can be chickens. A hen is any female of any bird that lays eggs. So a mature female chicken that lay eggs is a hen.

But the term hen is also used for female turkeys, female quail, and any other female birds that are of egg-laying age.

In simplest terms, the difference between hens and chickens is that a hen is a female chicken (or other bird) that is fully grown, while a chicken is a general term that can refer to both male and female chickens at any age.

Are Roosters Chickens?

Yes, roosters are male chickens. They are fully grown adult males of the species Gallus gallus domesticus (the scientific name for chicken).

a rooster in the chicken yard
Red, our sweet rooster, supervising his ladies while they free range.

Roosters tend to be larger than hens with more colorful neck feathers (hackle feathers) and a larger comb. They also have long saddle feathers on their tail.

However, unlike hens, the term rooster usually refers to male chickens only. Other birds have different names for their males – peacock, tom, cob, gander, cock, or drake.

What is a Cockerel?

A cockerel is a young male chicken, typically under one year of age, that hasn’t reached sexual maturity yet. It is also known as a juvenile rooster.

chicken opt in box 2

What are Straight-Run Chicks?

Straight-run chickens are chickens that have not been sexed at hatch. This means they are a mix of male and female chicks.

If you purchase 100 chicks, you should get about half male and half female, but unfortunately, this isn’t always the case, especially if you don’t purchase a large number of chicks at once.

Most backyard flocks don’t have room (or aren’t allowed) to keep many roosters. So if you live in an area that restricts the number of roosters you are allowed to have, be sure you have a plan to re-home the extras if you purchase straight-run chicks.

What is a Sexed Chick?

A sexed chick is a chick that has been examined at birth and determined to be either a female chick or a male chick. Some breeds have markings at birth where you can distinguish whether they are male or female just by looking at them.

However, others are sexed by experienced professionals who inspect the chicks’ vent to look for the male sex organ. This is called vent sexing. This is usually done at a very young age, often in the chick’s first day of life.

What is a Sex-Linked Chicken Breed?

A sex-linked chicken breed is a breed whose chicks can be sexed at hatch. This is because females and males usually have some distinguishing characteristic at hatch.

a sex-link chicken
This sweet Amberlink chicken is a sex-linked breed.

In some breeds, the males have a different color of feathers than the females when they are hatched. Others may have a spot on their head to determine the difference.

When you purchase sex-linked chicks you can be reasonably sure you are getting all pullets if that is what you desire. This is especially helpful for those that live in neighborhoods and aren’t allowed to have roosters.

What is a Broody Hen?

A broody hen is a female chicken that is sitting on a clutch of eggs. Broody hens will sit on their own eggs as well as the eggs of other hens.

However, it isn’t a good idea for a hen to sit on a clutch of eggs unless you are going to allow her to hatch the chicks. If you don’t have a rooster in your flock, then you should break her immediately.

Some hens will go broody quite often and others will never go broody. And some that do hatch eggs will be a good mother hen and others won’t.

What is a Layer Hen?

A laying hen (or layer hen) is a hen that lays eggs for the purpose of providing fresh eggs for human consumption, not meat. Laying hens are usually bred for maximum egg production, though some can be used for both. (See below – Dual Purpose Breed.)

Many chicken breeds will start laying eggs between 18 to 22 weeks though some will take up to 8 or 9 months to reach the point of lay. They reach peak production during their first year and most will lay well for 2 years.

two hens in a nest box
Two chickens trying to sit in the nest box at the same time.

After 2 to 3 years, egg production starts to decline, though many hens will continue to lay well into old age. Older egg-laying chickens tend to produce larger eggs, but sometimes they will be an odd shape. The eggs often get lighter in color as the chicken ages too.

We had a hen that was almost 7 years old that was still laying 2 to 3 eggs a week when she died.

What is a Dual-Purpose Breed?

a Buff Orpington hen eating a raspberry stem with leaves
Buff Orpington chickens are a great dual-purpose breed.

A dual-purpose breed chicken is a chicken that lays eggs but can also be used for meat. While you can technically use almost any breed for meat, many are too small or take too long so grow to full size that it isn’t worth the trouble.

What Does it Mean by Pecking Order?

The pecking order is real. In general chicken terms, it is the social order in which a group of chickens interacts.

The reason the term pecking order is used is that chickens higher in social status will peck at those lower than them to remind them of the hierarchy.

Pecking order determines who sleeps on which roost, who has access to the best feeder and waterer, and other areas of the coop and run.

If a rooster is not among the flock, then an older hen will usually assume the lead role in the pecking order. Sometimes, other hens will challenge and order and a shake-up will occur. This is most common when adding new members to the flock.

pic of chicken breed opt in box

What Does the Term Cull Mean?

When people talk about culling members of their flock, they mean killing off flock members. This is often done to roosters if a flock has too many roosters per hen.

Culling is also done to the old hens that are no longer laying well. And occasionally, backyard chicken keepers may have to cull an aggressive rooster for their safety and that of their family.

What is a Chicken Vent?

A chicken vent is the area behind the tail feathers where a chicken expels waste. It is also the opening where hens lay their eggs from.

What is a Crop?

The crop on a chicken is a muscle located to the right of the breastbone. It is a small pocket where food is stored.

The crop slowly releases food into the gizzard where it is ground into small pieces and digested. You can often spot a crop on a chicken when it is full, especially if you inspect your flock near bedtime.

What is a Flock?

A flock is what you call a group of chickens that live together. It is also used to describe any number of birds who feed, rest, or travel together. In some other cases, the term flock can be used to describe other animals that live together. (For instance, sheep or goats.)

a flock of chickens foraging for bugs among the leaves
This flock of chickens is enjoying some free range time scratching for bugs among the leaves.

Most backyard chicken keepers only have one flock of chickens. Larger scale farmers and homesteader often have more than one flock.

What are Baby Chickens Called?

Baby chickens are called chicks. They are usually called chicks from hatch until they are about 12-16 weeks of age at which point they are called pullets (female) or cockerels (male).

What is Capon?

While I haven’t heard the term capon much in recent years, I did want to include it in this list of chicken terminology.

A capon is a male chicken (cockerel) that has been castrated to improve the quality of the meat. This process can be done either chemically or physically. The meat is usually more tender and flavorful than hens or cockerels allowed to reach maturity.

Due to industrial meat production, this practice isn’t very common in the United States though caponization is still practiced in some countries such as France, Spain, Italy, and China.

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a golden laced wyandotte hen
These two hens are trying to sit on the same next box at once.

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