When choosing chickens for a homestead, most folks go the route of getting chicks when they’re a mere few days old. They’re cheep (not sorry) that way, and absolutely precious. They’re also a lot of work, are half male, and eat quite a bit of feed before they can produce anything, not to mention the upfront costs of the brooder to keep them warm and alive, and are vulnerable to several issues such as pasty butt. With these cons in mind, some folks choose to instead go ahead and purchase an 8 week or even 16 week pullet. That is, a young female chicken less than a year old.
There are many different reasons to go for a pullet rather than a chick or eggs to hatch. For show birds, you can get a better idea of how the bird will look as an adult: potential flaws, temperament, desirable qualities for the next generation. For farm birds, you want to see the gender presentation as well as the health of the future hen. Any color variations are not as important as making sure the chick is healthy and at least somewhat well-mannered.
(Most homesteaders forget or outright dismiss that they need to get along with the bird, that’s why so many turn to the pot at any slight inconvenience.)
When looking at a pullet to bring back to the flock, try to look at her in person if possible. If you’re reading this in the time of COVID-19, don’t forget to wear a mask and respect your fellow farmer’s space. We, more than anyone, cannot afford to get sick, and the effects of long-term COVID-19 can devastate a family farm.
If you’re not in the world of COVID-19, I’d suggest wearing a mask regardless, because literally nothing has helped my allergies so much. I assume you enjoy breathing.
Anyways, first attempt to pick the chicken up. If it has been handled at all in its youth, you should be able to hold it, should you hold it correctly. One arm cradling the breast, with the hand between the chicken’s legs to hold her steady, while the other hand sits on her back to keep her from flying away. Her body should rest against your chest so that she feels secure.
If she continues to struggle despite being held securely for a good length of time (5 minutes or more), she hasn’t been handled properly and is unlikely to trust you, and be very flighty for the rest of her time in your home. This will make it difficult to care for her if she becomes sick or injured, and can lead to aggression issues against you and other members of the flock. I cannot overstate personality issues, because unfortunately they are oft forgotten about in many of the tutorials I’ve seen.
This does not apply to leghorns, as I have never seen a leghorn comfortable with anyone. That’s why I don’t recommend them for beginner flocks, no matter how many eggs they lay.
Now that you’ve seen her temperament, feel her body beneath your hands. Is she bony, as if she hasn’t been fed enough? Does her breath make a soft wheezing sound? Are her eyes cloudy or glazed? Leave no stone unturned when checking her constitution, and make sure she is not molting (unless she has just left the downy chick stage, in which case getting her adult feathers is normal). Don’t forget to also check her vent (or, in crude terms, her butthole) to make sure she has no diarrhea, worms, or potential prolapse.
If she is an older pullet, more along the lines of 16 weeks, check her legs and beak. Though a bright yellow leg is aesthetically pleasing, it means she has not begun laying yet. (of course, swap out the color for whatever color the breed you want normally is.) The pigment for the eggs comes from the beak and legs. So if a bird appears healthy, and these places are pale, that means she is in full production mode, and ready to drop an egg the minute she meets your nesting box.
This is an ideal bird. (For my Scottish readers, that pun is dedicated to you.)
One thing to note- sometimes, pale wattles and combs denote poor health. This is why is it important to check her all over!
Once you’ve seen that she appears healthy and productive in your arms, set her down and watch her walk. is she active, scratching and pecking at the dirt for scrumptious morsels, or does she immediately sit down to rest? Does she go for a dust bath or immediately flee for the hills? Just giving her a bit of a look-over can tell you a lot about your new pullet.
One little added bonus from a few years of all-female flocks. Sometimes, hens develop large combs, and start crowing.
This is because she is alpha, and does not care what you think about chicken gender presentation. It is often her job to protect the flock in the case of no rooster, and so she will begin exhibiting rooster-like qualities and temperaments. She is simply filling her role, and is not –sigh- turning into a rooster. Unlike several species of fish, humans, and other species, chickens can’t really switch. So if you have an all-female flock (or sometimes even if you have a rooster), don’t be surprised when one of your hens ups and sings you the song of her people (and not the egg laying song).
So, to recap:
- Make sure the pullet feels secure as you inspect her
- Make sure the pullet is not flighty
- Check the pullet’s weight, eyes, breathing, vent, etc for good health.
- If the pullet is of laying age, make sure her legs and beak are pale.
- When setting her down, make sure she is active and not listless or overly stressed by your presence.
- Sometimes hens are butch, and that’s okay.
I hope these tips were helpful in choosing a new pullet. I will next be writing about how to introduce her to the rest of your flock, if one is already established. I wish you many success in choosing your new hen, and don’t forget to name her.