Everyone has heard the eternal question: what came first, the chicken or the egg? And of course we all wait for the day when “the chickens come home to roost”.
And then there are things said to be as “rare as hens’ teeth”. All pithy idioms to be sure, but this raises a legitimate question, one you’ll need to know as a chicken owner, or soon-to-be owner: what is the difference between a chicken and a hen?
A hen is a female chicken, and most particularly one over a year old. Chicken is a broad term for all the breeds of domesticated fowl from the species gallus domesticus. All hens are chickens, but not all chickens are hens.
That settles that, then. A hen is just a mature female chicken. But, as you might expect, there is so much more to know regarding domestic chicken taxonomy.
Keep reading to learn what lingo you need to know and pretty soon you’ll be a regular poultry pro.
What is a Chicken?
Technically, a chicken is any bird of either sex from the species gallus domesticus. This also includes baby chicks, which are born female but will eventually mature into either a rooster (a male chicken) or a hen (a female chicken).
A “chicken” can also refer to the meat that comes from this bird, regardless of age, sex, or breed.
However, when most people say “chicken”, they are referring to either the birds as a class, meant for eating, eggs, or specifically an adult female as opposed to a male, a rooster.
What is a Hen?
A hen is an adult female chicken, and most specifically one over a year old. Hens are also the chickens that lay the eggs.
Hens are also overwhelmingly raised for their meat, far more popular for this purpose as roosters.
Hens are easier to raise and slaughter for their meat compared to roosters, though some folks think roosters produce meat with better flavor.
Do the Differences Matter?
You bet they do! Knowing whether a chicken is male or female, young or mature, is the only way to make sense of your flock and actually organize your efforts in a meaningful way. Depending on your objectives, of course.
For example, if you’re interested in eggs alone and perhaps meat, you just need hens alone.
If you want to show your chickens, breed them or provide some live-in protection for your flock you will need roosters.
If you just want a few backyard chickens for your kids to play with, you probably want to nix the roosters!
How to Tell if Your Chicken is a Hen
If you’re trying to figure out whether you have a chicken or a hen, there are a few things you can look for.
First, check to see if the bird has wattles and combs on its head. These are fleshy growths that are more pronounced on males than females and will generally be redder on a male than a female.
Another way to check is by looking at the legs. Chickens and hens both have two spurs on their legs, but those of a rooster will be longer and sharper than those of a hen.
Another good indicator is the tail feathers: a rooster will have long, pointy feathers that curl upwards, while a hen’s will be shorter and pointed downwards.
If you want to get really technical about it, you can look at the vent, which is the opening where feces and eggs are expelled. Note this requires a degree of expert knowledge.
On a hen, the vent will look regular, while on a rooster, the vent will have a tiny protuberance inside.
Finally, of course, you can wait to see if the chicken lays eggs! Only hens lay eggs, you know.
In any case, determining the sex of a chicken is far, far easier when they are mature, so if it doesn’t make much difference to you wait until they grow up.
What is a Pullet?
A pullet is a young hen, usually less than a year old, or in technical industry parlance a hen that is younger than 22 weeks and sexually immature.
Colloquially, once a pullet matures and reaches her first birthday, she is officially considered a hen.
What is a Cockerel?
A cockerel is a young rooster, usually less than a year old. This is the male equivalent of a pullet.
What is a Rooster?
A rooster is a mature male chicken, specifically aged one year or older. Aggressive, impressive plumage, big attitude, cock-a-doodle-doo, all that.
What is a Capon?
A capon is a male chicken that has been castrated, usually at around 4 to 8 months old.
This makes them larger and more docile than an equivalent non-castrated rooster, and also improves the flavor of their meat significantly.
They are not common in the United States but are popular in other countries, particularly France.
Tom has built and remodeled homes, generated his own electricity, grown his own food and more, all in quest of remaining as independent of society as possible. Now he shares his experiences and hard-earned lessons with readers around the country.