Back in March sometime, you brought home these tiny little handfuls of fluff, that peeped at you and were soooo cute! But now, at around 16 weeks old, your chicks are no longer cute little fuzz balls, they have become the dreaded TEENAGED CHICKENS!
What does this mean for you, and more importantly, how do survive it?!
The first big thing you will notice, like all teenagers,they eat more. A LOT more. But here's the good news for you- at around 16 weeks, they are big enough to start having adult chicken food. If you got laying hens, you will want to go with layer feed, otherwise, you get meat bird feed. This makes your bill a little bit cheaper. Introduce adult feed by mixing it half and half with the starter feed, and slowly taper off the starter feed until it is all adult feed. This is good to start doing when you hit about the halfway mark on your last bag of starter feed.
Next, you will notice that their "room" is a MESS! Poops are bigger (your chickens are bigger) and they have left their "clothes" all over the place. Depending on the breed of chicken, they started doing this a few weeks back; your coop can look like a feather pillow exploded in there. No worries. They are losing their childhood feathers to make way for their adult feathers. You will already notice adult feathers in their tails and wings. Actually, this is not the first time they lost their feathers, but last time it was the tiny pin feathers and you may not have noticed them come out when their wings and tails started to grow in. But in the meantime, it's a mess. It passes. Until they molt the next fall as adults.
You will also note, if you free range your hens, that they are suddenly no longer content with being in the area they usually dust and eat grass and bugs in. Now they start to wander. Into your flower beds. Into your garden. And if you leave the door open, into your house. If you don't have a fenced yard, all of the sudden, they will be in the neighbor's yard, and house, and in the street. All over the place. And they do not want to herd easily. And within minutes of you herding them back to their usual stomping grounds, they are back in the street and the garden. They are FAST. But this will also pass after they start laying. Different parts of your flock will find they have favorite places where they like to free range, and they will stick to those areas. You can start training the chickens to come when you call at about this age, either as a group, or individually by name.
Now is when you REALLY find out if your selection of pullets actually has a rooster hiding in their midst. For some breeds of chicken, you can find out earlier because they get a larger comb and larger wattles much sooner. But with other breeds, you won't know until that first voice-cracking crow. And the first ones will be ...odd, a lot like a croaking sound crossed with a chicken screech. But rather quickly, he will get the traditional crow of the rooster all of us know. And some may not love. Because he will crow. And crow. And crow. And he will get louder as he gets more used to crowing.
And with chickens, roosters hit puberty long before the hens will. The hens are still interested in wandering around, eating food, grass, seeds, bugs, dusting or laying out in the sun. Your boy? He's interested in more. And he will give it a try on your innocent young hens. This is actually rather hilarious, as you watch him chase a hen around and around and around the yard. However, in the next two months, your hens will catch up to him.
Most hens reach maturity at about 6 months of age- heavier breeds take longer to get to it, and lighter breeds will come to maturity sooner. The easiest way to tell if your hen is getting there is the "stoop". A hen that's ready to mate - and lay eggs - with lower her body down, usually with the rear tilted up a bit, and she will spread her wings out to the side a bit. This is the easiest time to catch a chicken, because when she stoops, she stays stooped until you walk away or pick her up. Now is the time to get the nesting boxes ready, put in a layer of straw, or an egg pad, and either golf balls or fake eggs (you can find those at any feed store) so they get the idea that this is where the eggs are to be left in the near future.
Now is the time when you will find your hens "sizing each other up". Liken it to Preschoolers and Kindergarteners meet for the first time; often the first they they do is stand tall, puff their chests out a bit, and stare at each other to see who is tallest. Chickens do the same thing, except they usually do it at the end of a run and full stop at each other. Sometimes it ends in a bit of a scuffle, but this is necessary as each chicken finds her place in the hierarchy of the flock. If you have older hens, the younger ones will try this on them as well, often to be greeted with a none too gentle head peck to remind them that the older chicken is higher up in the flock. You may also find that your older "omega" chicken starts stalking and attacking your younger chickens, in an attempt to move herself up in the ranks of the flock.
How do you survive all of this? Amusement usually is the best way. Chickens are funny, and provide a great deal of fun "chicken TV" time. However, if you notice an older hen getting too aggressive with the younger ones, or a rooster, or even other age mates, shooing the offender away is the first step. Some people dote on a squirt bottle, others go to the offending chicken and firmly (but not too hard) thump them on the head, mimicing how a lead chicken will keep her flock in line. However, if blood is drawn, you need to separate out the injured chicken until the wound scabs or heals, depending on the severity of it. You may also want to isolate the attacker for a day, then reintroduce that hen to the flock. If that hen keeps attacking others seriously. you may have to consider culling that hen.
Come Fall, your former babies, now teenagers, will take the final step to chicken adulthood and start laying eggs.