I am continually fascinated by animal mothers and their young. Their instincts are fascinating and its amazing to see the babies respond and learn and grow. Most people think chickens are fairly simple creatures and while they certainly are not the brightest of creatures they do have a fascinating set of behaviors and social activities. One of which is shared babysitting duty and I recently saw a coupler good examples of it.
The best mother hen in the coop is a white silkie hen I got from a local 4Her. She was setting on a clutch of eggs but for various reasons only one hatched out and it died shortly after birth. I could tell she was pretty upset to not have any chicks to raise so I tried putting her in the brooder box with a mixed assortment of chicks and poults (turkey chicks) that were about two weeks old. Conventional wisdom would say that she would not adopt them – nor would they know what to “do” with a mother hen at that age. But she took to them right away and even though they did not respond at first to her calls that she had food (a clucking associated with picking up and dropping a choice morsel) they came around to them. Within two days her food calls were answered by a mob of chicks and poults trying to grab what she had found. Its amazing that even the poults understand her – how does that work? At night this strange assortment jumps back into the brooder box and cuddles together to sleep. Some of the poults are almost as big as the hen now, but she cares for them. Strange how animals work.
About the same time my silkie was adopting, a cross bantam hen hatched out three chicks right next to a Buff Orpington who was setting on a clutch. The Buff was not a very good setter – she would jump into other nests and randomly incubate whatever she could find – then return to her nest when she felt like it. Her eggs were not going to hatch. When the bantam’s eggs hatched I guess the Buff saw an opportunity and grabbed it – she decided she would be second Mom to those chicks and started following the bantam hen and the chicks around. She feeds the chicks, protects them from other chickens, and let’s them snuggle under her body to stay warm. The bantam hen seems to appreciate the help – there is no animosity between them and they share duties seamlessly.
Another example is a group of Spanish Black turkey hens who have a communal nest. Not only are they setting on eachother’s eggs but they provide a central “warming station” for other hen’s poults who have already hatched and are away from Mom. Any poult that wants to can crawl under these brooding hens and get warm and comforted before racing off to the next adventure. Why do they allow this? Maybe they just like babies?
The wildlife scientists make a big deal out of “communal living” and “communal raising of young”. I am beginning to think its a much more common adaptation to close quarter living than we think.