A flock of chicken may seem just a group of birds roaming around randomly. When you observe them for hours, days, months and years, you discover that there is a complicated social structure in the chicken community. There are also family bonds and other life-long relationships.
Hertta and Japp were the king and the queen of our flock for years. Hertta was always his favorite chicken. Japp is no longer among us, after short but fatal illness last autumn. But he is remembered as a legendary cockerel, who always took his flock for long walks around the garden and found delicious things for everyone. Now Hertta behaves like a proud widow – often walking and pecking with other proud ladies of her own age.
In the picture above you don´t see random group of chicken. Hertta and Japp are out with the “Velociraptors”. They are the first clutch Hertta incubated here in Teeriniemi. Each clutch has a nickname, “Velociraptors” were named after their appetite and terrible eating habits.
Still as 4-year old adults “Velociraptors” hang out together, occasionally also with the Mom who incubated them and held them under her wings when they were chicks.
Newton and Einstein were Hertta´s second clutch. They hatched on Easter Saturday almost three years ago and therefore it was inevitable to be called “The Easter Chicks”. They do not look like a sister and brother and probably came from eggs laid by vary different chicken. Newton is a small black hen and her brother Einstein is a large yellow cockerel. There are several cockerels around and Einstein has had to accept a deputy cockerel position. Perhaps that is one of the reasons he still as an adult spends big part of his time with his sister Newton.
Brother and sister find their own trials and places to peck.
When the night comes, brother and sister sit on the perch side by side.
Mendelhsson and Ravel were hatched by Darwin and saw the daylight 3,5 years ago. These two (“The Darwinians”) also formed a close relationship. When Ravel hatched her own chick Topelius the following spring, Mendelsshon actually helped her to bring up the chick. When Topelius was getting a bit bigger, mother hen Ravel wanted to explore and peck the garden rather late in the evening. The chick got tired and sleepy before his mother. Ravel was one of those terrifying sporty mothers and tried to order chick Topelius to try harder… but always finally took the chick to the hut where he found a safe place in uncle Mendelhsson’s feathers. Chick Topelius and and uncle Mendelhsson seemed very close for a long time but they sort of “grow apart” later – when Topelius started to crow. Now, as both are a lot older, they tolerate each other again, but are no longer close.
Part of the cockerels hatch here in Teeriniemi have moved to the sheep house and live among the sheep as a group of boys. They take care of each other and they try to take care of the sheep too. When one of them finds their food cups filled, he calls the others for dinner too. If we are not careful with the feeding they “feed” the sheep as well from the own dinner plates. Sheep house cockerels have formed a strange brotherhood of politeness, making friends also with sheep and the livestock guard dogs.
Perhaps the most amazing case reminding us about the complicated social structure in the chicken world was the hatching of the “Disco Chicks”.
Dickens was incubating her second clutch approximately a year and a half ago. As usual, we marked the eggs and kept checking no additional eggs appear to her nest during the 3-week period of hatching. Then we got perhaps a bit lazy – what comes to this monitoring duty. We only kept counting her eggs. We did not notice that two of the three eggs were not the original marked eggs and we still do not know what happened to the original eggs. One of the chicks, Verne, hatched long before the others and scanning the eggs showed that the two others were quite far developed but still needed few more days. We served food to the nest but finally the mother hen had to get up and take the chick out of the nest to get the post-egg-development started.
We have a small incubator for emergencies only. The two remaining eggs were moved to the emergency incubator. The incubator is called “the Disco” due to the over-sensitive temperature sensor and the heat lamp coming on and off quite frequently. The two younger chicks hatched in the incubator. When we took the first chick (Wells) out of “The Disco” and tried to introduce her to the mother hen Dickens. As we feared, Dickens could not understand that Wells was her chick.
We kept the chick warm under a heat lamp and tried if the chick would awake the mother instinct in any of the birds who had been ever showing occasional signs of broodiness. When we introduced Marie Curie to Wells, the poor chick from The Disco, Marie Curie put 2+2 together right away and figured out the chick must belong to Dickens, who was already roaming around with one young chick. Marie Curie rushed out, clucked extremely loudly and simply attacked Dickens. She practically chased Dickens to the nest where the new chick was. Frightened and confused Dickens pulled the new chick under her warm feathers together with the older chick. From that moment she was a perfect mother for both. Clarke hatched in “The Disco” few hours later and when she appeared in front of Dickens, the poor confused mother hen pecked her human´s fingers to rescue the chick into her feathers as fast as possible.
Dickens brought up her three chicks (called obviously “The Disco Chicks” and thought them all the need to know. They all turned out fine hens.
We interpreted this strange incident as an evidence of strong social control within the chicken community. Leaving a chick unattended was simply not allowed and the other hens we capable to conclude who is the mother.
Mother hens are devoted to their chicks until the the chicks are old enough. Every clutch that has hatched here has more or less stayed together as a sub-community inside the chicken community. Siblings bond for life, but there are also other types of bonds between chicken.
It is fun to consider animal behavior as a parallel to us humans, but when you see these bonds continuing on through time and changing situations you have to accept there may be something to this. How different are we really…?
in Teeriniemi, 5th January 2020
Päivi & Anthony