by Meredith ChilsonThe newest additions to our poultry flock arrived safely a week ago. The dozen chicks have adjusted nicely to living within a cardboard corral and, as it is with all babies, I can’t believe how fast they are growing and changing! We’ve spent a big chunk of time watching the little birds from our perches on lawn chairs outside the cardboard ring. There’s always something going on, whether it’s a crowd around the water jug, a tug of war over a flake of shaving, or just a ring of sleeping chicks under the heat lamp.
It was the ring of sleepers under the heat lamp that first made me think of this topic. Always, it seems, the chicks are distributed evenly at the edge of the heated circle—heads out, toes in—just like they would be underneath a fluffy mother hen. I wondered about this—an instinctive behavior, for sure.
I began to think and watch more carefully for other signs of innate behaviors:
Eating. Chicks know how to peck and scratch. It is, of course, necessary for them to peck their way out of a shell. It was easy to see this behavior when I first took the chicks out of their shipping box and set them on the newspaper-covered floor of their new home. They pecked at letters in the newsprint. I scattered some of their starter feed on the papers, and they began to peck at the food. They know how to do this when they hatch; they also know how to swallow. They do NOT know what to eat, however. I always feed on the newspaper the first day, then add the red feeder, filled quite full. It doesn’t take long for one little bird to give it a try—and then, copy-chicks that they are, all the sections of the feeder have little heads pecking in them. Another day and I add flake shavings as litter on the newspaper. By now, the birds know where to find their food, and they won’t be trying to eat the shavings. It’s fun to watch them scratching through the litter, looking for tidbits, just like they will be doing later looking for a fat, juicy bug!
Drinking. Again, chicks know how to do this, they just need to be shown where to find water. After hatching, a chick will not need to eat or drink for a day or two. A mother hen keeps them close to her while they dry off and to be certain all eggs that are meant to hatch have done so. When chicks are coming from a hatchery, this means we don’t have to worry so much about the chicks during transit. The first thing I did when they arrived, though, was to dip their little beaks in water. By the time all 12 chicks were out of the box, the rest were gathered around the drinking jugs, dipping their little beaks and then pointing up, up to let the cool water slip down their throats. Mother hens will show them, like I did, where the water is, but chicks know how to drink.
Escape! According to “All About People and Poultry”, this trait shows up about the third day of life for a chick. That makes sense to me—this would probably be the day the mother hen takes her chicks out for their first field trip into the Big World. I noticed this behavior by accident. I dropped a metal can near the chick’s corral. The chicks had been peeping happily—immediately it was totally quiet. I looked over the edge of the cardboard and each chick was at the farthest side of the circle, crouched as low as possible, holding perfectly still. I’ve read that the first chickens were jungle birds, living with thickly vegetated forest floors. These little chicks would have been invisible in that setting. Even their coloring would have made them seem part of the jungle floor.
Preening. Chicks know how to clean themselves, and they copy each other, too. Every evening since we’ve had these chicks, I have tried to watch them settle themselves for the night. I’ve noticed that they all seem to straighten and fluff their emerging feathers. Each wing will be spread out as wide as possible, and then the chick uses her beak to pull and fluff and … preen! After this is done, the chick shakes the wing and proceeds to do the same with the other wing … then they settle for the night. In the hen yard, dust baths help with cleaning. Mother hens will show their chicks how to bathe themselves with fine dirt, but if there’s no mother hen, chickens will learn this by copying other chickens, or on their own. Birds use dust baths to rid themselves of parasites, dead skin and loose feathers, and to spread oils along their feather shafts. The preening my little birds do at night prepares them for the healthy dust baths they’ll be taking later.
Social behavior, group structure, aggression. The pecking order! Believe it or not, but after only a week together, the pecking order in my little flock of chicks has begun to be established. I can tell which chicks are more aggressive than others and which are a bit more timid. I do have an assortment of breeds, but this doesn’t appear to be the determining factor. It seems to start at the food dish—there are those that will walk right over their sister’s heads to reach the perfect food slot, and there are those that stand back and wait until all the others are finished or have chosen their spots. The more assertive ones are now twice the size of their sisters.
I also noticed “play fights” beginning just a few days after the chicks arrived. Two chicks would run up to each other and then run away. This morning, I watched a whole group of them running at each other and hastening away—often trying to flap their wings at the same time. One of the Barred Rock chicks perched on the top of the feeder, occasionally standing up and flapping her wings.
According to what I’ve read, by 10 weeks of age, a pecking order is well established in a flock of new chicks. This is interesting to me, in part because this is just about the age I introduce a young flock to an older flock, and I’ve noticed that the introduced flock tends to interact more with each other even after they have been accepted by the older group. I can tell, after watching my hens for just a short while, which Buff Orpington hens were the “original” and which three joined the group the second year. Those three still travel together.
I also know from experience that the best way to have friendly chickens is to interact with them from the beginning. My small children used to sit right down in the litter with the chicks and have them jumping and climbing all over. I don’t sit in the litter, but I do pick them up, pet them, talk to them, chirp to them and get them used to the sound of my voice and to being handled. When the pecking order is established, I want to be at the top!
I always worry about my chicks, of course, but it’s good to know that many of the most important things (eating, drinking, “hygiene” and social behaviors) come right along with the chick! This makes my job as adoptive mother hen a bit easier!