Re Rustica

  (Squaw Valley, California)
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Mama Clucky's Adopted Chicks

Clucky has adopted some of the younger chickens as her own, providing some much needed mothering.

The young Rhode Island Reds were rescued, just like their adoptive mother. The conditions they were kept in overcrowded conditions (and they never got to go outside), and developed many bad habits… including cannibalism. They loved to peck and eat other chickens.

When Clucky met them, they were tailless (the tail having been eaten off), and their dull blood-red feathers were not well groomed. They picked fights with other chickens and were cowardly things, hiding under whatever miserable place they could find. Something needed done. With the help of her rooster, she taught them to love each other, to be courageous, to clean themselves and to stop eating each other… among other things:

With Clucky’s attention, they have not only broken those bad habits, but learned what is good to eat, how to sing, some of the best places to take a nap or hide, which roosters are in charge, and other important chick lessons. Clucky is teaching them how to socialize with the older chickens, herds them to keep them out of trouble and makes sure the other hens and roosters don’t eat the food she has found for her chicks. She teaches them to be brave, and encounter new situations with thought instead of raw emotion by presenting problems for them to solve.

Scuttle, our head rooster, is also taking an interest in our new hens and is making sure they understand how to stay together, how to come home at night, and has just begun teaching the young rooster how to herd and sing to hens (among other things).

Not all chicken behavior is instinctual. Some things must be learned. Whether it how to best sit on an egg or what is best to eat, or certain important songs, some behaviors represent the hard-earned lessons of sometimes many generations of chickens as the flock graudally adapts to an environment.

Mother hens not only increase the size of the flock by laying eggs and brooding them, but also by teaching chicks what they need to know and transferring the knowledge of the flock to the next generation. Baby roosters finish their education with the other roosters as they start to become sexually mature, and gain those specialized skills that allow them to take better care of their hens. Both baby hens and baby roosters, upon becoming sexually mature, finish their education by working alongside mature adults and old hens and roosters, with gradually less and less supervision.

Clucky adopted these chicks as her own because she, more than the other hens, is better able to mother. Some hens “specialize” in laying eggs, others in brooding them, others in teaching chicks basic things and others in teaching chicks more advanced things. Just as roosters specialize and delegate the various jobs they have to undertake, so do hens.

The reason why the work is divided and shared is because it is more efficient for the flock. The human techniques of mass production and assembly line are not unique: most animals undertake this practice. Bees are known for their specialized labor, with some of the insects being responsible for collection of food, others for the fermentation of food, others for caring for brood, others for helping returning or departing bees, others for guarding the hive, others for…

Bees may have thousands or millions of members in their hive and can be VERY specialized. The larger a chicken flock is, the more specialized they birds become. A small flock with one rooster does not require that rooster specialize (he can’t - he’s the only one!); when there’s only a few hens, each hen will lay, brood, and raise her own chicks.

There is certain incentive for hens of small flocks to favor their own chicks: the flock is growing and by favoring her own genetic offspring, she can ensure that her genetic material is transmitted to more future generations. A hen of a large flock could lay hundreds of eggs, but the potential impact that one hen could have on the total genetic make-up of the flock is small.

In other words, in a large flock, a hen feels more relation to her brothers and sisters because, while there is more genetic variance in the flock as a whole, the relative difference between individual birds is smaller. Therefore, a hen of a large flock is more willing to care for her nephews and nieces. In a small flock, the genetic varience in the whole flock is small, and therefore the relative difference between individuals is greater: a hen of a small flock feels less relation to her brothers and sisters and believes her chicks compete for the limited genetic resources, and wants to give them every advantage.

The rooster may sometimes tell his hens to adopt chicks that need mothering if none of them volunteer. He may redistribute the chicks among his hens so that they all get enough mothering. Chicks are a resource to the flock, and as the rooster regulates food and water and other resources, so will he regulate chicks.

The Head Hen will delegate the responsibilities of brooding and raising chicks. Usually, those chickens who lay the most eggs (chickens lay the most eggs during the first two years of their lives) don’t do much towards raising or brooding.

Flocks under resource strain will see fewer hens caring for nephews and nieces than flocks with an abundance of food, water and sexually active members. Our flock is healthy, and so the kindness of Clucky is to be expected. If the chicks were left to their own devices (and our direct care) we would know something was wrong with the flock.

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