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The hen and her chicks

The hen and her chicks

  • Studies of wild fowl and free-range domestic hens show the importance of the very strong maternal behaviour that develops between the hen and her chicks.
  • Chicks are very precocious and are active very soon after hatching.  In the wild survival success depends on rapid bonding between mother and offspring.
  • It's very important that chicks imprint on their mother after hatching.  They'll follow any moving object, which contrasts with the background about one hour after hatching.
  • Proper imprinting and bonding can take from 9-20 hours after hatching.
  • The hen "clucks" and the chick "peeps" and the more the hen clucks the less the chicks peep.
  • Chicks moving with their dam utter contentment twitters or distress cheeps.  If the hen stops and calls, the chicks remain stationary.  If she's too far away, the chicks peep and she goes to brood them.
  • If the call of a strange mother is played, the chicks stay still for longer and peep less often.  This reduces the chance of being attacked by a strange hen.
  • The length and loudness of the call control chick behaviour, while the sound frequency leads to recognition of their own parent's voice.
  • Chicks feed freely n the presence of their own dam's call while alien calls will halt feeding altogether.
  • As chicks cannot recognise each other much before 10 days of age, the hen and her calling system keeps the brood together and prevents aggression among the chicks.
  • The hen also teaches the chicks to react to food and predators.
  • Chicks normally show fear 33-36 hours after hatching, but this is extended if they are kept in isolation.  The experience of communal feeding needs to be achieved before 3 days post hatching.
  • Wild spring hatched chicks have been recorded as walking over 3km/day with the hen walking closely with them for 24% of the time.
  • Their active working day lasted 16 hours and the hen initiated most of the behaviour, especially feeding, tidbiting, pecking, and scratching the ground.  She also prevented fights between chicks.
  • A broody hen and her chicks will keep to themselves and threaten other hens that come within 6m.
  • In the wild, chicks start to be left on the ground at nights by the dam at 5-6 weeks, when she returned to roost in a tree.  By 10-12 weeks old when the chicks were feathered, the hen started to threaten them - their days with Mum were over.
  • The hen allows her chicks to run ahead of her before weaning, but they walk behind her afterwards because she claims a higher social status.
  • At 16-18 weeks old, the brood breaks up and adult behaviour patterns begin.
  • A hen will accept strange chicks 2-5 days after hatching if they are the same colour as her own.  Thereafter she may kill them.
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