Dysfunctional Chicken Behavior

Arch had a question regarding a hen “sitting” on phantom eggs in the comments on a post below, so I thought I’d expand a bit on my answer to him, to wit: Chickens do some weird shit.

Hens, in the throes of wannabe motherhood and no eggs, will try to incubate rolls of tape, bottles of oil, stones, shoes, baseballs, tennis balls, boxes of nails or screws, any other egg-shaped or non-egg-shaped item you can imagine and some you don’t, or sometimes nothing at all.

The upside to this nonsense is that if there are orphan chicks or ducklings about, these girls make excellent, excellent foster mommas. The downside is that it is hard to change their behavior* until their urge to mother has been satisfied or expires, and sometimes crazy-ass hen will expire on a nest of non-hatchable things like light bulbs that were placed in the trash can in the barn before she is found and shooed away.

I currently have two pens of chicks being raised by high-motherhood-drive-but-no-eggs hens. One was in the sheep barn and wouldn’t leave my duct tape alone and, when I finally tossed the duct tape, she sat on imaginary eggs and wasted away. She’s a very happy mother to my incubator chicks. I unceremoniously removed her from the barn one day, put her in a pen with a 5-gallon bucket on its side for a “nest”, and stuck ten chicks under her wings. This is usually best accomplished at night so she *thinks* they hatched out overnight by morning, but not necessary in her case.

Another happy mother apparently had no eggs of her own, so she tried to drive a duck away from her ducklings and take them as her own. She succeeded with one duckling, so I put her in a pen with “her” duckling, some leftover standard-sized incubator chicks, and some bantam chicks I’d rescued from the nest of yet another duck. (Duck mothers love their chicks just like their ducklings, and take them swimming. This never ends well.) The hen/duck mothering without human intervention usually ends in tears as well for all concerned. Ducks grow in size much more quickly than the chicks, but they develop feathers much LESS quickly. Four-week-old chicks are feathered and can do some flying, four-week-old ducks are not and cannot. You can imagine the frustration of both when the hen is calling her ducklings to roost up in the top of the tree and ducklings have no flight feathers.

How do ducks end up hatching out chicks? Well, often the hens and ducks will just use a common (hidden) nest until somebody decides to incubate the eggs. Since ducklings have a week-longer incubation period than chicks, either the duck eggs will die and the chicks will survive, or the duck eggs will be incubated to completion and the chicks will die of starvation (or swimming). Sometimes a duck and hen will incubate the eggs together.

Why in the world would ducks and hens cooperatively incubate eggs since it doesn’t end happily? Well, in my world, I often end up with bereft orphans of both hens and ducks. Resulting orphans are raised together as siblings because I’m either too lazy or too busy to set up separate facilities. When sitting on nests, sometimes mothers and daughters co-incubate. Sometimes sisters co-incubate. Sharing a nest and parental responsibilities gives a greater chance of survival to the young. Since I often have hens and ducks raised as “sisters”, it is not surprising that they will cooperate to hatch eggs together.

All of my poultry would appear to need therapy.

And speaking of needing therapy and dysfunctional survival strategies, the hen that had been concealing her nest underneath SwampMan’s toolbox in the back of his truck has continued to do so no matter how many times we’ve removed the eggs or SwampMan has reached under his toolbox and flung her across the yard. Can you imagine driving down a highway, minding your own business when, suddenly, a chicken flies out of the truck ahead of you and impacts your windshield at a speed of, say, 70 mph? I could imagine that happening. I don’t remember that being covered under an insurance policy. I don’t think I want to call State Farm and ask.

That is why said chicken is currently imprisoned in a 5-gallon bucket on the porch on top of her eggs. I found her in the back of the truck AGAIN trying to hatch out eggs, but I had other uses in mind for the truck and a 3-week hiatus for chick production was out of the question. I’ll build her a more suitable habitat for her eggs than bucket on porch or bed of truck today, depending on how much help I get from grandchildren. The more help I get, the longer it will take. Maybe, maybe, MAYBE if she successfully incubates those eggs, she’ll stay away from the truck in the future. Or at least for the summer.

*Changing their behavior usually means changing their environment so that they don’t have a secluded nest to brood various eggs or replacement eggs in. Physically removing her from her chosen nest site and keeping her away in confinement for a few days to weeks will usually suffice.

2 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    kcduffy said,

    I love reading about life in rural NEFL…except when it involves death and destruction, in which case I love it but skip parts if I can…and this is one of my very favorites! My mother grew up on a farm in north central Montana, and had chickens. She always told me they were stoopid and stubborn…but she named them as pets anyway.

    See you next week! 😀

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