Jane Goodall watches chimps and observes interesting interactions and behaviors. I watch my chickens and observe the same and I would like to think that I am just as legitimate. I honestly believe that chicken interaction is every bit as fascinating as that of any other social animal group.
One thing I’ve noticed with my flock is that two chickens occasionally form a bonded pair. They hang around together, act in each other’s interest in their interactions with other members of the flock, and roost together every night – it is the chicken version of BFF’s.
One of my chicken pairs is Maran and Carmen Maranda the Cuckoo Marans. They were part of a small group of chicks I brought home from Murray McMurray Hatchery in the spring of 2014. They were the only two Marans in the group and they bonded. Somehow they seemed to be tuned into the fact that there was another chickens that looked just like they did. In the late summer of that year they were introduced to the larger flock. There was the usual kerfuffle as the pecking order became re-established and each hen defended her place in the order of things. During that process Carmen and Maran had each other’s backs. If, for example, Jennifer would come up and start pecking at Maran, Carmen would be in Jennifer’s face. By joining forces they moved about half way up the pecking order and that’s where things are at today. At night, most of the hens roost on the big roost. But Carmen and Maran roost by themselves on a smaller roost off to the side. BFF’s for sure!
|Carmen Maranda and Maran the Cuckoo Marans|
Then there were the Mary’s. In the spring of 2013 I brought home two Golden Campines in a mixed batch of about twenty chicks. Mary, the daughter of a co-worker visited the chicks one day and pointed at one of the Campines. “I want you to name that chick after me.” She said. “Well, Mary,” I pointed out, “The problem with that is that there are two of them and they look exactly alike. How will we be able to tell them apart?” She thought for a moment and then brightly suggested, “Why don’t you just name them both ‘Mary’?” So that’s exactly what we did. Mary and Mary eventually came to be called “Big Mary” and “Little Mary.” We needed some way to differentiate them and while they were exactly the same size, Big Mary’s comb was slightly larger than Little Mary’s. They not only looked almost the same, but had the same temperament – active, curious, flighty, and aloof. But they were inseparable. When they were outside foraging, they were always together. Every night they had their spot reserved on the roost and would roost together.
Last winter I realized one day that Big Mary was under the weather. Eventually she became so sick that I sequestered her from the rest of the flock in a small area in the corner of the coop that was partitioned off with hardware cloth. Little Mary started spending her day right on the other side of the hardware cloth. She only left at night to roost and I’m sure she was reluctant to do even that. Then Big Mary died. Little Mary changed that day. She became much less active and spends more time just perching on the roost. She is mourning her friend. Is that anthropomorphizing? I can only report what I see.
|Mary and Mary the Golden Campines|
Finally, there are Snowball and Angitou. Snowball was the only Silkie chick in my 2013 brood. It is virtually impossible to sex Silkie chicks so you have to wait until they are approaching maturity before you have any idea if they’re hens or roosters. And Snowball was a late bloomer. We were well into the fall when Snowball got up one day, looked around, and crowed. Unfortunately, since there were already a couple of other roosters in the flock, that was exactly the wrong thing to do. Every day from that point on, Snowball’s life became an exercise in escaping the wrath of the big roosters. Eventually, the hens picked up on the fact that he was very low on the poultry totem pole and soon everybody was picking at him. In due course, he wouldn’t leave the roost – even to eat or drink. I started putting him by the water font so he would drink under my protection and I would hold him on my lap and feed him out of my hand. That kept him alive, but his was a pretty pathetic existence. Eventually I built a small 4x4 coop just for him, complete with a sign proclaiming, “SNOWBALL’S SWINGIN’ BACHELOR PAD”. And that’s where he was living when Angitou came along.
Angitou is a Golden Polish hen that was part of the 2014 batch of chicks. Incorporating that group of new hens into the existing flock caused an uproar. Angitou was a big part of the problem. Like most Polish hens, Angitou is a very excitable girl. Another problem is her limited vision due to her elaborate head crest. From the first moment Angitou found herself in her new environment, she lived in terror. When she would be pecked by another hen, rather than peck back, she would squawk in fear and then run blindly, literally blindly due to her crest, through the coop, caroming off other hens as she went. We trimmed her crest to allow her better vision. She still ran around and bumped into other hens – now more due to fear and panic than blindness. This behavior was obviously not acceptable to the other hens. I intervened when I found Angitou curled into a ball and lying in a corner while a group of hens gathered around and pecked at her. I moved Angitou and Emily, a small black Silkie hen, to a separate crate. With three chickens now living separately from the rest of the flock, I decided it was time to build a second coop.
By midwinter I put the finishing touches on Coop Two, an 8 x 14 space that had Snowball’s swingin’ bachelor pad incorporated into one corner. Then I opened the door and allowed Snowball to meet the two hens. They got along well from the very beginning. And Snowball and Angitou actually became another of those inseparable pairs. Every night Emily settles in on the floor because Silkies typically do not roost. Snowball does roost because he apparently doesn’t know that rule. And Angitou joins him. It’s a big roost and they could each stake their claim to a portion of it. But they actually snuggle in, side by side, and leaning on each other. Angitou often tucks her head under her wing, and that’s how they spend the night. Courtney the Silkie hen joined this group last winter, and everybody still gets along. Then Courtney moved into Snowball’s old bachelor pad for a short time to brood her babies. She has just rejoined the other three chickens with her babies and so far everybody is happy.
|Snowball the Silkie Rooster and Angitou the Golden Polish Hen|
It is, I’m sure, obvious by now that I care about the chickens' happiness. If mine were a “for profit” chicken operation, I would not be removing problems chickens to separate coops. The huge poultry producers cram chickens together so densely that the chickens are guaranteed to peck each other. They solve that problem by removing a portion of the chickens’ beaks so the pecks are not harmful. Debeaked chickens have problems preening and eating and are definitely not happy chickens. Smaller, more sustainable operations don’t debeak their chickens but do cull problem chickens. Chickens at the bottom of the pecking order become stew.
The function of chickens here at the ranch is definitely not to make stew. And while they produce eggs, their function is not really to make eggs. Their real function is to make me happy. And I’m happiest when the chickens are happy. Once you realize that, you understand the guiding philosophy behind the Hipster Hen Chicken Ranch.
In that same regard, you may be of the opinion that chicken friendships are a case of bogus anthropomorphism and that this entire discussion is a crock. That’s fine, if that’s what you believe. I’m only reporting what I’ve observed. I don’t think I’m reading more into it than is actually there, but if I am, that’s what makes me happy. And as I said, that’s really what it’s all about.