From My WindowIssue Date: April 12, 2017
By Jane Thibodeau Martin,
As people prepare for Easter the sale of eggs increases dramatically. There are few activities associated with Easter that are more fun than sharing egg-coloring time with some kids, or even some adults. One of my fondest childhood memories is of massive egg hunts with all my maternal cousins. Since I was among the oldest, I was able to appreciate the moment when the proverbial "light bulb" flashed on over the head of a toddler, equipped with a little wicker basket, as they figured out what their mission was. Most little ones appear totally perplexed at being deposited on the ground with a basket. At first, the parents have to "find" the eggs and pick them up for the child, but once the tyke grasps the situation, they are off to the races, shrieking with excitement.
This got me thinking about the extremely interesting behavior of hens being raised in a "naturalized/free range" setting. When I was little, my family had a small flock of chickens for many years. They had a coop and fenced-in enclosure, but on nice days they were released to scratch in the yard and eat yummy bugs " a pretty good life for a chicken. While chickens have a fairly well-deserved reputation for being dumb, their reproductive strategy, left to their own devices, is quite smart. The behavior is most likely exactly how wild chicken ancestors reproduced before they were domesticated in ancient times.
In the spring, one or two of our hens would start sitting for prolonged periods in a nest box or, in sneaky style, outdoors somewhere secluded, like inside a patch of asparagus fronds. This hen lays an egg or two of her own and sits on them for about 23 out of every 24 hours, but during the first day or two other members of her flock sit down beside her and lay an egg, which the brooding hen then rolls underneath herself. The hen "donating" her egg goes on her merry way and has nothing further to do with the resulting chick. In this way the sitting hen ends up with 8 or so eggs, all laid within a couple of days, most of the eggs genetically unrelated to her.
This is a necessary strategy, since if she sat on eggs that were all her own, the hatching would be spread out too long, since hens only lay one egg a day. Long past the time she should have the first hatched chicks out feeding and getting water, other eggs, laid days later, would still need additional brooding days to hatch. If she abandons those eggs, they don't hatch, but if she doesn't lead the hatched chicks out to feed and drink, they would die. So this "co-operative" of hens working together results in the best chance for surviving offspring of all the hens that contribute an egg to the clutch because all of the eggs were laid within a 48 hour period.
You might not have noticed or understood this chicken strategy if you only had one breed of chicken, but our flock had Barred Rocks; Rhode Island Reds, Bantams, Cornish Whites, and many other breeds. As a result the brooding hen, perhaps herself all white, would have a true multi-cultural rainbow of little fuzzy chicks following her around.
It would be interesting to know if wild turkeys have a similar strategy, as it would seem they face a similar egg-brooding problem.
Such behaviors are only observable in truly free-range chickens. Chickens raised in large farms are caged and confined, unable to interact with one another at all.
I also enjoy watching the cattle here in Oklahoma exhibit a natural cooperative behavior in raising their young. These cattle are turned out on large ranges. They are seldom handled since they are not milk cows needing daily contacts, and are very close to wild. It is very common to see all the calves, 20 or more, bedded down together napping in the afternoon, with one or two "babysitter" cows with them, while their mothers and the rest of the herd may be a quarter-mile or more away grazing. Once the hungry calves start getting up after their naps, the babysitter cows rouse the rest of the sleepyheads and leadd them all to the main herd. That allows for protection of the calves while they nap by the babysitters, and allows the rest of the cow mothers to continue to feed, to keep up their milk production for the calves.
"It takes a village to raise a child" is not a truism limited to humans. Chickens and cows figured that out a long time ago, pre-domestication, without any help from people. I love watching the behavior of animals, both wild and domestic, but I know I only understand a fraction of the miraculous behaviors I see.
I wish all of you a peaceful and meaningful Easter. And I also wish you the joy of watching a little tyke hunt Easter eggs.
You can reach me for commentary, alternative viewpoints or ideas at this e-mail address: Janiethibmartin@gmail.com.
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