Chickens Surprise Scientists

A paper published in the scientific journal, Biology Letters, has challenged scientists’ view of the intelligence of chickens (and other creatures).

Many scientist have long believed that only humans use language to denote things in the world — that we’re the only ones who can point at an object and give it a verbal label.

But the research by Dr. Chris Evans and Linda Evans showed that golden Seabright bantam hens had twenty observed and specific calls. For example, there was a difference between the clucking one did for corn and for pellets. It was also noted that they could recognize each other by their facial features. Birds also understand the concept that if an item is removed from view, that it still exists (this was formerly thought to be the provence of “higher” animals.)

Does this study give me insight into the life of my girls? The research wouldn’t surprise anyone who has sat and observed their backyard flock. I already knew that hens can recognize their best friends in a crowd. I’d already been aware that the girls have a range of specific vocalizations. Actually, the study gave me more of an insight into the world of academia and scientific thinking than into my birds’ brains.

Where's the Tail?

Marge’s tail fell out and I’m not worried about it. Although, judging from your emails, feather loss is the second biggest source of anxiety for chicken keepers (broodiness is first.) Here’s the ugly fact: chickens molt once a year and it’s not pretty. It’s not like one day you go out to the yard and they’ve lost all of their feathers, which then proceed to quickly grow back. Oh, no. The feathers come out in clumps. Slowly. And the feathers that grow back at first look like porcupine quills. Even worse, during this month-long process, the hens stop laying.

Commercial growers try to control the molt. They want their hens to all start and stop at the same time, and they want it to happen as quickly as possible. They practice “controlled starvation” to bring this about. But that’s still iffy, so they’re working on chemical means to initiate the molt. Enough said. That’s not happening with our girls.

Instead, I look at the molt as nature’s way of giving the hens a break from the resource-depleting job of egg laying. And isn’t it nice to know that even the beauties among us have a bad hair (feather) day? :)

Sad News

When Steve went out to feed the girls this morning, he noticed that Tweedledum was barely sitting up, and she was gasping for breath. We got her inside, put her in a cozy bed, and gave her dropperfuls of antibiotics mixed in water. We’ve had other hens with respiratory infections who we could nurse back to health. But, Silkies are not the most robust of breeds. Within a few hours of realizing that Tweedledum was sick, she died.

This is part of owning chickens — some become ill and die — but it’s never easy. Tweedledum was my son’s much loved hen. True to her Silkie nature, she was gentle and a bit dim-witted. She was always out of the fray, and for such a tiny and unassuming hen was surprisingly never picked on by the other girls. She was the chicken I’d give to a three-year old child to hold in a lap. She was the one that made us laugh just by looking at her. We’ll miss her.

The Pumpkin Personality Test

As you’ve probably noticed, the girls have a new “friend” in the chicken yard. Each hen had a different reaction. Aloof Perrie ignored it. Edwina and Eleanor gave it a wide berth. Petunia checked to see if it was edible and quickly lost interest. Snowball walked right up, stared at it, circled it, and eyeballed the stranger some more. Tweedledum wandered over, decided that here was a new friend, and stood companionably next to the pumpkin for the afternoon.

To everyone in the USA – Happy Thanksgiving!

What Breed is Right for You?

Some of us look at hatchery catalogs like the proverbial child in a candy shop. The varieties of poultry look so appealing that we want one of each. I even heard about a man who tried to collect a hen of every breed, but he stopped at 89.

However, the truth is, just like a dog lover doesn’t necessarily love all breeds equally, a chicken fancier finds some chickens nicer than others. And although some people are attracted to birds with spots, or those with feathered legs, it’s not always about looks. In fact, the backyard hen owners that I know all use personality as the first criteria for choosing birds.

My own preference are for the classic “big brown hens.” I like personable, friendly, solid chickens. Marge is a favorite. Her looks are nothing special – she’s a basic New Hampshire Red –  but when I step into the chicken yard she comes right up, looks me in the eye and starts cackling. She talks like an old, complaining Aunt I remember from my childhood. I also love my Australorps, Blackie and Twinkydink. They don’t talk much, but they are calm and pleasant to be around.

I’m not partial to our one Araucana, Perrie. She’s watchful and wary, never chats with me, and has no friends in the flock. But I know a woman in town who loves Araucanas best. She likes how they have hawk-like eyes. She likes their intelligence and aloofness, and of course, the colorful eggs are wonderful.

For children, nothing is better than a silkie. Not the smartest of hens, but as gentle and placid and affectionate as they get. And little. Put a silkie in the arms of a youngster, and it will be carried around to the delight of both child and chicken.

Have a favorite breed? Tell me about it!