Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Games Chickens Play

Before I got chickens, I never had a pet or livestock animal, nor had any desire for one. As I wrote in my post explaining why I decided to get chickens, I previously had little enthusiasm for any animal. It’s not that I hated animals; I just wasn’t interested.

So when I brought my baby chicks home, I didn’t know what to expect. I’d done a lot of reading, but the books and articles I found generally focused on care, feeding, illnesses, and problems. I didn’t think to look for, and never stumbled across, information on everyday behaviors that are unproblematic.

In the past, this kind of knowledge was probably passed down orally from generation to generation and observed directly while growing up on a farm. My grandparents (both paternal and maternal) could probably have taught me a lot about chickens, but my own parents never kept them when I was growing up.

Always having been a “good student,” I made all the preparations the books recommended before bringing my baby chicks home. I tested the height of the lamp in the makeshift cardboard box brooder to get the right temperature for baby chicks, spread paper towels on the floor of the brooder and sprinkled chick crumbles (so they can find food the first few days, and not eat bedding materials), and prepared warm water with sugar. I was nervous and fearful about picking up the anxiously peeping chicks who tried desperately to avoid capture. What if I hurt them or, they me?? But I knew I had to dip their beaks in water so they’d know where to find it, and I did.

Once I had them all in the brooder, and they all appeared to be eating and drinking, I started to breathe a little easier. Then I noticed something strange going on with the littlest chick, a tiny Barred Rock. While everyone else was busily running around, checking out the new digs, eating and drinking, she stopped, her legs wobbling, her eyes starting to close. After a few seconds, she’d force her eyes open, start moving again, before becoming unsteady on her feet again.

Baby chicks are fragile and I began to fear the worst. I called my friend Marie, who is a nurse and an animal lover, with lots of pet experience. “How’s it going?” she asked. “Well, pretty good,’ I said, trying to be cool. Truthfully, I felt a little shaky and on the verge of tears. I couldn’t let on, however. Marie would get too much of a kick out of me suddenly getting all emotional about an animal. “But I think one is about to die.” I described the little chick’s behavior.

“Is she getting enough to drink?” Marie asked. “Do you have an eyedropper? Try giving her a little water with that. And do you have a hot water bottle?” Marie thought maybe the littlest chick was having trouble getting warm. I was sure I had a hot water bottle and eyedropper upstairs. As I got off the phone with Marie, the chick finally lay down and closed her eyes. This is IT! I thought. For a second or two, I debated staying or running upstairs for the items Marie recommended.

Then I frantically ran upstairs. I couldn’t find a hot water bottle anywhere; must have thrown it away years ago. Back down I went, steeling myself for the removal of a tiny carcass, and hoping nobody else died while I was gone. When I looked in the brooder, I was astonished to see the little chick up and running around like nothing was wrong!

As I sat watching them for the next two hours (I was afraid to leave!), I noticed all the chicks behaving the same way as the littlest one. They’d run around busily, then suddenly get wobbly on their legs, stop, lie down, and close their eyes. After a few minutes, they’d be up again and running around, like they just needed a quick power nap. They reminded me of toddlers who run around till they exhaust themselves and then fall asleep where they lay.

Another behavior that initially worried me, but turned out to be normal started a couple of weeks later. Two chicks would confront each other, wings flapping, chests practically bumping. I’d read so much about “feather picking” I was afraid of that horror and constantly admonished the chicks not to fight and to “be nice.” I finally realized they were just establishing a pecking order. Luckily, they never got vicious, so I quit worrying about chest bumping game.

Competition is a primary feature of chicken social organization. Our chicks compete over any and every thing, but mainly food. They spend most of their time looking for things to eat and if it appears that somebody found something interesting to snack on, the rest of them will chase her around trying to steal it. I’ve seen posters at Backyard Chickens refer to this behavior as “chicken football.” Chickens will even try to grab food out of someone else’s beak while she’s eating it – especially if it is something long like a worm or a blade of grass. They do this even if they originally rejected the item in question.

For example, last summer I found a tomato that something (probably a chipmunk) had taken a bite of, but that was otherwise perfect. I cut it in half and put it in the chicken tractor to see what they’d do, since I’d read that chickens like tomatoes. They’re curious little birds, so naturally they ran up to take a look. Then they backed away, moving their heads back and forth quickly, as if to say, “No. No.”

But then Batgirl, the bravest and most independent of our chickens, decided to investigate further. She pecked at one of the tomato wedges, decided she liked it, picked it up, and ran to a corner of the tractor to enjoy it by herself. The game was on! The others started chasing her. She’d run to a corner, set her tomato wedge down, take a bite, then see they were on her tail, pick it up and run again. After letting them amuse me with this for a few minutes, I got another tomato and cut it up so they could each have their own wedge.

But they will compete even if there are plenty of rations available for everyone. When they were little, we used one of those round feeders with holes at the base for chicks to access the crumbles. Invariably, when one chick started eating from one hole, the others would run over and try to eat out of the same hole, even though there were plenty of empty spaces around the dish. If another chick was in their way when they wanted to leave the feeder, they’d just step on her back to get where they wanted to go!

Chickens are not like dogs in the sense that they don’t care to be picked up or seek petting. Some people handle their chicks a lot when they’re little to get them accustomed to it, but my feeling has always been that if they want to be left alone, we should leave them alone. So we handled them only when necessary. As they got older, they got used to us. They stopped running away from us, but still didn’t want to be touched. If we’d try to pet them, they’d slink away, but didn’t run.

Around the time they started laying, however, they changed. They’d deliberately come close and brush by us. One day Amelia hung around me for so long, seeming to want something, I finally reached down and picked her up. To my surprise, she stood there and let me do it! As I was petting her and marveling over this novel experience, Batgirl, the other Barred Rock, came over and started hopping up, like she wanted me to pick her up, too! I set Amelia down and picked up Batgirl, but being the independent spirit she is, Batgirl quickly decided she’d had enough. Apparently she just wanted to make sure she got everything Amelia was getting.

I was pretty excited about this new development. Like Sally Field accepting an award, I couldn’t help thinking, “They like me! They really like me!” Before long, however, I had the embarrassing realization it wasn’t about “liking” me. These randy girls were looking for a roo and we were the only beings in the yard not-a-hen. As soon as we’d reach out to pet their backs, they’d immediately squat and “assume the position.” They’re now so anxious to get their groove on, they’re very easy to catch. When Batgirl made her fifth escape the other day, she at first darted around trying to evade me. When I reached for her back, this independent girl forgot herself for a moment, abruptly stopped, and squatted. Like taking candy from a baby.

The latest interesting behavior is their insistence on being hand-fed when they first see me. In a way, I can understand how this developed. Because we can’t let them run free in the yard, in the summer Rick would shake Japanese beetles off the cherry trees into a container and then hold that container at the tractor door while the chicks ate the beetles. We’d also feed them blades of grass through the fencing of their tractor from time to time. One reason I did this was to get the chicks to come to me so I could look them over and check for any health problems. Sometimes we just did it to interact with them. Rick especially got a kick out of chickens standing on lush lawn, with lots to eat, all wanting and competing over the single blade of grass he had in his hand. “You’ve got grass all around you!” he’d laugh.

So I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that now when I come to them with treats in the morning, they don’t immediately go after the cracked corn I’m throwing on the ground. They instead crowd around wanting a bite out of the container I’m carrying. They just take a bite or two; then go on their way. But they have to have that first bite directly from my hand. I have a feeling they’d enjoy the game more if I ran to a corner of the pen and pretended to eat it myself. Sorry, girls, that's a game you'll have to play among yourselves!

1 comment:

Beth the ChickenCoopLady said...

Yup. We all get tired after running around. Power naps rule!
Wisconsin gets pretty cold. Make sure you winterized the chicken coop to keep those babies warm.

Here's an article to show you how: