Consider the Chicken


I’ve never known anyone to wax eloquent about the intelligence of a chicken. Kind of hard to stuff much grey matter in an area not much bigger than a thimble. But if you spend some time around the cluckers, you begin to wonder if size matters. A chicken may not be able to grasp quantum physics, but the so-called “instinct” on which they operate can be pretty darned amazing. What made me speculate on this issue was starting this year’s batch of eggs in the incubator. Since it was a new incubator and a different style, I read the instructions cover to cover, finding much information I already knew but also a few tidbits that provided new pearls of wisdom. I began to think about how chickens hatch eggs.

Consider the hen – not the commercial captive who never sees the sun and is crammed into a tiny cage, but the real, old-fashioned chicken wandering around the barnyard or pen. She’s of a breed that still gets the urge to set on her eggs, even though breeders have been trying to get rid of that instinct for years (and sadly, have succeeded in too many cases). Yes, this is a nice little Australorp, Delaware or Buff Orpington, one of the older breeds that still heeds the ancient call of motherhood about this time each spring.

To begin, she chooses a nesting site. If she is on range or in a fairly large pen, she may make her nest in a nice safe spot such as the middle of the blackberry bushes, although she could just as easily pick a darkish corner of the hen house. She scratches out a little hollow, with slightly higher sides so when she lays an egg, it won’t roll out. How does she know about rolling eggs? Many hens will pluck some feathers from their breasts to provide a nice downy bed. Then she lays an egg, covers it up and goes on about her business for the day.

Next morning, she comes back and lays another egg. After about a week or when there are just enough eggs for one chicken to cover if multiple hens are laying in the same nest, she plops herself down on those eggs and goes into a sort of hibernation mode. How does she know that eggs are viable for only about a week at an average temperature of 70 degrees? When setting she needs less food and water, although she will get off the nest once or twice a day to eat and drink. She doesn’t get off for long, because if the eggs get too cool, the incubating chicks will die. How does she know she can’t just wander around chatting with her buddies for hours on end or searching for the juiciest worm in the mulch? While setting, she turns the eggs with her beak. Turning keeps the developing embryos from sticking to the shell and causing deformities. How does the hen know about turning eggs? If the weather gets too hot, the hen will stand up on the nest periodically to allow the eggs to cool. If the weather is too cold, she fluffs her feathers to get more air spaces between them, which improves insulation and keeps the eggs warmer. How does the hen understand temperature control?

Once the eggs start to pip before hatching, she croons to her babies to let them know that mama is right there. She stays on the nest for at least a day after the first eggs have hatched, but gets off within two days and leaves any unhatched eggs. How does she know that new-hatched chicks can go without food or water for a couple of days while waiting for dilatory siblings? How does she know that eggs won’t hatch after a certain time frame or that late-hatching eggs are more likely to be chickens with congenital problems?

All this from a bird-brain. Maybe we underestimate the intelligence of a chicken…

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