Grains of Truth in Chicken Mythology
Reading Time: 4 minutes
By: Rebecca Krebs
Seeing is believing, as the old saying goes, but I was so skeptical that I wasn’t even looking. Chicken owners told me stories about hens that would adopt chicks anytime, anywhere. I brushed off those stories as uneducated myths — after all, hens adopt chicks only when their mothering hormones kick in after they go broody on a nest, right?
Leave it to my Houdini hen to trigger the events that set me straight. This escape artist was a show-quality Blue Laced Red Wyandotte, an unlikely chicken to fly over the poultry fence into the garden since she weighed more than six pounds. But the Houdini hen learned to jump the fence even after I clipped her flight feathers. She massacred the vegetable garden by scratching, and roused the eternal ire of the gardener.
I constantly rounded up the Houdini hen in an effort to keep her out of trouble (e.g., the gardener’s stewpot), but corralling the barn cats would have been about as easy. She freely roamed the gardens and concealed nests in such random nooks and crannies that every day entailed an Easter egg hunt. One summer she hid a nest under a rosebush in the flowerbed. Even though the nest was right outside my bedroom window, she laid a clutch of eggs and began setting before I found it.
Three weeks later, the Houdini hen hatched six chicks, which quickly grew robust enough to keep up with their mother on her escapades. Mom flew over the fence, chicks popped through the wire mesh, and off they went to destroy another patch of garden. A team of one broody hen and six chicks can uproot strawberry plants quite efficiently. Strawberries were the gardener’s favorite.
But the fence jumping caught up with the Houdini hen. One evening while flying over the fence, she tangled her foot in the wire. Unable to free herself, she hung upside down by one broken toe for hours. She was barely alive the next morning when the gardener found and, in an act of remarkable self-denial, rescued her. I brought her into the house to recuperate.
The sudden absence of their mother confused and worried the chicks. By then they were eight weeks old, fully feathered, and large enough to be independent, but they still complained in whiny peeps about the injustice of fending for themselves in the flock.
One member of their flock was my Wyandotte matriarch, Prisma, a stunning Blue Laced Red hen. Regal and august, Prisma was the chicken embodiment of a fine Victorian lady attired in fashionable hoop skirts. Her manner was unruffleable and decorous. In her opinion, the Houdini hen’s gallivanting was scandalous — Prisma never dreamed of flying the coop.
Prisma had not once been broody in her life, so I was surprised when I noticed the chicks nestling up to her after the Houdini hen’s accident. Since even mild-mannered hens typically peck juvenile chickens that come so close, Prisma’s behavior puzzled me. The “uneducated myth” — the idea that she would spontaneously adopt the orphan chicks — came to mind, but I was far from accepting such a notion.
“I don’t care what people say,” I told myself. “Non-broody hens absolutely do not adopt chicks, much less great big ones that hardly look like chicks anymore. And Prisma would be the last one to do something so unconventional.”
I was wrong. As the days went by, I saw Prisma behaving more and more motherly, calling the chicks to food and guiding them with soft, dignified clucks. It was her clucking that finally persuaded me. Some hens will call other chickens to food for no particular reason, but the cluck call is used only by mother hens talking to their chicks. No more denying the evidence: The chicken myths were more factually founded than I had believed.
Prisma alone knows why she decided to foster the chicks. I saw nothing in their half-grown appearance to excite a hen’s maternal instincts. I can only guess that she listened to their sad peeping and pitied their motherless situation. Maybe she felt that they needed a more proper upbringing than they had received thus far.
Despite her personal opinions, Prisma did come to tolerate the wanderlust the chicks inherited from their birth mother and calmly kept an eye on them while they embarked alone on forays into the garden. The chicks, obviously adoring their foster mom, greeted her with happy peeps when they returned. At night they snuggled together under her outstretched wings.
Prisma mentored the chicks until they matured into two dashing roosters and four pretty hens. Her patient example was not lost on one of her foster sons; he abandoned his old habits and conducted himself as a respectable gentleman. The four hens, however, were carbon copies of the Houdini hen and impossible to contain.
The gardener refused to acknowledge what beautiful chickens those four hens had become. It certainly didn’t improve the gardener’s opinion of the family when the Houdini hen, who eventually recovered from her injuries, rejoined her daughters and resumed her attacks on the garden.
These days, when I’m not chasing naughty chickens and pacifying an angry gardener, I listen to fantastic chicken tales with a little more credulity. Do I believe everything I hear? No, but I don’t immediately dismiss the stories anymore. There is a grain of truth in chicken mythology.
Rebecca Krebs is a freelance writer and genetics aficionado who lives in the Rocky Mountains of Montana. She owns North Star Poultry, a small hatchery that breeds Blue Laced Red Wyandottes, Rhode Island Reds, and five exclusive chicken varieties. Find her farm online at northstarpoultry.com.
Originally published in the February/March 2021 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.