Raising Chicks with Mother Hen
Raising Chicks with the Flock for Healthy, Natural Behavior
Reading Time: 6 minutes
A broody hen has natural skills that equip her to give her chicks the best start in life. She is so much more than a mobile chick warmer! Researchers have found that raising chicks with mother hen has multiple benefits. As well as providing heat and protection, she teaches her chicks what is good to eat and what is not. She also guides them to drink, rest, explore, perch, and roost. And they learn what to fear from her. She provides this care until they are about six weeks old and are sufficiently feathered to maintain their own body temperature, strong enough to perch and escape danger, and smart enough to make their own choices.
Learning Starts in the Egg
A hen knows instinctively how long to sit on eggs and when to turn them. Occasionally, she will stand to rearrange eggs or briefly leave the nest to see to her own needs. These periods allow enough light to reach the eggs to enhance brain development but are short enough to prevent eggs from losing too much heat in her absence.
While still within the egg, the embryos learn the sound of her cluck, and close to hatching they will respond to her by beak clapping. They emit distress and contentment calls to which she responds. Their clicks and beak claps allow them to synchronize their hatching.
How Mother Hen Raises Her Chicks
When they hatch, they quickly imprint on their mother through her voice and appearance (especially her facial features), with the result that they keep close to her and immediately respond to the special rhythmic cluck she makes to keep them by her side. These clucks not only attract them but aid memory formation. By four days old, as they leave the nest, they can distinguish her from other hens. As they learn about their mother, an emotional bond grows between them, so that they become inseparable for the first six weeks of the chicks’ lives. After the first day, they also bond with their siblings.
Keeping Safe by Mother’s Side
After three days, they develop a fear of new things, an instinct that keeps them safe from danger. However, mother hen’s presence makes them feel secure, and she provides a safe base from which they can explore and learn about the world. She positions herself near resources to encourage feeding, drinking, and exploration.
A mother hen gives special alarm calls when she senses danger relevant to her brood’s age. She adjusts these calls as chicks mature, so that she only calls for small predators when they are a danger to them. They respond to these calls by stopping whatever they were doing in readiness for danger.
In addition to providing warmth and protection, researchers have found that a mother hen provides an important source of social learning for the chicks she is raising. Three important tasks are guidance over food, synchronization of resting and active periods, and mitigation of fear.
Learning about Food
Newly hatched chicks peck at small round and moving particles indiscriminately until they are about three days old, and their pecking is not affected by the qualities of what they consume. They may peck at non-food items without heeding the consequences. As chicks hatch with enough yolk nourishment to survive the first few days, they have some time to engage in learning. It is the hen’s role to guide them as to what is suitable to eat. Farmers feed artificially incubated chicks by supplying large amounts of crumb on a smooth surface (usually paper) to ensure they eat the right thing and learn what suitable feed looks like.
In the variable environment of the open range, mother hen uses a special food call and pecking display to indicate what is right to eat. The display is a short burst of repetitive calls, accompanied by ground pecking. When she displays, they approach and feed on items she points out. If the chicks do not feed or remain at some distance, she enhances her display and increases her calls. If she sees them eating something she considers the wrong food, based on her experience of the item, she increases her calls, picking up and dropping suitable food and beak wiping, until they switch to the right food.
During the first eight days, they learn most about food quality from her. She adjusts her calls according to the quantity and quality of food she has found, giving more calls for a larger find and longer, more intense calls for better quality items, such as mealworms. Chicks learn to respond rapidly to her calls, increasing their reactions within the first week. After three days, they start to react to feedback from the food they eat, so also start learning for themselves by trial and error. They also learn from each other, avoiding items other chicks react to with disgust.
Coordinating Chick Behavior
When chicks first hatch, they rest together and become active at the same time. However, this synchronization disappears after the first three days, unless a mother hen is present to organize their activity. A lack of synchronization can result in active chicks disturbing resting brood-mates. Synchronization helps chicks to keep together, staying warm and safe. Initially, chicks spend 60% of their time resting under the hen. She broods them in bouts of about 30 minutes, but this varies from hen to hen. Active periods increase gradually with age. Even after her period of care, the brood will remain more synchronized in their activity, which helps to keep them safe as they enter the wider world.
Learning to Perch and Roost
Chicks start perching at around two weeks, but earlier if encouraged by mother hen. Perching helps them to avoid danger and improves their spatial and navigational skills. Adults raised with perches as chicks have better muscle tone, spatial awareness, and balance, making them better able to escape using three dimensions and less likely to lay eggs on the floor. Perching during the day increases within the first six weeks to around a quarter of daytime activity. Then chicks start to follow their mother to roost at night, perching at progressively higher levels as they gain strength.
Maternal Effect on Fearfulness
Fear is stressful for chickens, makes handling difficult, and can lead to panic reactions that may cause birds to injure themselves. Hens calm their chicks by emitting clucks and brooding them. Her presence gives them the confidence to explore. Artificially raised chicks tend to react more fearfully than those raised by a serene mother. But their level of fear is dependent upon her reactions. Hens who overreact to events will have more highly-strung offspring. Chicks can learn specific fears from their mother. Hens used to human contact raise chicks less fearful of people.
Avoiding Behavior Problems
Feather pecking is a common problem that appears to result from a lack of opportunity to forage. Chickens peck their flock-mates’ feathers instead of foraging for food. Poor synchronization, elevated fear levels, and poor early learning of suitable feed may be contributory factors. Natural brooding may help to avoid these problems by keeping the brood synchronized, teaching chicks what to peck, and reducing fearfulness. There is evidence that brooding actually alters brain structures involved in social behavior. Furthermore, chicks who can rest undisturbed and avoid unwanted attention by using perches appear to suffer less from feather pecking and cannibalism.
In summary, it appears that the security offered by a mother hen promotes the healthy behavioral development of the chicks she is raising. Compared to artificially raised chicks, brooded chicks exhibit more floor pecking and dust bathing, longer active and feeding bouts, and suffer fewer interruptions. They are generally less aggressive, more sociable, and react more to others’ calls. They seem less fearful and employ a greater use of space. A confident mother can help her chicks to grow up with appropriate behavior for their environment, leading to a happy and healthy life.
- Nicol, C.J., 2015. The Behavioural Biology of Chickens. CABI.
- Edgar, J., Held, S., Jones, C., and Troisi, C. 2016. Influences of maternal care on chicken welfare. Animals, 6(1).
- Lead and title photos by Andreas Göllner from Pixabay.
Originally published in the 2021 special issue of Backyard Poultry — A Natural and Sustainable Flock — and regularly vetted for accuracy.