The Secret Life of Poultry: Bird Surrogacy
Reading Time: 4 minutes
Legend has it that when I was young, we were the proud owners of a surrogate poultry mom. I didn’t know this, I recently learned it when discussing a similar case with my mother.
When I was around five or six, we had a huge flock of Rhode Island Red hens. That’s the only breed we had back then and I spent hours a day with the girls when I wasn’t in school. I’m still partial to the breed today. They’re good layers, friendly, bold, and most importantly, amazing mothers.
Sometime during the late spring, my parents decided to branch out and take some Muscovy ducks in when a family friend was downsizing. We ended up bringing home three hens, but one quickly went broody. The previous owner had males and females running together, so her eggs were fertile.
My mom was excited and got everything ready for the sitting duck. She gave her premium nesting materials, learned how long duck eggs incubate for, and prepared for the day.
Unfortunately, back then we had a terrible coyote problem, and one night the mama duck was plucked off her nest, leaving her eggs to grow cold. The commotion woke my parents, but the coyote was long gone by the time they got there. My mom, in a groggy act of brilliance, stuck the duck eggs under a chicken who’d recently decided to go broody.
The hen was too small to comfortably cover all of the duck eggs. “She pancaked herself out and did her best,” my mom reminisced.
Two weeks later, much to the surprise of everyone, the eggs hatched. That chicken soon found herself with ten ducklings and more than a small dose of confusion.
I asked my mom how the hen took to raising the ducklings, or if there was a language barrier. “They didn’t listen to her like a chick would,” she said, “but they managed. The only real problem was the hen panicked when all her babies got into the water the first time.”
The hen would pace along the edge of the water until her babies came back, then she would scold them and sit on them to dry her babies who, in her opinion, should not have been getting wet.
My mom has a picture of me with “Mama Hen ” and her ducklings — somewhere — and when she finds it I am definitely posting it. Once the ducklings grew to their awkward teenage stage, my father ended up selling all the ducks. Devastating, I know. And from then on, Mama Hen, to my frequent disappointment, only hatched chicks.
This story isn’t as unique as we once thought it was. I began looking for other people with similar stories and found an entire world of surrogate birds. I spoke to people who had turkeys raise guinea fowl, chickens raise turkeys, and a case I was particularly interested in that was like mine: a chicken raising ducks.
The owner of this other hen was Robin Wood. One of her neighbors wanted to try to hatch some eggs, so Robin gave her some duck eggs to hatch along with her chicken’s eggs. Out of the clutch, one chicken and one duck hatched. The neighbor ended up giving the pair back to Robin to raise after a few days.
Robin kept the two together, so the hen and the duck became brood mates and companions until they were old enough to live in the adult pens. When they were separated, the hen would stay close to the duck pen.
Whenever Robin let the chickens out, the hen would immediately go over to where the ducks were housed and hang out with them. One day Robin opened the door to the duck enclosure and the hen went right in. That soon became her new home.
The hen got the name “Chicken Mama” because shortly after moving into the duck pen she took over a nest of duck eggs and fell broody. Four weeks later, Chicken Mama had a small brood of new ducklings. “I truly thought that once they hatched I’d be raising them indoors for the first bit but she took to them as they were her own despite the apparent differences,” Robin told me.
Chicken Mama loved her babies and did a great job raising them. They listened to her well and seemed like a natural match, possibly because Chicken Mama grew up with a duck sister. “She was a proud mama and loved to take morning strolls out with her ducklings.”
Unlike my Mama Hen, Chicken Mama appeared so used to the oddities of living with ducks that she was very accepting of her brood going out onto the water and would wait patiently for them to come back to shore.
Eventually, Robin placed another chicken in the duck pen to keep Chicken Mama company. Chicken Mama immediately got along with the new chicken, because, as Robin put it, “Finally she had a friend just like her.”
For a time, the two hens lived in the duck pen in their peculiar way while Chicken Mama finished raising her babies. They were sweet hens, so one day Robin gifted both of them to a friend who was just getting into chickens. “I felt they would be a perfect first-time experience for this person,” Robin told me.
I don’t think I could get rid of a super special chicken as Robin did, but I’m greedy. Unless it was to a good friend, then maybe. I know I loved my Mama Hen, but I didn’t remember she’d had ducklings. She was very special to me, and looking back I can envision her angrily clucking and pacing around the water that her babies were in. She had a huge personality.
Although semi-common, it’s not every day that a bird ends up raising the offspring of another in the farming world. Too many problems can arise that it won’t happen on a large scale farm or any farm with strict bird segregation. There’s often a language barrier.
Personally, I love the disharmony of surrogate poultry moms. I am enchanted by the stories of it, as it is proof of the willingness of life to happen and unyielding stubbornness of a mother’s love.
Originally published in the June/July 2020 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.