Egg Files

By Michelle Dunn

Country Smallholding - - Inside this month -

THE ROLE of fam­ily is of­ten un­der­es­ti­mated in free-range chicken be­hav­iour. A brood of chicks is ini­tially de­pen­dent on its mother, but as they get older their sur­vival de­pends upon their brothers and sis­ters. The out­look for a sin­gle chick on its own is very bleak in­deed.

Chicks can be alone for var­i­ous rea­sons. The most com­mon rea­son is that a sin­gle chick sur­vives a fox at­tack that kills its mother and sib­lings. Some­times a broody only man­ages to hatch out one chick, or only one chick sur­vives. As long as that chick has its mother on its side it will be fine, but the time comes when the mother aban­dons her chicks and re­turns to the flock. The ex­act tim­ing of this event varies, but, gen­er­ally speak­ing, hens are prone to aban­don a small brood ear­lier than a large brood, so a sin­gle chick is in big trou­ble.

A free-range mother hen has equipped her chick with all the in­for­ma­tion it needs to sur­vive. It knows what to eat, where to look for it and how to iden­tify it. It knows the lo­ca­tion of nearby wa­ter sources, dust baths and shel­ter from the weather. You might think that all this in­for­ma­tion would be enough, but un­for­tu­nately a chick needs more than this. A chick needs friends.

A flock of chick­ens is not a wel­com­ing place for a young bird. The peck­ing or­der is es­tab­lished and the al­pha males and fe­males quite lit­er­ally rule the roost. Young birds must keep their dis­tance and show re­spect or risk be­ing pecked and bul­lied. This is where the fam­ily group comes in. Even the grump­i­est old hen can’t be both­ered to chase four or five chicks, so the group has an eas­ier time. A sin­gle chick, how­ever, is easy prey for even the lowli­est in the peck­ing or­der and will be bul­lied and chased from the flock. It will take to wan­der­ing off on its own where it will be­come easy pick­ings for a fox, crow or cat.

Hap­pily, there is a so­lu­tion. If an iso­lated chick is kept in a good sized pen with a few of the low­est mem­bers of the peck­ing or­der, it can suc­cess­fully be rein­tro­duced to the flock when it is fully ma­ture.

A sin­gle chick will be bul­lied and chased from the flock and will wan­der off alone

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