By Michelle Dunn
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