Why are chickens…..chickens?

I have returned to school….my wife thinks its high time, and my 5 year old daughter thinks it’s cool that we are both in “big” school at the same time.  She keeps asking me what I did at recess, so I make up friends that I play with and games we played…..if only she knew.  I’m back at the university, and am too old to be partaking in the “recreational” activities of my MUCH younger classmates.  (Speaking of which….when did kids in university start looking so YOUNG??)

I’m actually working on my Masters degree part time.  One course this semester is an animal behaviour course.  The point is to discover why animal behave the way they do, and how to use this understanding to alter their behaviour so we humans can get along with them better.

I HAVE to ask the prof to explain this one....

A subject that came up today was one that I wonder if many people realize.  That is, animal (chicken) behaviour evolved, the same way their bodies did.  A chicken does what she does, because that activity made her ancestors survive better than similar animals.  So, when you see a chicken doing something you don’t (or even do) like, try to imagine why that activity developed….you’ll have a better chance of stopping it.

Consider some activity your birds to that you don’t like…..say perching on top of the coop, and making a mess on the roof.  Why does this 1 chicken…..the messiest, most annoying, feathered poop machine….insist on being the one place she shouldn’t be, and ruining the look and feel of your backyard?  Why does running out of the house and swinging a broom at her (while satisfying) not convince her to find a new loitering spot?

The reason chickens perch up off the ground is because the jungle fowl they came from….after hundreds of thousands of years of perfecting a strategy for living in the dense forests….survived better when they “hung out” off the ground.  The predators of the day were mainly ground based…..weasel types, snakes, etc.  By getting up off the ground, hens have a better vantage point to spot predators from, and more distance for their “flight path” when they want to escape. 

This evolutionary predisposition may have been reinforced throughout the birds life, if it encountered dogs, cats, raccoons, people with brooms, etc., and was successful in steering clear of the danger.  The important thing to remember is that…for the most part….chickens look for a high point to provide a feeling of safety from the baddies on the ground.  Luckily, chickens evolved in an environment where being attacked from above was a risk too.  To prove it, watch what a chicken does when you walk out in the yard and raise your hands up high…..they squat, duck their heads back, and swivel them in the ridiculous way that only chickens can….they are very aware of the 3 dimensions.

Now….back to Edwina the eagle…..smug and safe on top of your coop….raining devastation on all below.  Imagine what her reaction will be to a paper airplane flying over her head?  (if you had a trained hawk, it would be even more effective, but a) falconry is in a sad state of decline, and b) it’s REALLY hard to call a hawk back after she is released after prey…..Edwina may be a pain in the butt, but she doesn’t deserve to be lunch).  Now, if you could throw a paper airplane, or flap a flag over the coop (changing it often enough that the hens didn’t get used to it), the sudden increase of air-borne threats will very likely convince Edwina that there is safety on the ground, or on the perch in the coop.

Remember….almost all actions of hens is in response to something.  If you can figure out what, you are halfway to dealing with it. 

Sometimes picking leads to more aggression.

Unfortunately some behaviours, such as picking, can have many root causes, and are much more difficult to figure out and correct.  Still…anything that gives you an excuse to mess with your chicken’s heads once in a while is worth it!!

Mike the Chicken Vet

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