Hens and Chicks

http://www.motherearthnews.com/nature-and-environment/hens-and-chicks.aspx

Now I'm not trying to make anybody angry, here, and I could be completely wrong about this, but my chickens seem to believe in evolution.

Last year only about 20 percent of the chicks hatched by my hens survived to adulthood. That's because I did very little to help them stay alive. Faithful to my commitment to do as little work as possible, I left their care up to the hens. It was disappointing when the little critters disappeared, but I was kind of curious to find out if the survivors were going to be a different sort of chicken, or whether it was just luck.

We started this flock three years ago with a mixture of a dozen different breeds from the hatchery, most of them roosters. We saved the two roosters we liked the best. The next year we bought a dozen Araucana hens. With the first two year's grown-up chicks, including one particularly beautiful homegrown rooster, we now have about 40 hens and three roosters.

There's a wide range of determination among the hens. Most of them show barely any inclination to "brood," or "set" on, a clutch of eggs. A few of them are dedicated brooders. The only time they don't want to brood is when they have chicks, or in the depths of winter. When one of my hens is sufficiently determined, I let her stay on her clutch of eggs and I load up her nest with the eggs from all the other nests that day so she can hatch as many as possible. Obviously, the parentage of the chicks is unknown. We had three roosters and about 30 hens last year.

Last year we hatched about 80 chicks and about 15 of them — about 20 percent — survived to adulthood. Seven of those were roosters, and we ate all but one of those.

So now about a third of our hens and one of our three roosters were born on the farm.

I don't do any of the stuff the poultry books tell you to do in order to maximize your survival rates. When the chicks hatch, I give them a day or so in the nest box with Mom, then I pull the hen and chicks out (if they haven't already jumped) and dispose of the unhatched eggs.

From then on, it's up to the hen. Like I said, the early results the first year weren't all that hot. The moms seemed to pay due attention, but before the youngsters got big enough to run, 80 percent of them had disappeared.

The first thing we noticed this spring was that all but one of the mother hens that brooded, hatched and mothered a little flock were hens born and raised at our place. In the first round this spring, two little cross-bred hens hatched 18 chicks.

Four months later, all 18 chicks are alive.

Since then, our homegrown hens have hatched another 20-or-so chicks. So far as I can tell, none of them has lost a chick.

Now there are many possible reasons for this dramatic improvement. Maybe we had a predator in the neighborhood last year who has since moved on. Maybe one of the dogs or cats has experienced a change of taste.

There's nothing all that different in the way the homegrown hens behave around the chicks  or maybe I'm not watching closely enough. One of these years, maybe I'll move into the yard with my binoculars and make a study of it.

But I figure the reason our homegrown hens are so much more successful than our hatchery hens is simply that all the little things that make a chick a survivor are exemplified in the homegrown birds. After all, 80 percent of their siblings didn't make it. There must have been something special about the remaining 20 percent, and they are passing that something along to their offspring.

It starts to sound suspiciously Darwinian, to me.

Photo by Bryan Welch