chickens let you know instantly by their body language and their
" vocalisation "; clucking, how they are feeling.
In the wild the ancestor of the chicken - the Red Jungle Fowl -
needs a mixture of open ground and cover, safe roosting and nests,
food, water, dust-bathing facilities and no more than one cockerel
to six or eight hens.
They don't like vast amounts of bare, open space - or jammed, shoulder
to shoulder, in restricted areas.
Hens in particular, find the presence of a cockerel nearby greatly
reassuring and come to rely on him as a sort of avian guard dog.
How these requirements can all be met by the commercial keeping
of huge numbers of poultry is quite another problem requiring slightly
more than a guideline from supermarkets.
research on their humble chicken suggests that the cause of the
horrific feather plucking that chickens get in crowded surroundings
may be associated directly with an inability to dust bathe.
Several universities in different countries are working on this
and have found that, deprived of dry earth or anything suitable
to dust-bathe in, the birds become so unhappy they peck at the feathers
of their companions.
This can lead to serious wounds and eventually even to death.
is believed dust-bathing removes grease from the feathers of chickens,
just like chinchillas.
Chickens kept at semi-liberty or free range rarely feather-pluck.
Over several years,in our children's farm, we have never had a single
case in a multi-coloured flock of more than 80 hens. All of them
dust-bathe on a regular or daily basis.
Chicken welfare is becoming a subject of great concern to amateur
and professionals alike. The Scottish connection is provided by
Professor Brambell, whose committee laid down the original five
guidelines for battery hen cages in the 1960s.
I have long suspected that the size of the cages was not the fundamental
reason causing distress to the hens.
I wondered whether the lack of cockerels in presence or in ear-shot,
or some other bodily function such as dust-bathing, was of important
If you think back to chinchillas, which have been known to sicken
and die when deprived over a lengthy period of the opportunity to
dust-bathe, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that chickens can
suffer a similar sort of reaction.
The surgical removal of the tip of the top half of the beak so that
the bird can no longer peck in a precise manner is based on the
similar principle of the surgical removal of baby pigs tails.
It doesn't stop the fundamental cause of the disorder, causing chickens
to peck each other and pigs to chew each other's tails, just their
ability to carry this out.
Politics at the ZooPark
1999 I visited the Scottish Poultry Club Championship Show in Peebles.
saw several breeds and colour varieties I hadn't encountered before,
especially among the magnificent array of Polish birds.
I am now immersed in poultry politics - the avian kind, not the
years ago, for our 80-strong poultry flock at the zoo, we arranged
a sturdy set of roosting perches running at 35 deg from two and
a half metres above ground down to the floor.
a young cockerel moves "up the pecking order," he promoted himself
higher and higher each night up these perches.
after several months we find him roosting on the top spar and you
know he is "top dog";
reverse also applies - last year's dominant cockerel, a five-year-old
Silver Campine, is now so subordinate he has demoted him to the
his beautiful silvery cape, the "mane" of shimmering feathers, has
become dulled and greyish in colour.
feather appears to have changed colour - where it was pure white
before, it now has a black or grey centre.
only does this cockerel move our of the way of the more dominant
young cockerels - some of whom are his sons - but he poses less
of a threat to them.
year we hatch and rear a great number of poultry in our Children's
Farm at Glasgow Zoo including chickens, ducks, turkeys and pea fowl.
after time, I'm surprised at the lack of understanding of the incubation
process with many people thinking an egg automatically has to be
a newly-laid egg is not incubated, i.e. kept cool, it will remain
capable of hatching for up to six weeks if, of course, it is fertile.
drops off by about 20 per cent after six days, but if the eggs are
looked after and turned each day they remain reasonably constant
thereafter. Incubation only commences when the mother birds sits
in earnest on the eggs - going "broody" we call it.
the date at which she goes broody, it takes 21 days until the eggs
hatch in the case of chickens and 28 days for ducks, with pea fowls
and turkeys taking longer.
the mother is kept off the eggs for any length of time during this
period, perhaps by being accidentally shut outside, the eggs will
cool and may not hatch.
broody hen alters in other ways. A bird's feathers are designed
to keep her body heat in and act as an insulating layer.
she starts to incubate her eggs, she moults many of the feathers
on her breast thus creating a " brood patch ".
bare skin is then in direct contact with the eggs and the incubation
temperature soon rises to resemble that of a small oven. This behaviour
is completely different from that of birds of prey, owls, parrots
a hen starts incubating when her clutch is complete at about 10
or 12 eggs, these sorts of birds start incubating on the laying
of the second egg. As one egg is laid each day or every second day,
it follows then that the eggs also hatch in a staggered manner.
is nature's way of ensuring that any chicks reared by these species
food is short, either because prey is scarce or because of drought
conditions, in the case of many parakeets, only the biggest chicks
or perhaps just one chick, will survive.
have sponsored state-of-art "happy chicken" chicken houses
located near Sherwood Forest , Nottinghamshire.
According to Malcolm Pye, agriculture director for Premier Poultry,
they have used research from academics who have travelled to the
Far East to study the Red Jungle Fowl, the ancestor of all domestic
a result, they report: "We can tell when the birds are happy.
They express themselves by their natural behaviour , darting about,
dust bathing, foraging, and, in our view, they are happier."
birds live in large houses with verandahs and can move freely around
their terrain - a mixture of woodland, pasture, long grass and cover
crops. There is also an area of peaty, jungle-type soil, sun shelters
detail has been included to stimulate a chicken's natural behaviour.
Light levels inside the house are raised and lowered to imitate
natural dawn and dusk.
and humidity are also controlled to match a jungle atmosphere, with
Even the walls of the house are painted green to imitate jungle
surroundings while blue roofs depict the sky.
Fowl Compared with Domestic Chicken
were asked the following queries:
you be able to tell me how differently the domestic chicken lives,
for example, does the Jungle Fowl lay as frequently as the domestic
chicken, does the Jungle Fowl fly?
man has domesticated the Jungle Fowl, how different is the domestic
chicken from its ancestor.
is self-evident that jungle fowl lay nothing like as many eggs as
domestiacted chickens, because they have not been 'improved'.
Domesticated chickens have been subject to at least 3000 years of
domestication (probably much longer). 'Factory' chickens
selectively bred to lay are at one extreme, producing over 250 eggs
in a 365 day year; jungle fowl at the other, 2 clutches of 12-15
eggs, maximum per year! The jungle fowl flies easily and roosts
in bushes and trees (out of the way of ground-dwelling predators)
the most domesticated of domestic chickens will, in my experience,
'revert' to normal chicken behaviour quite quickly when given
the chance. We have released battery chickens into our Children's
Farm. After three weeks, normal behaviour is quite obvious. After
10 weeks all bald patches have disappeared as all the feathers regrow.
One such hen has now incubated and reared at least six clutches
of chicks. Under normal circumstances, such a computer-bred 'broiler'
would have been killed and eaten by the age of 10 weeks or so.
observations do not apply if they have been bred to appear abnormal,
ie. huge feather crests, or long feathers on the legs, or abnormally
short legs, eg., Barbu d,uccles breed.
discussion on domestic chickens was prompted by the following questions:
If one took the eggs away from the chicken would she continue
to lay until she had a clutch?
What is the normal 'laying' life of a chicken?
What is the natural life span of a chicken?
Is it 'kinder' to remove unfertilised eggs or let a chicken
lay a clutch of unfertilised eggs, and if the latter how long
would a chicken stay on the eggs before it realised they weren't
going to hatch?
Finally, you mention that if the chicken has been bred to be 'abnormal'
it cannot revert to its natural instincts. In what way has man
bred it to be abnormal?
these points Richard O'Grady responded:
think Richard Ryder's book on domesticated animals (I cannot remember
the exact title) may discuss chickens, or the newsletter of 'Compassion
in World Farming'.
some of the following may help -
Laying eggs itself presents no strain to most birds, be they budgies
or eagles. A 'battery' chicken asked to lay over 200 eggs
in a year - one a day - will suffer 'physical stress' if
deprived of calcium or minerals to a substantial extent (needing
these for the egg shells). In other words, if you keep taking
the eggs away, most domesticated chickens have been selectively
bred to continue laying. If you leave her with 10-20 eggs, then
she may - faced with a 'complete' clutch, become 'broody'.
Sometimes they will go 'broody' in the absence of significant
numbers of eggs, but, kept at semi-liberty as ours are, it usually
takes the stimulus of a full clutch to get them going.
normal laying life of a chicken can - from my own practical experience
- be up to 12 years, with gaps along the way of up to 3 months
at a time whilst the hen moults. However, in the language of commercial
egg producers, most hens are culled - sold or otherwise disposed
of - when they reach 15 months and start a serious moult because
maximum 'productivity' thereafter drops off year by year.
They claim margins are so tight they cannot afford to feed them
through the moult and if they are not laying at peak productivity.
The 'natural' lifespan of a chicken could be over 12 years.
However, even in the wild they are predated upon by everything.
An 'oldish' chicken looks like that and is likely to be
selectively picked out by a predator, plus its reactions will
be slowing down. One of our hens here, 'Rambo', is over
eight years already and still laying.
Removing eggs or not makes little difference to a chicken. Hatched
chicks are a different matter altogether, and most hens will defend
them vigorously, even to the extent of sacrificing their own lives
in the process. Unfertilised eggs should always be removed - and
eaten. Otherwise, the hen might go broody. She will diligently
sit on the eggs well past the 21 days incubation period, and may
only desert after 8 weeks or so when the eggs start 'exploding'
with build up of putrifying gases, etc., I feel it is kinder and
cleaner, and less stressful on the chicken, to ulitise the eggs
in an eco-friendly positive manner, and not 'waste' the
When I said 'abnormal' I wasn't referring to its instincts.
They will remain intact. However, a glance at any poultry book
will show you birds of strange shapes - tiny legs, frizzled feathers,
crests shading the eyes, long feathers on the feet and legs. Such
birds, try as they might, are unsuited to life in the rough and
tumble outside and would be very unhappy, and incapable of coping,
when faced with wind and rain and crows and cats, etc.
by peafowl of poultry chicks