By Frederick J. Dunn
As we all know, first came the egg, within the chicken, which was already within the egg (">
The egg pips, hatches, and walla! A chick is born... well, hatched as it were. Chicks are chicks male and female until the age of six weeks. At the ripe old age of six weeks, we now call chicks pullets (if female) and cockerels (if male). During the chick phase, they lose their down, grow rapidly and don their juvenile feathering starting at the wings and finishing at the head and neck. Exhibiting large feet, big heads and awkward bodies, they are truly things of beauty.
The stage of development and growth from 6 weeks to 5-6 months, for the purpose of this article, we will call the "teen" phase. So, what happens during this critical period? For starters, Development trades places with growth as a priority. The birds are not of full weight and conformation and should be slowed a tad by using feed formulated for growing and finishing. Chick chatter/peeping is replaced by an ever expanding vocabulary... no great surprise, pullets will be better verbal communicators than the cockerels, with a wider vocabulary. Young cockerels may begin to crow, or at least make some very strange avian articulations that can sound like a squeaky swing hinge, or a person thumped in the throat while gargling?
Social development, just as in teen humans, becomes key to their future status and in some cases, survival. The "peck" is firmed up... the peck being the social order by which all chickens will eat, secure perch positions and future mating rights. The top pullet will peck whichever other female she wishes to and they in turn will peck another subordinate flock mate and on down the line it goes until there a hen that is "pecked" and left to pick at bugs or grass rather than another chicken. Often pullets also subordinate a cockerel or two in their hierarchy. If this is a complete flock, females begin to favor certain cockerels and congregate around them. These young males learn quickly, that if they wish to be popular with the ladies, they need to find and point out food resourced for them, rather than gobbling it up for themselves.
Early sexual behavior also begins at this phase in a chicken's life... you may observe, if you have cockerels, what may appear to be raw aggression towards pullets. Without provocation, a male will dash at a pullet, only to tear feathers from her neck. The inexperienced poultry person may see this as an attack! It is not, in fact this is the equivalent to the little boy who likes a girl and rather than telling her about it, pulls her braids, or bounces a ball off her back at recess... he likes her and doesn't want to be ignored. There is no shortage of socially inept young cockerels. This also leads to dominant cockerels establishing themselves. Pullets will rush to and remain close by those cockerels which provide protection from the other neck snatchers in the group.
If the flock owner interrupts these often misunderstood behaviors, by separating members of the flock, then the social order ceases to develop and must begin again. In the absence of a cockerel, a hen will often assume the position of top bird in the peck and even may take on male traits in her dominant behavior. It's all to be expected and insures a comfortable social order in the end.
Chickens are far more socially interesting than many would believe... cage your birds and you will never know their natural social structure. Cockerels become defenders and providers, hens become valuable members of the flock social order, all established during the critical teen months (">
Frederick J. Dunn is a retired Navy man and a life long poultry man. He raises bees, emu and chickens in rural PA and is the author of the DVD Regarding Chickens. Fred is a contributor to Mother Earth News. Check out his website: www.fredsfinefowl.com to learn more about him.
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