Chicken Foraging Patterns
Observing our various chickens since spring last year, I’ve noticed some interesting patterns of behaviour about exploration and foraging. Different members of the flock have different roles, and gain status for success in those roles.
If there’s a hole in the fence around their enclosure, the hens try really hard to get through. This doesn’t mean they’re desperate to get out of the enclosure, as we can see because often the first thing they do when they get out is to look for the way back in. They just went there because instinct told them to.
But if the grass is actually greener on the other side, or there appears to be something else nearby that’s worth exploring, they’ll go further and see what’s there. The desired results seem to be good places to scratch and peck, or nice places for dust bathing. She’ll start eating/bathing and clucking about it.
Once there’s a hen outside, the roosters start calling for backup. They want us to come and bring the hen(s) back inside the fence, where they’ll be safe. Presumably that’s a newly-learned behaviour because calling for human assistance can’t be part of their instinctive system. If the hole is large enough for a rooster to get through, the point rooster (he’s the one in charge of guarding the perimeter of the flock and any outlying hens. In the layer flock, it’s always Russ) will have to follow the hen so she’s not unguarded.
If the hen appears to have found something worthwhile, the rooster checks the prize and the surroundings. If it appears to be safe for the flock to exploit, he makes a special call, which is a series of short, low clucks. The call means “I found a safe resource, come and get it”. Then anyone else who can get there will hurry over and start feeding (or dust bathing, if it’s a bath and not food).
In this process, the hen gains first access to the resource, and status for finding it. The rooster then gains status for calling the rest of the flock to “his” find. The status gains are a reward for behaviour that benefits the flock, and the flock gets the benefit of access to more resources with a low level of risk. The potential downside is that the exploring hen might get picked off by a predator. That’s sad, but the loss will only be one hen. The point rooster is more important to the flock, but risks less because a predator that could have got him would probably have just taken the hen earlier. The flock only moves to a resource that has been cleared by the point rooster.
This procedure maximises the flock’s access to resources in exchange for a minimum level and extent of risk, and the social rewards make it worthwhile for the explorers as well as for the followers. In short, it’s really smart.