How the Hen House Turns: Imprinting and Dominance

How the Hen House Turns: Imprinting and Dominance
Column by Carolyn A. (Cary) Neeper, Ph. D.
Los Alamos

If you raise young birds with motherly attention from an early age, they are likely to imprint on you and seek you out for comfort and guidance for the rest of their lives.

People working with Sandhill cranes lead them through the air in small aircraft to get them to migrate normally. After raising Americia, the Rhode Island red, and Gwendolyn, the Americauna, in the house (as I described in last week’s story), I soon realized they would always regard me as their mother hen.

Red was the most connected – at first. She was the one to hop into my lap if I sat on a lawn chair while they were out in the yard. Gwen would soon follow, but she preferred my shoulder (See the ID picture above.) and she didn’t stay long. She was the more distant, less bonded one.

When Red died—six months after a close call with a bound egg—Gwen gradually sought me out more frequently. Then, when Lucy goose decided the lone chicken was odd bird out, Gwen would hop up on the bench with me and tuck her head under my arm, as if it were her mother’s wing. One day I waited to see how long she would stay quiet that way.

Usually, she would get bored in a few minutes and go off on her business, pecking around for goodies in the field grass. That day she kept her head tucked into my jacket for at least a half hour, before I got restless.

Now she rushes to me when I sit on the bench by the stock tank. She insists on burying her head under my arm if I try to put her down. The bonding seems a bit too strong, or is it a reaction to her feeling alone—the only chicken left in a flock of geese and ducks? Lucy gives Gwen a gentle nip if she gets in her way near a feed or water dish, but she rarely ruffles the chicken’s feathers. It’s puzzling.

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