Ever since she had laid her eggs, the hen had been acting moodily. She always did this when she had too many, so it was time to gather them up. The farmer found the hen on the nest, but suddenly something moved underneath her. What’s more, it definitely wasn’t a chick.
In April 2012 a social media user with the screenname Virnovus uploaded some astounding pictures to imgur. To be more specific, it all started with the OP’s chicken at their home in western New York. That month she had been particularly broody.
That is to say, she felt the call of parenthood and had the desire to raise chicks. This behavior is sometimes the result of a chicken who lays eggs and wants to see them hatch. However, that isn’t always the case.
Indeed, sometimes chickens can become broody when they haven’t laid anything at all. They have even been known to substitute stones for eggs and sit on them instead. Not only does this manifest as nesting behavior, it can also make them protective of that nest.
Moreover, the hen will often become very feisty during her broody period and warn off anything close to her eggs. She does so by ruffling her feathers and spreading her wings to make herself appear larger when faced with a perceived threat. In addition, she will also respond to them vocally.
That is to say, the brooding hen will make loud screeching noises as a warning to possible attackers. So that was the sight that greeted Virnovus when the OP approached the nesting chicken. However, what they found under the hen weren’t eggs or chicks.
Apparently, the original poster also had a cat that had given birth to kittens around that time. Virnova said that this – in addition to the chicken’s brooding – had an unexpected result. “The cat decided to have her kittens in the chicken’s nest for some reason,” the OP explained.
“When the chicken returned, she decided the kittens were hers,” Virnovus added. Obviously, the cat was also feeling maternal and tried to take them back. However, despite the cat’s best efforts, the chicken chased her off every time she tried to reclaim her babies.
Nonetheless, although they initially clashed over parenthood, the chicken soon reluctantly accepted the mommy cat. There was still some conflict, because the hen continued to believe that the kittens were hers, but she let the cat closer to her kittens. Eventually, she even allowed the cat to nest with her, albeit begrudgingly.
Needless to say, the chicken’s enthusiastic parenting would have been a problem in the long term. As a result, the OP had to step in and mediate between the two warring mothers. However, this didn’t go as peacefully as hoped because the chicken’s brooding instincts took over once again.
“We had to take the chicken away from the kittens, and she went nuts,” Virnovus explained on reddit. “We locked her up for a little while. [Then] the mother cat hid her kittens behind a hay bale where the chicken couldn’t find them.”
It sounds like a sad outcome for the poor broody chicken, but thankfully her story had a happy ending. “Eventually the chicken had three chicks of her own and presumably forgot about the kittens,” Virnovus reported. Still, what about the kittens? Did they miss their feathery mommy?
Well, they don’t seem to have been negatively affected by the experience at all. According to Virnovus, they grew up to be ordinary, well-adjusted kittens. “All four kittens are alive and healthy,” they said. “[They’re] scampering about the farm and seem to have adjusted just fine.”
The story sure sounds strange, but is the chicken’s act of substituting the babies of another species for her own that odd? Well, surprisingly, it isn’t just humans who adopt. Indeed, there are countless examples of chickens and other animals raising babies of a different species as their own.
Adoptions happen more frequently in domesticated animals, but they aren’t unheard of in wild animals, either. The concept is fascinating, but ultimately we don’t really know why it happens. Jenny Holland, who writes for National Geographic, has a theory, though.
She put the theory forward in National Geographic in May 2013. “Instinctively animals take care of young to help them survive and therefore pass on the family DNA,” she said. “So I think there’s some hard-wiring in there that leads them to offer care to another animal in need.”
“If it isn’t a relative, there may be some wires crossed, but I think the behavior comes from the same place,” she added. Furthermore, southern California applied animal behaviorist Jill Goldman has another theory. She thinks there’s an element of mutual benefit involved.
“In order for the relationship to be sustained, I believe both parties will need to benefit in some way,” Goldman explained. “How we define benefit is another matter. Social companionship in some cases may actually be enough of a benefit.” In addition, there may also be a chemical explanation.
“Moms might be more willing to take on youngsters,” she added. “[This is] because when moms have given birth, they have a high level of oxytocin – that bonding hormone.” Perhaps we’ll never know the real reason, but there’s still something we can learn from these animals.
That’s how to take care of one another. During these special adoptions, the parent doesn’t care that their baby looks or acts differently to the norm. The parent just has an overriding urge to take care of them – and that’s something to aspire to.