Description and Habits of Chickens
Chickens are also called fowl, or domestic fowl. An adult male chicken is a rooster, or cock; an adult female is a hen. Young chickens, while still covered with downy feathers, are chicks. Males less than a year old are cockerels; females are pullets. Castrated males are capons. A group of chickens, especially if closely related, is a flock. A group of chicks hatched and cared for at the same time is a brood. A hen incubating eggs or keeping chicks warm with her body is said to be brooding, or setting.
Chickens have compact bodies, sturdy legs, strong feet, and short, pointed beaks. Their short wings are not capable of sustained flight. Chickens are distinguished from other birds by the comb, a fleshy red growth on the heads of both sexes.
All chickens have a fleshy growth called a comb on the top of their head. Combs are usually more noticeable on males than on females, but all chickens have one. Combs are nearly always red.
Some experts believe that a comb helps a chicken to cool down. When humans are too hot, glands in the skin make sweat. As the sweat evaporates, it cools the skin and the blood that circulates beneath it. A chicken cannot sweat. But, the blood that circulates through the comb cools faster than the blood that circulates in the bird’s body. So a chicken sends more blood to its comb when it needs to cool down. The cooler blood that results helps the bird to lower its body temperature.
Combs come in many shapes. The simple, red comb seen often on roosters in cartoons is called a single comb. Some breeds of chickens, such as the Polish, have a V-shaped comb surrounded by an elaborate crest of feathers. Still other chickens have a small comb shaped like a walnut.
Under natural conditions, a pullet or hen lays one white- or brown-shelled egg each day until there are 10 or 12 in the nest. She then stops laying and spends most of her time on the nest until the chicks hatch out—a period of about three weeks. She does not start laying again until the chicks are old enough to look after themselves.
It is not necessary for females to be mated to lay eggs. Eggs laid by unmated hens or pullets are infertile, and are preferred for table use. Eggs for hatching purposes must be fertile. Chickens are polygamous, and on farms that produce hatching eggs there are from 12 to 20 females to each male.
By removing eggs from the nest as they are laid, farmers encourage hens to keep laying. Through selective breeding, hens are produced that do not brood, but continue to lay throughout the year. On many farms, hens do not incubate their own eggs; instead, the eggs are mechanically incubated.
If allowed to run free, chickens eat grain, fruit, insects, worms, slugs, and other kinds of vegetable and animal matter. Specialist poultry farmers control the diet of their flocks, in order to produce the best possible birds, and prevent meat poultry from eating material that tends to give the flesh an unpleasant taste.