It takes a special mom to raise a foster chirp

Chickens and turkeys are completely different.  I know you know this, but I mean completely, not just in appearance.  Turkeys have different food requirements, different heat requirements for raising the young, and they speak a different language. They grow at a different rate and have different behaviors.  The chances of a hen successfully raising poults (baby turkeys) are pretty minimal, but here’s the story of one who does.

Mulberry is a run of the mill silkie chicken.  I guess silkies aren’t run of the mill in general, looking a lot like little fluffy bunnies with black skin and blue ears.  She’s a tiny little thing, as most silkies are, probably not much bigger than a softball under all that fluff.  Her feathers are missing the stiff bits (barbicels) so the result is a soft, downy chicken that can’t fly.  Silkie feathers run all the way down to their feet which have five toes.  Other than all that, there is nothing special about Mulberry, except that she is an awesome mom.

Most chicken folk will tell you that giving a strange chick to a broody hen is a risky thing to do.  You want to sneak in to the coop at night, and carefully tuck the chick underneath the hen while she’s sleeping.  You’ll also need to watch them for a few days to make sure she doesn’t reject the new baby.  Rejection can happen by pushing it out of the nest and letting it die of cold, or brutally pecking it to death.  It’s no wonder that it’s not to be approached without a backup plan.

Mulberry, on the other hand, seems to have a desire to raise all things feathered. I have given her strange chicks by putting them in the nesting box with her in the middle of the day.  She just waits patiently for the chick to tuck up underneath her and settles down to keep the baby warm until it’s ready to come out.  I think she’d probably raise mice if I gave them to her.

Mulberry the momMulberry the SilkieCredit: JestMe

Last year, on a whim, I decided to try raising a turkey (for dinner, no happy ending here), so I came home from the store and plopped the baby turkey in with Mulberry and her chicks.  Mulberry sat there placidly while Drumstick scooted herself underneath the feathers.  Easy enough, right?  It’s not like she has to do anything but keep them warm.  Well, not quite.  A mother hen spends quite a bit of time communicating with her brood; calling them for treats, comforting them when they’re frightened, putting them down for a nap when it’s cold, everything a good mom should do.  It’s adorable to watch a hen raise her chicks.

But what happens if one of the chicks doesn’t understand what mom is saying?  It’s a bad thing if you don’t know what “Danger!” means, or you’re cold and you don’t know what to do.  Turkeys are not the brightest, and the poults will stand in one spot fussing, presumably till they die, if something isn’t done.

Mulberry and Drumstick coming in for special treatsCredit: JestMeI’ve read stories of farmers trying to convince a hen to raise other fowl, only to have disaster happen because the babies didn’t understand mom and died of exposure.  Mulberry, however, had no intention of letting that happen. I would sit on the deck and watch her in the yard with her chicks happily, and safely clustered around her learning how to forage, while Drumstick wandered off across the yard peeping in panic because mom was behind her and couldn’t be seen.  Mulberry would call out with increasing volume, but it wasn’t until Drumstick turned around and saw her that she’d run back to warmth and safety.  Sometimes, if she were getting too far away I’d go out and turn her, but eventually Mulberry figured out that this was a problem that she would need to deal with.

peep peep peep PEEP

After spending a few days watching her foolish daughter wander off, Mulberry seemed to realize that this poor child would never come when called.  Instead of abandoning her to the cold, Mulberry followed her around, and the chicks followed Mulberry.  When Drumstick was cold, everybody stopped.  When Drumstick saw something fascinating across the yard, everybody went to look.  Somehow Mulberry managed to keep everyone warm, safe and fed until they were old enough to start taking care of themselves.

Drumstick the turkeyCredit: JestMe

Mulberry weighs about a pound, and in a few short weeks, Drumstick was bigger than her mom.  Still a baby, however the poult would stuff herself under the hen, frequently leaving a feathered behind sticking out because she just didn’t fit.  Poor Mulberry would do her best to stretch out a wing and extend the blanket, but there’s only so much a little silkie can do to cover a growing turkey.  As the weather got warmer and Drumstick got bigger, she no longer needed to tuck under mom for warmth although she would sometimes stick her head under Mulberry’s wing for a while.  Comfort, maybe? 

The kidsCredit: JestMeThe chicks also developed feathers and, with the nature of children everywhere, tried to copy each other.  Turkeys fly, chickens not so much.  I’ve seen my chickens fly up to a roost, or do a half fly/half run panic travel across the yard when frightened.  None of them has ever flown just to fly, except for Drumstick’s sisters.  They did their darndest to copy the turkey, flying across the yard at five or six feet in the air.  Weirdest thing I’ve ever seen to watch a bunch of young hens flying from place to place.

Eventually they all outgrew babyhood. The pullets gave up flying for egg laying and Drumstick – well, you know what happened to Drumstick.

And here it is, spring of another year, and I’ve just put three baby turkeys in with Mulberry.  They were scared to death of her at first and I had to pick her up to put them underneath.  Once they clued in to the warmth and soothing purr she does, the poults settled down for a nap, and Mulberry spread her wings, puffed out her chest, and settled down, happy that once again she has babies to raise.