So, sometimes, it certainly looks like chickens breastfeed when the mama hen has all of her babies tucked underneath her. But do chickens breastfeed?
Do Chickens Breastfeed?
No, chickens do not breastfeed. Chickens do not have nipples or milk glands to nurse their young, as other mammals do. Unlike other mammals, baby chicks or chickens don’t need milk to survive.
They depend on their mother for survival, but her job is to keep them warm and protect them from predators. Chicks can survive on their own, which is why they are produced by the thousands commercially.
If fed milk, they will drink it. After all, chickens eat and drink pretty much anything!
I’m sure you are well aware that humans breastfeed their young! Mammals are known for nursing their little ones. Whales, seals, dolphins, elephants, bats, and kangaroos all breastfeed. However, chickens do not!
Why Do Mammals Breastfeed?
Milk from the breast of a mammal of the same species is considered the best way to feed a newborn. It is said to give the best nutrition and immunity to the outside world. Milk is considered to be essential for proper development and health.
But chickens have breasts. Why don’t they breastfeed? Firstly, chickens are not mammals. The breast of a chicken is a pectoral muscle and does not contain any breast tissue necessary to breastfeed. They do not have nipples or mammary glands.
In mammals, mammary glands cause the mother to lactate and produce the milk necessary to feed to their young. So, dogs, cats, monkeys, and squirrels all have the ability to nurse their young.
The breast of a chicken serves to help move other parts of their bodies, not breastfeed their young.
If you’ve ever hatched your chicks in an incubator or closely watched the process when a baby chick is freshly hatched out under the mother hen, you more likely than not know just how much instincts take over when it comes to that chick’s first few days!
Chick’s don’t need to be breastfed because they already know it all! According to this study, even blindfolded, baby chicks know how to scratch on the ground for food, a typical chicken behavior, and how to preen itself.
Mama Hens Raising Babies
Chickens are amazing. It takes only 21 days for a hen to incubate an egg for that egg to fully develop and hatch into a baby chick in most chickens.
You go from having a plain and regular chicken egg to a baby chick in three weeks. Chickens have wonderful instincts. Let’s dive in!
From the Egg
Before hatching, a baby chick will absorb the yolk of the egg into their body. This egg yolk sustains the developing embryo for the entire duration of the three weeks it is developing.
When it is hatching time, the baby chick takes in what is left. It provides the nutrients and protein for a few days after hatching.
The mother, hen instinctively knows this and is aware that her baby chick does not need any food or water for the first few days. Instead, she has a different focus. She must keep that baby warm. For this, she can use her breast!
Keeping That Baby Warm
A chicken’s body temperature is much higher than ours, which is why they fare better in the cold than they do in the heat.
Their bodies are anywhere from 105 degrees to 107 degrees. When baby chicks hatch, they cannot regulate their body heat, and it is paramount that the mother hen keeps them warm.
For many weeks, until they are fully feathered, the mother hen’s job is to keep the babies warm. As the chicks grow, the mother hen will take them in under her wing to provide heat and shelter.
If you hatch out your chicks and set up a brooder to raise them in, you must provide heat. It is recommended that the temperature around the bottom of the brooder be about 95-100 degrees for the very first two weeks of the chick’s life.
From here, you may reduce the temperature by 5 degrees each week until chicks are a month old. Instinctively, if the chicks are cold, they will huddle up together directly under the heat source.
If they are too hot, your chicks will all spread out around the edges of your brooder. Judging by the chicks’ actions, you will know whether or not to raise or lower the heat lamp.
Teaching Their Young to Find Food
During this time, the mother hen is not breastfeeding, but she makes sure that her young ones are fed and nourished. Chickens are fabulous mothers.
When chicks hatch, they are, for the most part, prepared to explore the world and to eat on their own with their mothers. Once the chicks dry off and rest up, mother hens will call their babies over to food and lead them to eat and drink.
She will demonstrate for them how to eat food and drink water and may even give them a nudge or, with her beak, pull out a few crumbles and tie them to the baby chick, coaxing them to eat.
Hens are persistent and will always put their baby’s needs before hers. She will also demonstrate how to scratch at the ground, searching for food and bugs buried in the dirt or coop bedding. The chicks will follow and very quickly learn how to copy their mom.
Protecting Baby Chicks
Even before a chick hatches, the mother hen is very protective of her eggs while incubating beneath her. She will take her chicks out into the yard or in the chicken run to explore.
If she senses danger, she will call them under her wings. If other hens or roosters try to harm the chicks, she protects her babies.
Chickens have a lot of predators, especially baby chicks. Because of their size, chicks are at additional risk. Some chicken predators include:
- Mice & rats
It is vital to help your mother hens out and keep mama and her babies inside the coop and run when the babies are tiny. The mother hen will do her best to protect her babies, but it can be challenging.
Showing Chicks the Ropes
While out and about, a mother hen will teach her babies how to find food and water in the great outdoors outside of the coop.
She will teach them how to integrate and communicate with the rest of the flock. She will show them how to dig and scratch for worms and bugs. The chicks become fully feathered at about six to eight weeks old and no longer need to be under mom for her body heat.
From here, the mother hen will let the babies go on their own and slowly wean off of following them around all of the time.
Different Breeds, Different Moms?
It should be noted that different breeds of chickens are said to be better moms than others! Silkies are always top of the list when it comes to the most maternal chickens out there.
Over and over again, they are known for their loving and caring instincts. Orpingtons and Wyandotte are also highly recommended for very nurturing chicken breeds.
Breastfeeding is not for chickens. It does, however, make for a funny cartoon. But do not be fooled. Just because hens do not breastfeed doesn’t mean they are not great mothers!
Hens know, via instinct, what her chicks need. She leads them to food and water, keeps them warm, protects them from predators and other flock members, and shows them exactly how chickens go about their days!
The phrase “mama hen” refers to a person who takes on an overly protective attitude. It is a huge compliment to chicken moms. They do a truly fabulous job at raising their little ones!