The Importance of Mothers
A Sentience Article from

FROM Bill Crain, Cofounder, Safe Haven Farm Sanctuary
February 2022

Most of the chickens and ducks we have adopted have been motherless. But a few have had mothers, and these babies have shown us what the others have missed.

Photo by Donna Scott

Every spring our farm sanctuary receives one or two calls a day from people who would like us to adopt their young chickens or ducks. They usually purchased the animals from a farm supply store like Tractor Supply. The babies looked so cute peeping away under heat lamps, the customers couldnít resist taking them home. But they discovered that caring for the animals was more trouble than they anticipated.

In June, we also receive several calls ó about twice a week ó from schoolteachers. They explain that they ordered fertilized eggs from a company to show their children about hatching and development. The children watched over the eggs and babies, keeping them warm under heat lamps. But now the school year is ending, and the teachers cannot find the hatchlings permanent homes. The teachers, like the other callers, hope we can take them in.

But our sanctuary is typically filled to the brim with chickens and ducks. We rarely have room for more. Other sanctuaries are usually at full capacity, too. We give people ideas for finding homes, but frequently the chicks and ducklings are simply abandoned. People tell us that they have seen them on the roadsides and in woods.

Our sanctuary, working with Dr. Karen Davis of United Poultry Concerns, is trying to make the public aware of the fate of so many of these young animals.

Inspired by a concern raised by Dr. Davis, our sanctuary also encourages people to recognize that the babies are growing up without mothers. Most of the chickens and ducks we have adopted have been motherless. But a few have had mothers, and these babies have shown us what the others have missed.

For one thing, mothers provide warmth and comfort. Heat lamps can keep babies warm, but they cannot provide the full comfort a baby receives when nestled under a motherís feathers. True, motherless chicks and ducklings huddle together, but they are too small to substitute for a motherís body.

In addition, mothers offer protection. When a baby dives underneath a motherís feathers, the baby hides from threats in his or her surroundings. A baby under a heat lamp is always exposed.

As babies grow, mothers protect them by making sure they donít roam too far. This was clearly demonstrated on our farm by a chicken whose daughter was congenitally lame and unusually small. The mother always kept her tiny child very close by. When she felt the youngster had wandered too far, she rushed over, gave her child a peck, and nudged her back.

In the barn, the motherís actions kept her child from venturing into areas where a turkey or goat might inadvertently step on her. Outdoors, the henís behavior prevented the youngster from going too far to get back in case a predator appeared.

Animal researchers have found that chicken hens display an innate rescuing instinct, and we also have seen this on our farm. When a chick has fallen or got stuck in a bush, the chick has emitted a high-pitch distress call that prompted the hen to rush to the babyís aid. Our motherless chicks are more helpless. They are more alone in the world.

Teachers want students to learn about animal birth and growth. This is a great goal, but students can only learn so much from motherless babies. They donít learn how babies hide in their motherís feathers, how mothers keep their babies nearby, or how mothers rescue them.

Although a farm sanctuary offers many opportunities to learn about animal behavior, the ideal setting is a speciesí natural environment ó the wild. On our farm, the setting that is the most open and wild is our large pond. Among the animals there, the most visible are mallard ducks, and I have spent hours watching them.

On several occasions, I saw a mother lead her babies to a shore where they energetically pecked for food. They acted like they were starving. But sometimes, for reasons unknown to me, the mother suddenly went into the water and began to swim away. Every time, the ducklings stopped foraging and followed her into the pond. They obviously wanted to eat, but the urge to follow their mother was stronger. If we were able to hold a conversation with them, Iím sure they would tell us, ďNothing is more important than my mother.Ē

Bill Crain is the founder, with his wife Ellen Crain, of Safe Haven Farm Sanctuary in Poughquag, New York.

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