Animal Self-Segregation

‘Birds of a feather flock together.’ But what does this mean about them?

Disclaimer: This post in its discussion of the phenomenon observed and  referred to in the title is not meant to impute or present any parallels or analogies to the realm of human behavior.

When I was given an assortment of 15 chickens last June (by a family that had apparently purchased them as chicks and donated them in frustration at “having to” medicate them heavily for a variety of ills real and imagined), I noticed something odd:

Members of the same breed hung around together, and separately from the other breeds, in their forays around my yard. Two black australorps, some barred rocks, a couple of ameraucanas.

I also have six Rhode Island reds, who likewise cloister together, but that’s attributable to their having been raised and socialized together since time immemorial (i.e., since they were hatchlings, two-three years ago. I get donated hens when, in their dotage, their laying has slowed down and the owners want to start fresh with more productive pullets).

Speaking of animals that hang together because they were raised together, four of my donated barred rocks turned out to be roosters, and they not only don’t fight one another, they congregate–preening together on the steps of my deck. However, from the same overall group of 15 I was given, the one New Hampshire red rooster is ostracized and is kind of lonely, not even having a female of his breed to pair with. He sometimes entices a black australorp hen to buddy with him, they being slightly similar in coloration.


Some chickens of mine from an earlier flock (a buff orpington and barred rocks–semi-self-integrating at the moment).

This breed self-segregation, as I call it, raises interesting questions. It seems to imply that the birds know what they themselves look like, so as to match themselves up with others of their breed (unless, perhaps there are other cues to their kinship, such as nuances of their vocalizations, scent or what-have-you).

If it’s a visual thing, one wonders whether they have more of a sense of self, individual identity, than we usually credit them with. Only recently has it been discovered that dolphins, at least, have this self-concept, recognizing themselves in mirrors and having a unique vocalization that identifies them as themselves and to one another.

Of course, recognizing other members of the same species for  mating purposes (or social aggregation for survival) certainly does not require a sense of self, operating at a more primal level and by more fundamental means.

I consider chickens somewhat non-entities from an individuation perspective, tending not to name them as they don’t seem to have sufficient identifying characteristics among their breed, or unique personalities. I know many poultry keepers will take issue with this, and I know one underestimates birds at their own risk.

Since avians are direct descendants of the dinosaurs who ruled the planet’s biospheres while mammals were little, furtive critters in the shadows, nooks and crannies, they had millennia of developing their cognitive and social selves (and corresponding brains) before themselves becoming physically diminished and relegated to specific niches of habitat.

I also saw recent reference, an article or broadcast report somewhere, to the fact that the epithet “birdbrain” should be considered a compliment, as birds’ brains have greater density of neurons than mammals’ do. And of course, members of the crow family have been verified as having significant reasoning and problem-solving abilities.

Be all that as it may, and even recognizing that chickens maintain complex social relationships such as hens’ pecking order and such, the self-segregation phenomenon stimulates curiosity.

I also observe exceptions to these groupings: The roosters will of course mate with the hens of any breed, and I have not noticed any preferences in this. On the other hand, hens of any breed like to pal around with a rooster in the yard (I have five), if they can secure the favor of one allowing them to do so … thus apparently enjoying both status and heightened protection.

Turning to my waterfowl: I have four geese (three geese and a gander) and, until recently, a mated pair of Pekin ducks, hatched last April. Just a few days ago, it appeared the male Pekin had either flown off or been snagged by a predator, despite the relative omnipresent deterrence of my donkey. (If the former, one could say he “self-deported,” in a nod to Mitt Romney. To those sometimes wondering at the disappearance of a family duck–or several–I remind them that e.g, where perhaps purchased as ducklings at a farm store, there is often a warning that ducks are essentially migratory birds and may fly off at will.)


The ducks, in happier times.

Now, for months, the geese and ducks have been engaging in low-grade warfare. Originally, the pre-existing geese would attack or intimidate the then newly acquired ducks. As the ducks gained their footing, they would sometimes turn the tables. Eventually, the two species achieved a bit of a truce–for example, taking turns in the wading pool, one contingent waiting nearby the bathers for their own opportunity.

However, they still maintained their species-specific groupings and separateness.

A few days later, with the duck moping around quacking loudly for her missing mate, things have shifted a bit. On one of my ventures outside, I noticed all five waterfowl hanging together in a little gaggle, with the lonely duck no further from any goose than they were from one another. (This photo shows only the geese. The “regal” male is the one restfully sitting. Interestingly, it tends to be the females who do most of the guard, watch-geese, enforcer work, even when not protecting eggs or goslings.)


They seem to have accepted her in solace, at least intermittently.

Back to the question of “sense of self” … shortly after acquiring Festivus the donkey, also last June, I noticed him a couple of times staring at the window in one of my sheds. At first I thought he was looking inside; he’s very curious, especially as to things I’m doing when I’m outside.

But I later realized he was looking at his own image in the highly reflective window pane. I speculated he was recognizing (and admiring?) himself.

Then a few weeks later, I had a visitor who parked her shiny new black SUV by the house, where Festivus, like all my animals, hangs out. Seeing his reflection on the side of her vehicle, the donkey clearly assumed it was not him, but a rival, and was acting aggressively toward it, pawing the otherwise unmarred surface of her car. She had to move it down the hill.

This doesn’t prove he didn’t recognize himself (or otherwise realize it was not his physical self or another donkey) in the other reflection; one might devise an experiment with due controls to try to suss out the question.

I used to assume that animals do not necessarily  recognize different individuals of other species, but I now realize that’s completely incorrect. Not only dogs cats and horses, but other barnyard and even wild animals certainly often do distinguish among different humans, etc., at least upon enough contact.

Why I ever thought to the contrary, given my knowledge that animals’ eyesight and other senses are acute and that their brains have such a sorting ability due to their own needs as social beings, remains a mystery.


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