Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Birds by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Birds by  Anna Botsford Comstock

Chicken Ways

Teacher's Story

dropcap image AME Nature certainly pays close attention to details, and an instance of this is the little tooth on the tip of the upper mandible of the young chick to aid it in breaking out of its egg-shell prison; and since a tooth in this particular place is of no use later, it disappears. The children are delighted with the beauty of a fluffy, little chick with its bright, questioning eyes and its life of activity as soon as it is freed from the shell. What a contrast to the blind, bare, scrawny young robin, which seems to be all mouth! The difference between the two is fundamental since it gives a character for separating ground birds from perching birds. The young partridge, quail, turkey and chick are clothed and active and ready to go with the mother in search of food as soon as they are hatched; while the young of the perching birds are naked and blind, being kept warm by the brooding mother, and fed and nourished by food brought by their parents, until they are large enough to leave the nest. The down which covers the young chick differs from the feathers which come later; the down has no quill but consists of several flossy threads coming from the same root; later on, this down is pushed out and off by the true feathers which grow from the same sockets. The pupils should see that the down is so soft that the little, fluffy wings of the chick are useless until the real wing feathers appear.


An anxious stepmother.

We chew food until it is soft and fine, then swallow it, but the chick swallows it whole and after being softened by juices from the stomach it passes into a little mill, in which is gravel that the chicken has swallowed, which helps to grind the food. This mill is called the gizzard and the pupils should be taught to look carefully at this organ the next time they have chicken for dinner. A chicken has no muscles in the throat, like ours, to enable it to swallow water as we do. Thus, it has first to fill its beak with water, then hold it up so the water will flow down the throat of itself. As long as the little chick has its mother's wings to sleep under, it does not need to put its head under its own wing; but when it grows up and spends the night upon a roost, it always tucks its head under its wing while sleeping.



The conversation of the barnyard fowl covers many elemental emotions and is easily comprehended. It is well for the children to understand from the first that the notes of birds mean something definite. The hen clucks when she is leading her chicks afield so that they will know where she is in the tall grass; the chicks follow "cheeping" or "peeping," as the children say, so that she will know where they are; but if a chick feels itself lost its "peep" becomes loud and disconsolate; on the other hand, there is no sound in the world so full of cosy contentment as the low notes of the chick as it cuddles under the mother's wing. When a hen finds a bit of food she utters rapid notes which call the chicks in a hurry, and when she sees a hawk she gives a warning "q-r-r" which makes every chick run for cover and keep quiet. When hens are taking their sun and dust baths together, they evidently gossip and we can almost hear them saying, "Did you not think Madam Dorking made a great fuss over her egg to-day?" Or, "that overgrown young rooster has got a crow to match his legs, has he not?" Contrast these low tones to the song of the hen as she issues forth in the first warm days of spring and gives to the world one of the most joyous songs of all nature. There is quite a different quality in the triumphant cackle of a hen telling to the world that she has laid an egg and the cackle which comes from being startled. When a hen is sitting or is not allowed to sit, she is nervous and irritable and voices her mental state by scolding. When she is really afraid, she squalls and when seized by an enemy, she utters long, horrible squawks. The rooster crows to assure his flock that all is well; he also crows to show other roosters what he thinks of himself and of them. The rooster also has other notes; he will question you as you approach him and his flock, and he will give a warning note when he sees a hawk; when he finds some dainty tidbit he calls his flock of hens to him and they usually arrive just in time to see him swallow the morsel.

When roosters fight, they confront each other with their heads lowered and then try to seize each other by the back of the neck with their beaks, or strike each other with the wing spurs, or tear with the leg spurs. Weasels, skunks, rats, hawks and crows are the most common enemies of the fowls, and often a rooster will attack one of these invaders and fight valiantly; the hen will also fight if her brood is disturbed.


"Well, who are you?"

Lesson VII

Chicken Ways

Leading thought—Chickens have interesting habits of life and extensive conversational powers.

Method—For this lesson it is necessary that the pupils observe the inhabitants of the poultry yard and answer these questions a few at a time.


1. Did the chick get out of the egg by its own efforts? For what use is the little tooth which is on the tip of the upper part of a young chicken's beak? Does this remain?

2. What is the difference between the down of the chick and the feathers of the hen? The little chick has wings; why can it not fly?

3. Why is the chick just hatched so pretty and downy, while the young robin is so bare and ugly? Why is the young chick able to see while the young robin is blind?

4. How does the young chick get its food?

5. Does the chick chew its food before swallowing? If not, why?

6. How does the chick drink? Why does it drink this way?

7. Where does the chick sleep at night? Where will it sleep when it is grown up?

8. Where does the hen put her head when she is sleeping?

9. How does the hen call her chicks when she is with them in the field?

10. How does she call them to food?

11. How does she tell them that there is a hawk in sight?

12. What notes does the chick make when it is following its m other? When it gets lost? When it cuddles under her wing?

13. What does the hen say when she has laid an egg? When she is frightened? When she is disturbed while sitting on eggs? When she is grasped by an enemy? How do hens talk together? Describe a hen's song.

14. When does the rooster crow? What other sounds does he make?

15. With what weapons does the rooster fight his rivals and his enemies?

16. What are the natural enemies of the barnyard fowls and how do they escape them?

Supplementary reading—True Bird Stories, Miller p. 102.


Parts of the bird labeled.

This figure should be placed on the blackboard where pupils may consult it when studying colors and markings of birds.

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