Hildy the blind hen learns to forage April 5, 2013

If you haven’t read the previous stories about Hildy, let me introduce her to you. She was our blind hen, and one of our favorites. She lost her sight when she was young, and had only very limited vision throughout the rest of her life. From what we could tell, she seemed to be able to distinguish light and dark, at least to a certain extent. If you haven’t already, you can read the earlier Hildy stories in the blog about how our blind hen Hildy learned to adapt to life in the flock.

When she learned to come out of the coop, though, we worried, because unlike the other hens, she couldn’t see to forage… and she never did learn to go back in the coop on her own. That meant that when she came outside, she went without food, because she couldn’t go back inside to get to the feeders she was familiar with. And she just didn’t understand that food was all around her.

Hildy the blind hen

“You’re soaking in it!”

You’ll remember from my last story that with a lot of work and effort we were able to teach our blind hen to eat treats from our hands—but it didn’t solve the problem, which which was that if she was outside, she couldn’t forage to eat when she got hungry. Instead, she had to wait for us to come outside and feed her. It just wasn’t ideal, and we needed a solution.

Teaching our blind hen to eat from our hands was a matter of holding our hands up high enough so that she felt the food on her beak and recognized the feeling. She got that hang of it after that, and we didn’t have to hold the food so high. So, to teach her to forage grass, we tried lowering our hands so she got used to pecking closer and closer to the ground. This was complicated by the fact that if we held our hands too low, the silly thing wanted to step up on them and roost: it was her way of asking for affection. She especially loved to be held facing the sun–it was her favorite way to sun bathe, being held by mom or dad.

One thing that really helped in our endeavor to teach her how to forage was the fact that she had poor aim. Her right eye was completely missing, so whatever vision she still had in her left eye gave her, on top of everything else, terrible depth perception with the little vision she retained. She often missed what she was pecking at! So, she would peck at our hands low to the ground, and she’d miss and hit the yard instead. Many repetitions of this exercise meant that occasionally she would come back with a little piece of grass in her beak, by accident. And in her enthusiasm for the hand fed treats, she would occasionally swallow the grass.

YUM!

Hildy the blind hen, being cute

What is this deliciousness I have just discovered? Did you know about this, Mom?

From this trial and error learning, our blind hen Hildy eventually developed the ability and desire to forage. Naturally, she never learned to chase down moths or other bugs, and there were some things she still missed out on, like foraging wild blackberries when they were still on the bushes. But she could forage grass, which was always abundant, and her yolks finally started getting dark and tasty like the other girls’ yolks. Her plumage got glossy and her color improved. And it didn’t have to be JUST grass. She also could forage things on the ground, like fallen peaches or mulberries. She also loved spent grains from our beer brewing.

eating spent grains

A different speckled sussex hen, Gloria, here feasts on warm spent grains on a cold day.

One of the cutest things about her foraging was that she did it, well, backwards. If you watch sighted hens forage, they’ll peck around on the ground, take a few steps forward and peck a little more. They might turn and go in another direction, but they go in a forward motion. Hildy, by contrast, didn’t walk forward to forage. She went backward. Peck, step back, get bearings. Peck, step back, get bearings. She always pecked at a spot far back between her legs, and then stepped backwards, as if to make it easier to get at that spot. Then she seemed surprised at where she ended up. But when she pecked again, it was always far back between her legs… and she always followed it with a step backward.

Hildy the blind hen foraging

In this photo our blind hen Hildy is getting ready to aim her peck at the ground between her legs.

We used to be able to look outside and determine whether she was foraging or not by making note of whether she was moving backwards or forwards. What a cutie. We were never very sure why she did it backwards, but we loved to see it just the same.

Do any of your hens have unusual habits or mannerisms? Do they knock at the door or like to lay eggs in your lap? (Hildy occasionally did both of those things!). Please share in the comments.

5 Comments
Tammy/Our Neck of the Woods April 5th, 2013

Aww, I love how she foraged backwards. Too sweet. I am really enjoying this series on Hildy because I have a 3 1/2 year old speckled sussex who I believe has gone blind in one eye. She was pecked pretty bad a few months ago and recently her iris turned yellow and where her pupil was, it just seems to be eaten away and it’s white underneath. She can still see out of her other eye, but I can tell she is still trying to adjust. I’m glad to know that if something happened to her other eye she could still live a happy life.

Jack April 5th, 2013

I don’t have chickens or anything smart to say but I wanted to let you know that every time a Hildy story comes up in my reader queue it makes me happy. And then reading the story (and getting to share with my housemates) is further happiness.

We just bought a few acres, outside of “town” but we have had our hens since we lived in the suburbs. Ours would tap at the back door for treats, which from what I understand is not uncommon. However, if we ignored them, they would fling their bodies against the window that was behind the couch where we would watch TV! That definitely got our attention!

Kim April 5th, 2013

Whoo hoo!! More Hildy!!!
Out of my 6 chicks that hatched, I like the speckled sussex the [second] best!
( My most favorite is a little black chick. I wish I knew what breed it was! )
Blind Hildy is so smart! 😀

Carmela April 17th, 2013

Thank you for writing the series about Hildy. I just read all of them.Really wonderful. It would make a great children’s book.

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