Forest Garden Organic Poultry - Symbiosis. Puting the Jungle back in the Fowl?

With the passing of each year, as our garden has become progressively more akin to a complete food forest, I have noted changes in my birds. In particular these are in the areas of relationships, nesting, the size of the flocks and feeding habits. What I have always sought however, is to illustrate by comparison, how much my birds have reverted to their 'natural wild selves', given the illusion of freedom of choice, I have always believed, a forest garden provides. As this is such a huge topic and uses at least four academic studies to compare to and contrast with my own field observations, I am breaking it down into several articles. There will also be a film.

Silver black-laced Polish rooster organic forest garden

The Very Handsome Silver 銀 in his natural habitat!

Introduction to the Four Academic Studies Referenced in My Articles

I was very lucky just recently to have come across four comprehensive studies of, in the main, the Red Jungle Fowl, which is thought to be the nearest direct wild link to the domestic 'chicken'. The first study was one carried out in North-Central India, in the Siwalik Hills (outer Himalayas), by the husband and wife team of Nicholas E. Collias and Elsie C. Collias. This was accomplished at a period, the 1960s, when there were many areas where true wild jungle fowl still existed. The study was published by The American Ornithological Society in 1967 and the link (as with the three other studies) will be posted at the bottom of the relevant blog posts. There will also be references to any other works used and where relevant, foot notes. The Collias's study is freely available on-line and also through JSTOR ¹. The second and more specific study, I found, also of the Red Jungle Fowl, was carried out in the breeding seasons of 1955 and 1956 in Central Western Thailand by Robert A. Johnson and published in The Wilson Bulletin in 1963 (this is also available through JSTOR). The third study I looked at and which was interesting because maybe it was nearer to my own birds situation, was one conducted in 1971 and describes: '...parental and courtship feeding in a free-living semidomesticated population'. This was carried out by Allen W. Stokes in an unconfined population of Red Jungle Fowl living in the 40-hectare San Diego Zoo. The fourth study was: 'A monograph of the pheasants', in four volumes, a field study carried out by William Beebe et al, between 1909-1911 and published in London, by H.F. Witherby & Co in 1918. It contained what was seen by many later researchers as the seminal work on the various Jungle fowl varieties which shared these same territories. This work is available freely for reading and download at The Internet Archive². As an added bonus this work also contains some luscious coloured plates and many photogravures, which give an insight into the habitat.

Mother and chicks foraging in an organic forest garden

A Head for Heights

I am not sure if studies such as the first two mentioned could be carried out today, as there have been so many encroachments into the jungle fowl's territory and so many instances, as noted in recent genetic studies, of interbreeding between jungle fowl and domestic poultry. Over half a century ago, however, there existed on the slopes of the Siwalik Hills, large areas of 'jungle' which due to the prevalence of large mammals such as tigers, leopards and wild elephants were particularly avoided by man. You might think that this would also worry the Red Jungle Fowl but as the authors explain: 'other big game animals, particularly leopard and cheetal (spotted deer), were common. The abundance of cheetal and langur, both favourite prey of the leopard, possibly served to reduce predation on jungle fowl by leopards' (Collias and Collias, 1967). So I'm going to break down my own observations into similar topics as those of the studies and pose the question whether the forest garden does indeed put the jungle back into the fowl! Let's start with the continuation of the theme we have begun to explore in this paragraph.

Symbiosis with other 'jungle' creatures

When birds do not totally rely on food from 'the farmer' or 'keeper' and have a feel for the wide open spaces, they seem to have a finer understanding of the other species that inhabit the same territories. There is also, perhaps not surprisingly, a symbiotic relationship between animals which are being jointly preyed upon, something which I have also noted within the confines of our own 'mini jungle'. I can readily believe that these 'comrades in arms' against a common enemy become aware of each other's language and danger signals as a matter of necessity. However and as this 60's study bears out, animals and birds not only rely on each others skills to complement their own but also seem to draw extra strength to survive in a given wild environment from knowing they are not alone. Thus with the chital, which benefit from the langurs' (South Asian Monkeys'):  'eyesight and ability to post a lookout from trees. The langur benefit from the chital's strong sense of smell-both of which help keep a check on potential danger.' (Collias and Collias, 1967)

Baby Thrush organic forest garden

The Next Generation of Little Helpers (Baby Thrush)

Red Jungle Fowl also have an awareness of the warning cries of the chital and languars according to the study. In a similar way my birds benefit from the abundance of wild birds in our forest garden, particularly the blackbirds and thrushes and their ability to see and warn of potential predators heading towards our enclosed forest garden. This is both from above or from the ground, thus over the walls or through the hedges. In fact in the early days we had a rather clever starling, which would mimic the blackbird's warning call. The starling would time this act to coincide with the moment I was putting out my then 'flock' of just three hens', breakfast. Thus hearing the cries, my three would run and hide, whilst the starling would regale himself on at least some of their breakfast before my poor hungry hens twigged as to what was going on!

Ardenner and Wyandotte cross hens - organic forest garden
 My first 'flock' when they weren't being harassed by starlings!

Hens as opportunists in an organic forest garden
Always the Opportunist - Wherever you dig a hole or trench, you'll find a hen ready to investigate it for food!

In their  1960's study the authors wrote that; 'The chital also benefit from fruits dropped by langurs from trees' (Collias and Collias, 1967). In a much more gruesome way, my birds will scoop up discarded small dead mammals, ironically left by potential predators such as our wild nocturnal forest garden visitors:  marten and stoats. These latter will often just suck the blood of mice and voles and thus the hens will find these small rodents, half-eaten or abandoned under bushes.

Similarly, the Red Jungle Fowl rather than being worried about wild elephants have a useful relationship with their, dung! This is much like smallholders here in France, who keep their poultry free-ranging with horses and sheep, as the birds will find free and nourishing invertebrate protein within the manure. This is a particularly valuable resource here in the early Summer when, after the heavy Spring rains have done their worst, our clay shale can be baked hard over the top soil. Horses and to a greater extent sheep, will also both clear areas of long grass and incidentally break up areas of soil to allow the chickens easier access with their beaks and feet. In 'the Hunger Gap', sheep will also dig up roots with their hooves, thus exposing more potential feeding areas for the poultry. My sister in Scotland also noticed an interesting symbiotic behaviour with one of her rehomed ex battery hens, which decided not to return to the coop each night but preferred to stay out on the moor with the ponies, actually roosting on one particular horse's back! As the heathlands have predators such as lynx, mink and true wild cats, this was a smart move by the hen.

Hen and chickens organic forest garden
I will continue this theme of comparison in my next post and hope you have found the subject as fascinating as I do. If you have enjoyed this article, then think about sharing it, giving it a plus or maybe joining the blog or my You Tube Channel.

All the best and hope to see you next time.


©  Sue Cross 2016


Forest Garden Poultry - Food. Putting the Jungle Back in the Fowl 2

In which I share and discuss comparisons between Jungle fowl diets, including favourite foods and that of our forest garden more

A Field Study of the Red Jungle Fowl in North-Central India, Nicholas E. Collias and Elsie C. Collias The Condor Vol. 69, No. 4 (Jul. - Aug., 1967), pp. 360-386 Published by The American Ornithological Society.

¹JSTOR - short for Journal Storage, is a digital library founded in 1995. It contains current and back issues of academic journals, books and primary sources. Access to some material is by paid subscription but a wealth of digitised, older, public domain content is freely available. You may also read journals and books on-site by placing them on your 'book-shelf', this is a free service if you choose the limit of three pieces of literature at any one time!

²The Internet Archive, founded in 1996 is: 'a non-profit (on-line) library of millions of free books, movies, software, music, websites, and more'.


  1. I am loving these articles, as I am trying to give my hens a more natural environment. Your first three hens were gorgeous...out of curiosity, what breed were they?

    1. Hi Alisa and thanks for your comment, I appreciate it and I am so pleased you are enjoying this series. I am absolutely fascinated by the Jungle Fowl studies and am so excited to see comparisons turning up with our chickens' behaviours! My first three hens were two sisters, Ardenner bantams and the colour is silver duckwing. They are quite rare and are little known outside Belgium, Holland and Northern France and now here in the North West! They are, according to a Dutch Chicken Encylopedia I have, said to take on the personality of the keeper, my two were completely different from each other and I am a Gemini! The other was a 'Dorothy', a unique breed, only known to be part Wyandotte and she was covered in little beautiful heart-shaped speckles on her feathers. I have only ever had another hen with similar (though not as well-defined) markings and that is Mille-feuilles and you can see her quite well in this film: from 2.53. I will be making a film of these articles too but I will wait until I have written more and I think as I have so much material it will stretch to a mini documentary! Good luck with your forest garden. I am in the process of making one inside the greenhouses for my quail and it is a fun exercise working out what to plant that they won't demolish in one fell swoop! I'm having great success with yucca and they love drinking rain water from the leaves too!
      All the very best from Normandie, Sue