Chickens Grooming Pigs

I noticed a strange behavior in the pigs’ hoophouse today. I was adding bales of bedding hay when I became aware that pigs were coming in from their yard after taking a drink from the milk trough, and then just standing in the doorway. They’d wait there patiently despite all the other milling, snuffling pigs, as if they were expecting something. And moments later a hen would run over and start pecking all the drops of milk from the pig’s chin. Once cleaned, the pig would continue on its way to do pig things, and the chicken would attend to the next customer.

I’ve never seen pigs and chickens adapt to each other this way. I am accustomed to starlings and cowbirds using the cows as fly magnets during the summer. And of course there are all sorts of animal partnerships in the wild, such as shrimp cleaning teeth for fish and birds performing dental hygiene on crocodiles. But a chicken-pig alliance is a new one.

Pig Grooming 3

For all the years we’ve mixed hens and pigs, this is the first I’ve seen anything like it. If we were keeping young pullets with the pigs, I’d bet any chicken putting its head up to a pig’s mouth would find itself inside the pig. But these are all old, wily hens. We keep a small flock of retired laying hens in with the pigs during the winter, and we let them wander where they will during the summer to suppress the deer tick population around the house. We don’t feed these wild chickens; they do just fine foraging. And at least one hen has gone beyond foraging to create her own services economy. Maybe I should take a page from Adam Smith and be the first to posit the existence of an Invisible Wing in Chickenomics. I’m going to keep watching to see if the idea catches on with the other hens in the group.

Pig Grooming 4

The picture quality isn’t great, but notice the chicken working on the pig in the yellow circle, while the pig in the red circle stands waiting.

7 Comments on “Chickens Grooming Pigs

  1. There are so many mutually beneficial animal alliances. The ability to learn new practices is widely documented within both the wild and domestic world. I think if you can find the time to document this it would very helpful to animal behavioralist research. The proof of animal inteligence that might benefit the lives of millions of chickens and pigs all over the world.

    • It is fascinating to see something like this click into place. As far as intelligence, I am actually inclined to assign less intelligence to livestock than I would have before I started farming. With chickens and pigs I’m always amazed at the hijinks they get up to, but also astounded at the gap in intelligence between them and truly clever animals like crows and dogs, respectively.

  2. Pigs can’t lick their snouts so the pecking clean must be well appreciated, hahah. 🙂 We have a similar set-up, just that it’s mosquitoes the chickens peck off the pigs.

      • I’ll do my best (hgh-speed video recording needed haha)! I agree with Diane above, getting more documentation out there on animal behaviour. It is very fascinating. I’ve been documenting our sow’s nursing patterns, trying to understand her (and sows and piglets) to design the best set-up possible in our location. https://wp.me/p7PNtr-lJ

    • We know they aren’t doing it for cleanliness, so yes it must be something that feels good. They enjoy scratching and rubbing, but I guess they like pecking too.

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