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.
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.