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Six Fascinating Facts About Chickens

September 13, 2016

Story at-a-glance

  • Chickens are capable of many skills that typically are only accomplished in children aged 4 and older
  • Chickens demonstrate self-control in the form of the ability to delay gratification (refusing food now to receive more food later on)
  • Chickens show behavioral flexibility, can navigate using the sun at just 2 weeks old, appear to have some understanding of physics and even have the ability to plan ahead and show empathy

By Dr. Becker

Eight billion chickens are consumed in the U.S. each year and, unfortunately, the majority of these spend their short lives living in unsanitary, crowded and inhumane concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).1

This type of intensive livestock rearing is unsustainable, destructive to the environment and, above all, incredibly cruel to the chickens, especially when you even scratch the surface of these birds’ cognitive and emotional capacities.

Unbeknownst to many, chickens are quite intelligent, sentient beings that deserve basic protections allowing them to live as chickens should — with access to the outdoors and room to roam, at a bare minimum.

Fascinating Chicken Facts

Chickens are often viewed as solely a source of food, but they’re so much more. Following is a sampling of facts about chickens that will likely change the way you see these birds from now on.

1. Chickens May Be Smarter Than Toddlers

“The Intelligent Hen” study revealed that chickens are capable of many things that typically are only accomplished in children aged 4 and older.

Among them, distinguishing numbers up to five and using transitive inference, or the idea that if A is greater than B and B is greater than C, then A is greater than C.

They have also demonstrated self-control, in the form of the ability to delay gratification (refusing food now to receive more food later on).

They also show behavioral flexibility, can navigate using the sun at just 2 weeks old, appear to have some understanding of physics and even have the ability to plan ahead and show empathy.2

2. Chickens Speak Their Own Language

Chickens make at least 30 different sounds, including “cluck,” “pok,” “brawk,” and “squawk,” each with its own translation. They make different sounds for attention, food, warning about predators (even distinguishing between flying or ground-based predators) and more.

According to Seeker, “Hens start talking to their chicks in soft tones while they are still in the egg — if you listen close you can hear them peeping back from inside the shell.”3

3. Chickens Feel Empathy

Female chickens showed signs of distress and anxiety when their chicks were put in a stressful situation. This demonstrated that the birds “possess at least one of the essential underpinning attributes of empathy,” which is the ability to be affected by the emotional state of another.4,5

4. Chickens Dream

Chickens’ sleep patterns are very similar to mammals’ sleep patterns (even though they’re more closely related to reptiles and amphibians).

They have REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which is when dreaming occurs, although it only occurs for a few seconds at a time (compared to minutes to an hour in humans).6

5. Chickens Are Choosy

When choosing a mate, hens tend to prefer mates with the largest, brightest red combs (on top of their heads), which may be an indicator of the rooster’s health status. It’s thought the waddle (the red bits under their chin) may help attract a hen’s attention initially.7,8

Interestingly, hens have a habit of mating with several roosters at a time nonetheless, but, as Seeker reported, “have the unique ability to eject the sperm of inferior roosters after copulation … ensuring that their genes will be coupled only with the most studly cock around.”9

6. Chickens Live in a Complex Social World and Can Problem-Solve

Chickens are far more intelligent and social than many people realize. Science has shown, for example, that chickens use highly complex forms of communication, similar to those used by primates and ravens, as well as:10

Engage in self-assessment and compare themselves to others in their group

Recognize up to 100 individuals by physical features as well as recognize their social status

Coordinate group activities, such as foraging and nesting

Have long-term memory of events and retain and apply past learning

Express emotions like grief, fear, enthusiasm and boredom

Engage in pleasure-seeking behaviors like dust-bathing and sun-bathing

In her book, “Chicken,” Annie Potts also pointed out that there are many complexities about chickens that humans may never completely understand:11

“While chickens display feelings comparable to those of humans (such as grief, fear or happiness), they no doubt also possess their own exceptional forms of emotion and consciousness that even the most rigorous scientific tests may not begin to uncover — simply because these inimitable perspectives of chickens do not register conceptually or experientially within the human domain.”

Support Farmers Raising Chickens Humanely

Chickens are easily among the most exploited species and, in my opinion, if we are going to raise animals for food, we must do it humanely. No animals should be raised in inhumane CAFO settings. As noted by Free From Harm, a non-profit organization promoting farmed animal rescue, education and advocacy:12

“From the hatching stage through the raising and slaughtering of chickens, the science presented … confirms that chickens exploited for meat and eggs endure a staggering degree of physical and psychological suffering.”

One of the simplest ways you can help is by boycotting all poultry and eggs raised on CAFOs and, instead, supporting farmers that are raising chickens the right way, with the ability to forage, nap in the sun, scratch in the dirt and, simply, be a chicken. Most chicken products in commercial pet foods are sourced from CAFOs, so be sure to find humanely raised products for your pet’s food, as well as your own.

In addition, if you have the space, time and the inclination, you might even consider raising a backyard flock of your own, which will allow you to get to know many of the fascinating facts about chickens firsthand.

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Sources and References

  • 1 Purdue University, Food Animal Education Network
  • 2 The Telegraph June 19, 2013
  • 3, 9 Seeker March 26, 2016
  • 4  Proc Biol Sci. 2011 Oct 22;278(1721):3129-34
  • 5 Daily Mail March 9, 2011
  • 6 Your Chickens April 6, 2014
  • 7 Smithsonian November 3, 2009
  • 8 Animal Behaviour December 2009, Volume 78, Issue 6, Pages 1433-1440
  • 10, 11, 12 February 7, 2014
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