Our ideas about chickens are all wrong: chickens’ behavior and intelligence

a smart chicken in a tree

Contrary to popular belief, chickens are intelligent, sentient, playful beings. People often find it as difficult to relate to birds as they do to fish, because they appear to differ from us in so many ways. As I result, they find birds like chickens difficult to show empathy for. But research shows that birds are a lot smarter and switched on we give them credit for. Bird experts, Marzluff and Angell, wrote a Psychology Today column called “Avian Einsteins” with a multitude of examples of their smart capabilities.

So, how smart are chickens?

Chickens are pretty smart. They have robust and vast abilities that are comparable to a human toddler.

Chickens have sophisticated sensory abilities. Chickens have a complex nervous system, and are sensitive to pain, pressure, and temperature, just like humans and mammals. Chickens also have highly developed visual capabilities and can see a broader range of colors than humans. Some breeds of chickens can even sense magnetic fields.

Chickens can count. One study from the University of Padova demonstrates how chicks can recognize difference in values. Researchers placed three objects behind a screen and only two behind another. The chicks would consistently go towards the screen with more objects behind it.

Chickens use complex communication too. Chickens have at least 24 types of vocalizations that they use for different scenarios. For instance, they have different vocalizations for a predator coming by water than by land, or to communicate things like, “let’s stay together.”

How do chickens behave and feel?

Just like dogs or humans, chickens have unique personalities and feel different emotions. They express themselves in varied and complex ways, demonstrating strong emotional and mental capacities.

For instance, chickens can dream. A study that analyzed the electrical activity of brains shows that birds like chickens experience wave-like sleep where they go through various phases. That means they transition through different mind states like slow wave sleep, intermediate sleep, and rapid eye movement sleep. This is just like humans!

Chickens can recognize others and treat others differently. On cramped factory farms, this often takes the form of a “pecking order” — chickens interact in a hierarchy where some chickens are more dominant or shy than others. They know who to avoid, and who to befriend.

Chickens are also empathetic. Their lives aren’t just about bullying, chickens can be quite nurturing animals. For instance, hens empathize with their chicks when they’re uncomfortable. In one study, researchers put stress on the chicks leading to a physical reaction in hens — their body temperature and heart rate would raise. A flight-or-fight mentality is activated when they’re under distress showing that they feel for their chicks. The idiom “mother hen” is accurate!

Chickens suffer tremendously on factory farms

Most chickens that exist live on factory farms, and most farmed animals are chickens. Chickens are much smaller than other domesticated animals like cows and pigs, so we need to grow and slaughter more of them in order to get similar meat. Plus, chicken meat consumption has been on the rise in most developed nations, as red meat consumption has slowed down. All together, chickens consist of 88% of animals raised for food and as many as 99.9% of farmed chickens come from factory farms.

Factory farms are large, dark, and long buildings; often cramped full with tens of thousands of other chickens. There, they don’t have access to carry out their natural behaviors like perching or nesting but usually, have less than a paper sized area to themselves. The environments are rarely cleaned leading to excessive ammonia levels from their waste product, it gets so bad that ammonia often fills the lungs of chickens and they die of “sudden-death syndrome” from breathing in their own waste.

Chickens raised for food have incredibly short lives too, just 47 days on average in the U.S and 42 in the EU. Their natural lifespan can be over 7 years. One chicken, named Matilda even lived to be 16 years old!

Chickens are similar to our companion animals

One important caveat to consider is how much of what we know about chickens is based on agricultural research, as this scientific review points out. The industry commodifies chickens and thinks about them in terms of productivity, even their welfare. This makes the research a bit murky. Chickens aren’t often observed as birds, in more natural or relaxed environments. Despite this, those that have interacted with chickens in less cruel environments (like myself) can confidently claim that chickens are smart, charismatic, and emotionally capable.

Just like when dogs or cats are rescued from less than ideal situations, they lower their defenses. They often start to behave less aggressively and more lovingly. In more relaxed settings, where chickens can exhibit natural behaviors like those on farm sanctuaries, they like to play games like hide and seek, to build cosy nests, and are even prone to start purring like a cat when you stroke them.

How to help chickens:

The best way to help chickens is to leave animals off your plate and stop supporting the factory farming industry. As part of our Million Dollar Vegan campaign, we encourage you to try vegan for Lent. A great place to start is our in-depth Vegan Starter Kit. Download it today to help move your eating habits away from eating chickens.

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Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash


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