Because a person will rarely see it happen unless they spend a lot of time around chickens, many people believe chickens aren’t capable of flight. However, chickens have feathered wings like most other birds and, unless their wings have been damaged or have been intentionally altered by a farmer, they can use those feathered appendages to lift themselves off the ground.
Though it might not seem likely from their shape and size, chicken and other poultry birds can indeed actually fly. Chicken “flight” is not what we typically think of when we say birds are flying since chickens usually can’t fly very high, very far horizontally, or for very long at a time, but they are able to lift off and take flight in some manner. Some breeds of chicken are much better at it than others, but most breeds can fly at least a little bit. A bird with a heavier, wider body will have a much harder time achieving lift than one with a thinner, lighter body. The length of the bird’s wings compared to its torso is also a factor.
Why Can’t Most Chickens Fly Well?
Most breeds of adult chickens have very small wings in comparison to their body size. When chickens are younger and don’t weigh as much, even the breeds which are not great at flying as adults are sometimes capable of achieving lift, at least a little better than they can later in life. In addition, chickens have heavy feet in comparison to most birds known for flight.
Even when they are grown, however, some chicken breeds have more than enough wing power to escape their runs and fly up into trees and barn rafters. Two reasonably common breeds, the white Leghorn whose name was made famous in cartoons, and the Rhode Island White, are both decent flyers and it is recommended that they be kept in covered runs for this reason.
Why Did the Hens at the Poultry Farm I Visited Not Fly?
In most chicken farming situations, especially those that are not free-range chicken farms, it is relatively common practice to further restrict a chicken’s flight ability in some way. Chickens can fly into trees and escape their runs quite easily if their ability to fly has not been restricted. This is primarily a nuisance, but birds can also injure themselves, damage each other’s wings, or scratch their handlers, and they could also make themselves more vulnerable to predators by getting outside of their protected area. Flight restriction is usually achieved by modifying a bird’s wings in one of two ways.
Wing Trimming or Clipping
The first method of disabling flight in a chicken is by trimming or clipping the flight feathers of its wings. Trimming involves cutting off part of the feathers from the longest part of only one wing. This procedure for keeping a chicken from flying is temporary and does not typically harm the bird. This hobbles a bird’s ability to fly until their next molt but still allows them to get enough lift to get away from predators.
If the bird is a very good flyer, it might be necessary to trim or clip the secondary feathers, but usually, only about half the length of the primary flight feathers are involved in this process. When done correctly, a chicken feels no pain when you trim or clip its feathers, as long as the cutting area is past the portion of the feather that is connected to the chicken’s blood supply.
One alternative to a clip or trim is known as brailing. Brailing involves binding a single wing of a bird with a strap or cord, in order to take away its ability to fly. The cord used in this process is known as a brail, which is where brailing gets its name. This binding procedure is usually performed on younger chickens and in cases where altering the wing visually is unwanted, such as with show birds. It is important to swap the brailing from one wing to the other every week, so as not to permanently injure the animal.
Why Don’t Free Range Farmers Clip or Brail Their Chickens?
Free-range chickens spend a lot of time in the open. Chickens have a large number of natural predators. Foxes, owls, hawks, coyotes, weasels, bobcats, snakes, and even domestic cats think chicken makes a very tasty snack. If a chicken is left out in the open with no means of flying at all, they make much more vulnerable targets for hungry predator animals. So free-range chickens are allowed to fly freely as a defense against being eaten.
How Far Can a Chicken Fly?
That all depends on the breed, of course, but chickens who fly well have been known to fly distances of around fifty feet. They can sometimes achieve a height of up to 10 feet! The record length of time for a chicken flight is a paltry 13 seconds, but the distance covered in that time was more than 300 feet. To put that into perspective, an American football field is 360 feet long. Can you imagine such a large bird flying that far in less than one-quarter of a minute?