If you are skeptical about the remarkable intelligence of chickens, read on.
While most people are well aware of the cunning genius of many birds, including ravens, African greys parrots, and crows, the dazzling brilliance of chickens has been largely overlooked. Recent scientific studies, however, are revealing just how bright and empathetic these beings really are.
Chickens may only have walnut-sized brains, but those brains are still quite advanced. With impressive problem-solving skills, a profound understanding of cause-and-effect relationships, a basic grasp of arithmetic and math, and the ability to navigate puzzles or mazes to access food, chickens are much more resourceful and communicative than most people realize. Not only do these birds possess surprising cognitive abilities, but they are also extremely social – maintaining complex relationships and forming deep bonds both with birds within their flock and with humans.
If you are curious about how smart chickens really are, here is everything we know about their intelligence.
All social beings have evolved to communicate effectively. To the untrained human ear, chickens simply cluck or squawk. But if you know how to listen properly, you may begin to discern a more sophisticated avian language at play. In flocks, chickens talk to one another – conveying information and expressing a variety of emotions using distinct calls. For instance, some sounds warn against imminent threats while others signal the discovery of food – offering an invitation to join in on a feast. As mothers, broody hens emit repetitive, rhythmic noises – including purring – to comfort and keep their chicks safe and secure.
On top of vocalizations, chickens demonstrate a diverse array of body language and visual cues to share their thoughts and feelings. With proper observation, it is possible to become fluent in reading these gestures. For instance, chickens may spread their wings to assert dominance or ruffle their feathers and puff themselves up when they are excited, aroused, or engaged in social activities.
Similarly, from head to tail, they use their bodies to send messages. Nodding or bobbing their heads is usually a friendly overture, whereas they may jerk their heads in response to a threat. Like dogs, chickens also use their tails to disclose their feelings. A raised tail, for instance, is a sign of attentiveness or excitement, while a lowered or tucked one reflects submission or fear.
Chickens have close relationships and take turns preening and grooming each other’s feathers to create intimacy and trust within the flock. Chickens likewise participate in communal dust baths to solidify social ties. Furthermore, chickens share resources and communicate well about doing so. As a case in point, they often peck at the ground or scratch the soil as a means of asking their fellow chickens to notice something important, like food.
Scientists believe that chickens’ communication skills are on par with many primates – proof that they are not bird-brained at all.
Pecking Order: Not Simply Avian Mean Girls
Despite the colloquial use of the term, chickens really do have a pecking order. To establish their place with this social structure, dominant chickens assert their authority by pecking, spreading their wings, and puffing their chests. Subordinate chickens, conversely, yield by avoiding direct eye contact, crouching, and moving away from those in charge. Leaders make their influence and rule very clear. In turn, followers acquiesce.
While this may all sound like an avian version of Mean Girls, this hierarchical mechanism isn’t just a way of hazing or gaining popularity à la Regina George. Instead, the pecking order is a social system that benefits everyone in the flock. It assures the fair allocation of resources, provides each member with adequate space, prevents excessive aggression, and promotes harmony. Ultimately, having the right leadership reduces conflict, enhances predator detection, and buttresses the entire flock’s survival. An established pecking order is thus actually pretty clever.
While it exists to create stability, the pecking order is far from static or inflexible. Instead, social relationships are dynamic and the chain of command is subject to change. When new chickens arrive or once younger birds mature, flocks often reevaluate, reestablish, and shift rankings. This fluidity makes it possible for flocks to adapt and succeed.
Just like humans, chickens feel. Deeply. They experience a spectrum of intricate negative and positive emotions – including fear, anticipation, joy, camaraderie, and anxiety. And while their choices are guided by self-interest, they do exhibit a rudimentary form of empathy known as emotional contagion. Characterized by the synchronization of emotional states between individuals, emotional contagion enables mammals and birds to feel collectively. It also makes it possible to exchange information vital for survival. For example, acknowledging the intuition and feelings of other birds leads to heightened protection against predators and improved communal dynamics. Above all, at its core, emotional contagion forms the basis for empathy across species. Chickens’ empathetic capacity may not be as advanced as some mammals and birds, but they do share and exchange emotional states.
Beyond their ability to relate to one another, chickens display individual personalities. Blogs written by people who care for flocks attest to the wildly different characteristics and behaviors each bird possesses. Just as no two dogs or cats are the same, chickens demonstrate their own quirks, dislikes, and preferences. They are all very much their own birds with unique temperaments and demeanors.
Aren’t yet convinced that chickens are smart? You might be once you understand that they are capable of learning and memory. They learn from both positive and negative experiences, adapting to different situations and remembering specific locations or routines. Additionally, research indicates that chickens possess basic numerical and arithmetic skills. Counting and even solving simple math problems are well within their feathered reach.
Furthermore, chickens have shown some sense of time perception, anticipating future events like food delivery based on past experience. And they exhibit basic transitive inference – a type of deductive reasoning – that humans typically develop around the age of seven. Transitive inference is the ability to make indirect comparisons or draw conclusions about the relationships between two things without having a direct comparison between them. To return briefly to the pecking order for a moment, a series of studies revealed that chickens use transitive inference when gauging whether or not to challenge another chicken for dominance. The implication is that they employ logic and reasoning to determine when to fight for a higher status and when to step down.
Just like many birds, cocks, and hens engage in a series of elaborate mating rituals. As true Casanovas, roosters do everything in their power to attract the female hen of their dreams. Their tricks for wooing a potential mate include demonstrating desire by flaunting physical prowess. A rooster’s tactics might include puffing his feathers, raising his head crest, dancing, circling, and flapping his wing-flapping rhythmically. In essence, he works hard to underscore his health, vitality, and suitability as a partner. Vocalizations – like clucks, purrs, and softer crowing sounds – complement these kinds of visual displays. In response, an interested hen may crouch and spread her wings, as a way of showing openness to the rooster’s advances.
Not only are intricate courtship rituals in animals and birds fascinating to watch, but they are likewise a sign of intelligence – particularly since their execution implies a level of cognitive sophistication that extends well beyond basic instincts. During courtship, potential partners must read and interpret one another’s body language. If a particular behavior fails to get the desired results, they have to change course and try again. This means they are smart enough to date, so to speak – and doing what it takes to find a good mate.
Ethical Implications of Chicken Intelligence
Culturally, we tend to ignore, purposely diminish, and/or undermine the cognitive abilities of the animals or birds we consume. Chickens are no exception. Just like cows, pigs, and other creatures raised for food, chickens are often depicted as mindless or “bird-brained.” In reality, they are sentient beings worthy of respect. As we learn more and more about how animals think and perceive the world, we are beginning to view them as individuals. Studies – like the recent ones on chicken intelligence – increasingly raise ethical questions about how we treat sensitive and communicative mammals and birds. And this shift in perception has far-reaching implications for the tremendous suffering factory farming causes.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © slowmotiongli/Shutterstock.com
Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.