Human language

It’s time to shake off our misconceptions about chicken intelligence

Interest in rearing backyard chickens increased after the onset of the pandemic and shows no signs of slowing down. As a chicken owner, I’ve had a constant stream of curious friends visiting my hobby farm to see my setup and ask how they can get started with their own flock. I was shocked at the kind of questions I was getting about my chickens. The persistent public misunderstanding of chicken behavior and intelligence is surely rooted in our relationship with them as a food source; we consider them as an agricultural product and not as an animal worthy of reflection.

But I spent a lot of time thinking about my chickens. As a scientist studying animal cognition, I feel compelled to help the public shed our misconceptions about chickens and see them for the complex – and admittedly somewhat comical – creatures that they are.

The biggest misconception that most visitors to my farm have is about something rather mundane: what chickens eat. When I tell people that I feed my chickens raw meat, their jaws drop. But chickens love meat. My hens are never happier than when they tear up a plate full of kitchen scraps with strips of raw pork or beef.

I think the image most people have of chickens is of birds pecking at a tray full of corn. Many supermarkets and restaurants advertise “corn-fed chicken” as a superior type of meat, which surely contributes to the widespread idea that chickens are corn-loving vegetarians. But this is obviously false. Chickens are omnivores: they eat both vegetation and meat.

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My hens have access to a huge fenced area where they tear up the ground looking for worms and insects. Chickens also eat lizards, frogs and even mice. Like many chicken owners, I have seen my chickens at their closest velociraptor when they were fighting over access to a mouse they had killed. The idea that chickens are nice little vegetarians has nothing to do with reality; a reality in which a chicken would surely kill and eat a human if it were only an order of magnitude larger.

The image we have of chickens scurrying through a dusty farmyard also gives a false picture of the kind of animal they are. Chickens are jungle birds; happiest when surrounded or perched in trees. Most people don’t think of chickens as tree-loving animals, but that’s another misconception that needs to be debunked.

In the wild, adult chickens prefer to roost as high in trees as possible, reaching up to 40 feet. Domestic chickens are no different: they would like to be up in the trees at night.

My chicken coop has ceilings almost ten feet high, with tree-like branches that I have installed about eight feet in the air. This is where my chickens go to roost at night. No doubt they would prefer to perch even higher if I had room. Visitors are amazed if not shocked when they see my hens happily perched in the rafters. Most backyard chicken coops are only a few feet off the ground, and some large commercial operations have no roosts for their chickens at all (which is illegal in some countries due to welfare laws). be). Chickens sleeping on the ground or on small perches is, from the perspective of an animal behavior researcher like myself, a crazy and ridiculous situation. Free-range chickens are, for all intents and purposes, the same species of bird as their wild ancestor: the red waterfowl. These wild chickens want nothing more than to avoid the ground at night, where they are vulnerable to a number of predators. In the wild, adult chickens prefer to roost as high in trees as possible – reaching up to 40 feet (12 meters). Domestic chickens are no different: they would like to be high in the trees at night, which is why my unusually high perches aren’t all that unusual to a chicken.

You might be wondering how chickens manage to climb so high in the trees if they can’t fly. This is another misconception that needs to be revised. Chickens can and do fly, but over short distances. And it’s not just that they flap their wings to slow their descent. Chickens are able to reach the elevator – rising in the air. My hens climb up the rafters, hopping from branch to branch. Of course, not all races can fly to the same extent. Some breeds are heavier than others, with meat chickens being bred to have extra muscle mass which makes them unable to walk, let alone fly. It won’t take you much searching on TikTok, Instagram or YouTube to find hundreds of videos of chickens hovering in the air.

The saddest misconception for me is the pervasive idea that chickens aren’t smart. It’s a sentiment I often hear from visitors to my farm. I suspect that the public’s belief in chicken stupidity is a defense mechanism developed over our long history of raising and eating chickens. It’s much easier to justify eating a stupid animal. But as many backyard chicken owners can attest, there’s a lot more going on in a chicken’s mind than most people realize. Scientists who study the minds of animals are well aware of the cognitive complexity of chickenbut this information is slow to enter the public consciousness.

Visitors to my farm are amazed when I show them my chickens and explain their complex and individual personalities. Ghost is my friendliest lap chicken and will jump into my lap at every opportunity. Dr. Becky is anxious and still keeps her distance from me after all these years. These individual differences in personality suggest to me (and to other scientists) some kind of complex cognition. Most animals, including chickens, have quantifiable distinct personalities; traits like shyness/boldness that remain stable throughout an animal’s life. Like humans, some chickens are born more introverted or extroverted, more watchful or more aloof. Some hens are better, more attentive mothers than others, and some seek affection from their owners while others avoid physical contact. Chickens, like most animals, are not small, one-dimensional robots, but individuals with distinct likes and dislikes, unique thoughts and desires, and diverse ways of interacting with the world.

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One of my favorite things to show visitors to my hobby farm is my rooster’s reaction when I hand him a tasty treat. His behavior reveals a level of cognitive complexity that is, in my view, undeniable. He picks it up gently and drops it to the floor in front of him while giving a distinct chuckle and shaking his feet a bit; a behavioral display known as treat. This display is something he does when there is food, and it attracts the attention of the hens who rush to see what it is.

For scientists studying animal communication, this foraging behavior is an important precursor to the type of communication that eventually evolved into language for our species. The clucking of my rooster is used to refer to food – hens understanding this reference. It is far from the concept of word as we would know for human language. This type of referential communication is part of the complex communication systems of chickens. They have other calls that refer to predators in their environment (called alarm calls), as well as a variety of calls they make in other situations, such as purring when happy/satisfied. As many chicken owners know, hens will sing the egg song right after (and sometimes before) an egg is laid – a call that could be used to draw attention to themselves (and therefore away from their vulnerable egg), or to let their rooster know where they are and what they are doing. Chickens have a complex communication system that hints at a rich inner mental life.

I hope our renewed collective interest in rearing backyard chickens will inspire people to think more deeply about chicken behavior and intelligence. As I and many visitors to my farm now know, it is almost impossible not to develop a fondness and respect for chickens once they are part of your life.

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