How smart are chickens? I think we have all watched many movies depicting chickens as dumb, insensitive, non-caring, silly little creatures. We used to think that chickens were only capable of laying an egg per day and then just going on their merry way. But did you know that chickens are actually as smart as a 4-year-old child?
Chickens are smart enough to be trained
According to a 2015 study about chickens, college students were instructed to perform an experiment to see if chickens could be trained. The results found that chickens were able to feel emotions, including boredom, frustration, and happiness (check out these boredom busters here). Chickens are able to emphasize, not only with their own baby chicks, but also with fellow chickens and care about the health and welfare of their flock.
See: Why You Should Hold Your Chickens
Chickens are smart enough to communicate with each other
Did you know that chickens can talk to their unborn chicks still in their eggs and the chicks will respond back to their mother? (mind blown!). Chickens have more than 24 types of vocalizations and a mother hen can teach these to her chicks still inside their eggs. A chick is able to tell her mother is she is cold, causing the hen to turn or move the eggs around the nest. If the chicks are purring, this tells the hen that the chicks are happy.
When the chicks are born, a hen can make a distress call, alerting the chicks of danger. The chicks recognize the alarm code and run to the hen, finding shelter underneath her wings (reminds me of Psalm 91:4).
They also have different vocalizations depending on the situation. If there is a predator around, there is a separate call for a land-based predator versus an aerial predator. They can also distinguish between different types of birds. If a crow is flying overhead, this will not bother a chicken, as opposed to a hawk. If a hen is frustrated, she will pace back and forth while making long whiny calls with short-staccato notes.
Chickens are smart enough to count and perform arithmetic
Another study found that when chicks were raised with five objects in their pen, then three objects were taken away and hidden behind a screen, the chicks gravitated towards the three objects that were hidden. Then the five objects were hidden behind two screens (three objects behind one and two behind the other). Again, the chicks were able to figure out that how many objects were behind each screen and found the screen hiding the most objects. This shows that chickens are able to understand that once an object is taken away, it still continues to exist, even if it is out of sight.
Chickens are smart enough to exhibit self-control
Chickens may have the ability to think about what will happen in the near future. A study was performed whereby the chickens pecked one key and food was distributed for their eating enjoyment after a 2-second delay. A second key was provided whereby if pecked, it would distribute even more food after a 6-second delay. The chickens were able to distinguish between the two keys and were more apt to pick the second key. This shows that chickens are able to exhibit self-control in order to receive a more profitable pay-out.
They can also predict where live food will land, as demonstrated by grasshoppers. Instead of leaping towards a grasshopper and attempting to eat it at once, a chicken is able to understand and predict where a grasshopper may jump. The chicken would then attack the grasshopper at its’ next place of landing.
Chickens have great memories
Chickens are able to remember and recognize up to 100 different people/individuals. They are able to look out for and care for the surrounding chickens in their flock. They also establish a pecking order by pecks, posturing, and vocalization, meaning that there is usually a top-female and always a top-rooster.
In a study done by Bristol University, chickens were fed blue and yellow corn. The blue corn contained chemicals that would make the chickens sick. The chickens quickly learned to avoid the blue corn. When the chickens hatched their own eggs, blue and yellow corn was again spread around the farm, but this time the blue corn was harmless. The chickens remembered the blue corn and steered their chicks clear of the blue corn.
Another study showed that chickens picked up responses from other chickens who had eaten a bitter food. Once alerted, the chickens avoid eating that particular food.
Chickens have distinct personalities
If you’ve ever spent any time around chickens, you will know that each chicken has their own distinct personality. This can also be dependent on the breed of chicken, as silky chickens are known to be super-friendly and awesome mothers, while others not so much. Chickens may also change their personality depending on who they are around.
In my experience, Lola (pictured above) is my friendliest chicken and is also an instigator. She is always getting into places she shouldn’t be and showing fear to no-one or anything. My other chickens usually tend to be shy and hidden away. But, when the food comes out, it’s anyone’s game and a free-for-all.
Chickens are smart enough to use deception
Chickens can be pretty cunning, but in my experience, it is the rooster who is especially cunning. A head rooster performs a procedure calling “tidbitting”, which is alerting the chickens that he has found food by making a series of clucks. This elevates the rooster’s status with the hens. A rooster who has proven himself can get more hens to follow him. The hens know that when he calls, he has found something very good for them to eat.
Now, if there are other roosters around, they can perform a “phantom” tidbitting. This is where they eat the food first and then call for the hen to approach. That way, the rooster gets the benefit of eating the food first and still gets to elevate their status. The rooster needs to beware though, as the hens may eventually catch on and disbelieve their future attempts. Subordinate males may also quietly call the hens by tidbitting in order to avoid catching the attention of the head rooster.
Researching this topic was so interesting to me and I hope it was for you too. I had no idea how smart my little chickens really were. It makes me very proud their little complex brains.