Tag Archives: Chickens

Did you know how smart chickens are?

When I was a child, I often went to visit my grandmother in the countryside. She had a small flock of chickens that freely roamed the front yard. At that time, I was mostly interested in exotic animals and paid little attention to the chickens. But now I regret that I didn’t observe their behaviour more, as chickens’ cognitive skills are more advanced than many people think.

Logical inference

Wild and free-range chickens live in groups with a hierarchical social structure. There is one dominant rooster and a dominant hen, subordinates of both sexes and chicks. The subordinates are not all equal, but form a so-called pecking order. Chickens can peck others who are lower in the hierarchy without fear of retaliation. If a new chicken is added to the group it has to find its place in the pecking order. But that does not mean that it has to fight each other chicken. Chickens watch each other’s fights and can draw conclusions from the results.

For example, if a new chicken beat a chicken that is dominant over the observer, the observer should avoid fights with the new chicken (if the new one is stronger than the dominant one, then the new one must be stronger than the observer). But if the new chicken lost to the dominant, then it might be worth it to attack the new chicken as there is a chance of winning. Chicken behaviour seems to indeed follow this logic. It is an example of self-assessment combined with transitive interference – a reasoning ability that humans develop only at the age of seven.

Numerical abilities

Even a few days old chicks can count, add and subtract (at least up to five). For example, in one experiment researchers showed chicks two sets of balls and then hid them behind two opaque screens. Afterwards they moved the balls between the screens, one ball at the time, while the chicks watched it. Afterwards chicks were able to indicate the screen behind which more balls were hidden.


When given the choice between two keys to peck, one of which gave brief access to food after a brief delay, and one of which gave much longer access to food after a longer delay, hens preferred the second option. Therefore, they were willing to wait a longer time for a greater reward.  In other words, chicken pass a kind of marshmallow test for self-control!

Communication and manipulation

I wrote some time ago about hens paying attention to great tit alarm calls. But chickens of course also listen to each other. They can adjust their calls to a specific situation and they can even cheat.

Roosters give one alarm call when they spot a bird of prey and a different one for a terrestrial predator (for example a raccoon). And hens react appropriately to each call and situation. When the rooster is in a safe place (for example under the cover of bushes), it will call longer. It seems to understand that it is safe from the predator.

Roosters also have a specific call and behavioural display they use to notify hens when they find tasty food, in order to increases their mating chances.  However, if a subordinate rooster finds food when a dominant rooster is nearby, it will only perform the display and omit the call, reducing the risk that the dominant rooster will notice him and chase him away. But when the dominant rooster is distracted by something else, subordinate roosters will also call.

Sometimes a rooster cheats and calls even if he doesn’t find food, but hens quickly learn not to trust this male.

Personality and its consequences

Like many other species that have been studied, chickens have personalities.

Some hens tend to be more nervous than others, which in turn affect their chicks’ stress level. Roosters’ personalities can affect result of a fight. If two roosters of the same size fight, the outcome can be predicted by studying their typical behaviour: usually the bolder, more active, more explorative and more vigilant individual wins.

These are just some examples of chickens’ cognitive abilities. Additionally, they have time perception, episodic memory, emotions and other skills often attributed to “more advanced” animals. They are much more than just “machines” for egg and meat production.

If you have a chance to observe (relatively) free-range chickens, take the opportunity to have a closer look at their behaviour. And if you want, let me know what you saw.

Photo: Quang Nguyen Vinh, Pexels.com

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Did you know that chickens listen to great tits?

Naked Neck hens and a great tit (small insert)

Maybe you are familiar with this situation: a group of crows is searching for food in a meadow. Suddenly one of them gives an alarm call and all birds fly off.

When animals live in groups often one of the group members will warn the others when it detects danger. Additionally, wild animals often react to alarm calls of other species, especially if they have common predators.

Domesticated animals also warn members of their group about danger. Free-range chickens behave appropriately when another chicken gives an alarm call. But do they react to alarm calls of wild birds? This is a valid question since, first of all, chickens were bred for hundreds of years for their meat or egg laying rather than survival skills. Secondly, most of the time humans provided at least some protection against predators. And lastly, unfortunately, in recent decades most of the chickens lived (and still live) indoors, completely isolated from nature and any predation besides humans.

Recently scientists decided to check if chickens respond to alarm call of wild birds, and specifically great tits. These bird species are both preyed upon by for example buzzards and goshawks. Researchers installed speakers on a free-range farm of Naked Neck chickens in France and played recordings of either great tits’ alarm calls or of their songs.

For the majority of the time hearing great tit alarm calls, the chickens were vigilant – they kept an erect posture and scanned their surroundings. When great tit songs were played the chickens spent less than half of the time vigilant.

At this moment it is unclear whether the response to alarm calls is instinctive or learned. However, if you plan to open a free-range chicken farm, it may be profitable to do it somewhere where many song birds live, even if they sometimes steal some chicken food.

Photos: Great tit – Petr Ganaj from Pexels.com; Naked Neck chickens – Simone Ramella from Rome, Italy – Corte Cecina, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3830746

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