Poultry Cognition—Are Chickens Smart?
Research Reveals Complex Chicken Intelligence and Emotion
Are chickens smart and do they have feelings? It is easy to relate to our pet dogs and other mammals, as they express emotions similar to our own, but chicken behavior can be harder to figure out. Their different styles of movement and mannerisms, and their ubiquitous appearance, especially in commercial settings, may promote the tendency of the general public to view them as no more than food items and commodities. We who keep chickens as pets or backyard chickens get a glimpse into the complex world of their social lives. We may even bear witness to the Machiavellian tactics that they employ to keep safe and pass on their genes. Scientific evidence supports observations that they are sharp-witted, fast, and feeling individuals.
People who are not familiar with chickens are often amazed at how smart they are. Veterinary science students participated in clicker training sessions with chickens and were surprised by how quickly the hens learned. Through training chickens, students became aware that the birds had individual personalities and emotions, and could experience boredom, frustration, and happiness.
Neurologist Lori Marino, founder and executive director of the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy, is aware of how complex and intelligent chickens are. Through The Someone Project, she collated evidence of their mental and emotional capacities to raise awareness of their need for good welfare as individual sentient beings. She found a wealth of studies revealing sophisticated social and cognitive abilities, corroborated by a later review by biologists Laura Garnham and Hanne Løvlie.
Are Chickens Smart? They Do Math and Geometry
Chicks are born well developed so that they are relatively independent at an early age. Even at a few days old, they understand the concepts of more or less quantity. They can add and subtract up to five. This was tested by moving desirable objects between screens one at a time in both directions. The chicks correctly assessed behind which screen most objects ended up. They were not even taken in by the directions of movement of the initial or final objects, which were sometimes contrary to where most objects were hidden. Chicks could also count positions and be trained to peck at, for example, the fourth location for food, whether the apparatus was presented with the locations stretching away from them or aligned from left to right. Indeed, they can readily reorient themselves to find known locations of food using landmarks when entering a terrain from a different angle. They also remember what kind of food they found in which location. When objects are hidden, the chicks realize that they still exist, and they can recognize a partially obscured object. They can find a hidden ball by remembering its trajectory. Like many birds, they have great spatial awareness and a good memory.
Are Chickens Smart? They Use Logic
Remarkably, chickens know how to assess the relationships between companions and objects by inference. Chickens do not challenge a stranger who beats a known companion higher up in the pecking order, but will often take on a stranger that their leader has defeated. In this case, they infer their place in the hierarchy depending on how they relate to their dominant and how the dominant relates to the stranger. Similarly, they can compare and rank colored symbols for a food reward.
Are Chickens Smart? They Hold Out for Better Rewards
Chickens can estimate lengths of time of at least six minutes. A feed dispenser that was programmed to deliver on the first peck after six minutes was accurately predicted by hens. Chickens also learned to associate different tones with different outcomes: a treat, a squirt of water, or nothing. They were seen to anticipate the outcome when it was delayed by displaying appropriate body language for the treat and the unpleasant water stream, and no reaction for the neutral outcome. Hens show self-control when trained to expect a better reward after a longer delay. In tests, most of them held out for the larger reward, whereas the temptation for immediate gratification may flummox many young humans! This skill shows a complex trade-off between time and reward size.
Are Chickens Smart? They Use Complex Social Tactics
Chickens are highly social animals employing complex social strategies. They recognize familiar individuals, differentiate between them, and know when an individual is not part of their social group. They establish a hierarchy that they commit to memory and can use to weigh up their chances in a contest. They subtly modify their behavior depending on who is present. For example, a rooster is more likely to sound the alarm when a subordinate is nearby, so that he is not the immediate target of the predator. On a more protective note, he will also call more readily when females are present, as he values their survival as the mothers of his future offspring.
Hens too call the alarm for their chicks, but only concern themselves with small hawks while their chicks are very young. A hen may also call for help when harassed by a subordinate suitor, but she only does this when she knows that a dominant rooster is around. Gentler males attempt courtship by offering to feed a hen in a tidbitting display with vocal accompaniment. Subordinates shut down the vocal component when the dominant is about and display silently. They know that he will try to suppress their attempt. As soon as he is distracted, they voice their offer again. This demonstrates that they can assess the perspective of another individual.
Roosters are also aware of the perspective of predators, and will call for longer when hidden in safety from hawk eyes, for instance under tree or brush cover. They have different calls for air and land predators, and the rest of the flock recognizes what these calls mean and will flee to appropriate hiding places. Chickens make at least 24 different chicken noises and communicate extensively using body language.
Hens can evaluate the quality of a rooster’s foraging discovery by his tidbitting call. He calls more when he has a high-value find. He also calls more in situations when a hen is more likely to approach. However, sometimes roosters give a tidbitting call when they have not found food, in an attempt to deceive a hen into approaching. Hens will ignore calls from roosters who attempt this tactic too often, preferring reliable providers.
Every Chicken Is Somebody
Each individual is unique among chickens. Every one has a distinct personality that affects how they react and deal with situations. By getting to know our flock, we can take into account individual characteristics when handling a particular bird. Those slower off the mark are often better at observation tasks, while nervous hens rely more on dependable locations. Activity levels affect how well chicks and hens notice and respond to changes: they may be more observant or, conversely, more distracted. When roosters are well matched in strength and size, it is normally the bolder, more curious, and vigilant males that become dominant. Mental stimulation also affects chick development, encouraging vigilance and calming the urge to escape from new scenarios.
Chickens Have Feelings Too!
Chickens experience emotions that help them to make decisions. We can recognize certain behaviors as being indicative of how they are feeling. Fear can elicit rapid avoidance and alarm, or alternatively the limpness observed when a chicken is picked up by the legs. Many people think that this position calms chickens down, but in fact they are experiencing extreme fear. Frustration is experienced when chickens are under-stimulated or prevented from meeting their needs. Pacing, whining, cannibalism, and chickens pecking each other are signs of frustration. Contented chickens are also apparent by their cheerful calls and relaxed body language. Mother hens have been observed to empathize with their chicks and direct them to the correct kind of food. Chicks take cues from their mothers about how to react to events.
Happy chickens have been shown to enjoy a more positive mood, which helps them to deal with stressful situations. Providing a varied environment, including perches and hiding places, helps our poultry to cope with whatever life throws at them.
You too can train your chickens, starting with this simple test from the Coursera Chicken Behaviour and Welfare MOOC ©The University of Edinburgh and Scotland’s Rural College CC BY 2015.
Garnham, L. and Løvlie, H. 2018. Sophisticated fowl: the complex behaviour and cognitive skills of chickens and red junglefowl. Behavioral Sciences, 8(1), 13.
Marino, L. 2017. Thinking chickens: a review of cognition, emotion, and behavior in the domestic chicken. Animal Cognition, 20(2), 127–147. Marino, L. and Colvin, C. White Paper.
Enriched environments keep chickens happy – even after exposure to stress. Linköping University, Sweden.
Originally published in Backyard Poultry April/May 2019 and regularly vetted for accuracy.
TAMSIN COOPER is a smallholder and a keeper of chickens and goats in France. She follows the latest research on behavior, welfare and sustainability, and mentors on animal welfare courses. Find her at goatwriter.com.