Chicken Society—Are Chickens Social Animals?
How Smart Are Chickens in Their Social Lives?
Are chickens social animals? Why do they flock together? What binds chicken society? How can we avoid chicken aggression? We can observe that chickens lead complex social lives. They need familiar companions to feel safe to perform normal, healthy activities. Negotiating a basic pecking order, while protecting and feeding mates, relatives, and offspring, is a more complicated task than it looks, and requires a high degree of social intelligence. To this end, chickens have evolved advanced social recognition and manipulation skills, together with sound logic and empathy. They are aware of others’ points of view and feelings, and make tactical decisions in their dealings with one another. As their providers, we need to be aware of their social and behavioral needs, so that we can provide an environment that is conducive to harmony and good animal welfare.
Are Chickens Social by Nature?
Free-living fowl have demonstrated that chicken society and behavior differ little from that of their wild counterparts, despite over 8,000 years of domestication. Wildfowl typically live in small groups of females accompanied by several males, numbering two to fifteen individuals. They range over a territory as a coherent flock, although members sometimes change groups, enabling an exchange of genes. Living in a community has the advantages of safety in numbers and ready access to mates. Many heads enhance vigilance and the chances of finding food. On the other hand, group members face increased competition over food, perches, and other resources. They need a conflict resolution strategy: the famous chicken pecking order.
The Etiquette of Chicken Society
As youngsters grow, they gently learn the art of ritual posturing and assessing their opponents’ worth, as they confront one another with head and ruff raised. On maturity, they contest their place in the flock hierarchy through such ritual displays and aggressive pecks, sometimes leading to jumping and clawing. Weaker individuals signal their submission by crouching or fleeing. Once the dominance relationship is established between two individuals, they need never fight again; a hard stare from the dominant is all that is usually required for the subordinate to drop eye contact and walk away. While roosters dominate hens overall, each sex establishes its own hierarchy. This is then stable until dominant members leave, youngsters come of age, or new members join the community. Chickens do not need to fight every individual they meet. They remember their ranking relative to others and how flock members relate to one another. If they observe a dominant bird being beaten by another, they do not dare to challenge the winner.
A dominant rooster’s comb swells as he takes on leadership roles, displaying bold, explorative, and vigilant behavior, as a mark of his authority. Such behavior and appearance attract hens, who generally prefer dominant roosters, especially those who give the most energetic and frequent food calls, and those who find different food types. Chickens know each other by the sound of their calls, as well as by facial features. Calling hens to feed while picking up and dropping tidbits is the initiation of the male’s courtship display. This does not always lead to mating attempts, so hens get a chance to evaluate each male cumulatively by the quality and truthfulness of his calls. Some males attempt to improve their score by calling when they have not found any food. Hens quickly learn to ignore roosters who attempt to deceive them.
The Female Prerogative
Hens also show a preference for unrelated roosters who differ in appearance. Both hens and roosters prefer several sexual partners to improve the survival chances of their offspring. At times, hens are coerced by less desirable roosters: relatives or subordinate males. If a dominant male is available, she will call out for help, as he will interrupt the mating. Otherwise, she can eject the sperm post-coitus. In addition, she benefits from an internal process that favors sperm of males who differ genetically, thereby avoiding inbreeding. Given that she can store sperm for up to two weeks, she is able to sample different sires and select the most genetically compatible. A dominant hen mates less readily: this may allow her to exert more choice.
Hens may not rule the roost, but they have the final say!
Communication Binds and Protects the Chicken Community
As a highly social species, chickens have a wide repertoire of vocal and visual language. Chicken noises keep them in contact and highly synchronized. This coordination was vital for their survival in the wild. In modern settings, it is still important to provide motivation to perform healthy behaviors, such as preening, dust bathing, resting, and foraging. If a hen sees her companions engaged in a communal activity, she is strongly motivated to join them and will become frustrated if she is obstructed. Not only is it important for us to provide facilities for our flock to carry out these activities, it is essential to ensure that they can perform them together.
Chickens pick up on one another’s emotions, as conveyed through body language and the tone of their calls. If one hen is upset, fear will quickly spread through the whole flock, while contented companions spread soothing vibes. Chicks look to their mothers as emotional barometers and remain unruffled if their mothers stay calm. The presence of the mother hen helps chicks to cope in the face of change and stressful events.
The Value of Mother Hens, Roosters, and Leaders
The value of a broody hen is easily overlooked in modern times. Apart from helping chicks to deal with stress, mother hens are invaluable for their chicks’ social and general education. From an early age, hens show their hatchlings what to eat, what to avoid, where to explore, how to communicate, and how to integrate into chicken society. She is their model for suitable social and future sexual partners. This is why ducklings raised by hens become confused as to suitable mates when they mature. Chicks raised by hens understand more poultry calls and forage better than those raised in an incubator.
Similarly, a rooster can greatly improve the welfare of hens by encouraging natural behavior. Not only does he protect and coordinate their activities, he can also improve survival and production by simply stimulating natural courtship behavior. Alpha chickens are social role models, not simply elite despots. Flock members often learn from their example. In trials, hens learned a foraging task better after watching a trained hen, especially if she were dominant.
Are Chickens Social Manipulators?
Are chickens smart when it comes to social matters? Chickens of any station have social manipulation tricks up their feathered sleeves that Machiavelli would be proud of, such as the courtship deception already mentioned. Subordinate roosters dare not sound their tidbitting call when the alpha male is in earshot. However, they still give a silent display when hens are looking, and add the vocal element when he is distracted. The boss himself is dutiful in calling out the predator alarm to his females and offspring, but he is more likely to call out if a subordinate is nearby who is more likely to be spotted by the predator. This does not mean that chickens are short on empathy. Cleverly designed tests revealed that hens could imagine the plight of their chicks and displayed emotional distress, over and above any innate reaction to chicks’ calls.
Despite the ingenuity of naturally evolved social strategies, domestic fowl are notably more aggressive than their wild ancestors, due to selective breeding for cockfighting in their breed history. Consequently, care must be taken when keeping multiple roosters. Although in many cases they limit their interactions to ritualistic threats, aggressive rooster behavior is always a possibility.
How to Ease Tensions in the Chicken Community
Considering the nature of social interactions, we can structure our flock’s environment to allow our chickens to meet their social needs. This involves allowing adequate space for subordinates to flee aggression, while giving the flock the resources to meet their physical and behavioral needs, such as feeding, dust bathing, nesting, perching, and preening, and the space to perform these activities communally. Partitions and hiding places in housing and pens give lower ranking individuals the opportunity to escape hostile attention. Multi-male flocks need plenty of space for conflict avoidance, and ten hens per rooster are recommended, although some males will settle for fewer. Although a rooster is not necessary to induce hens to lay eggs, he will boost healthy behavior.
Modern practice often favors frequent introduction of unfamiliar hens. However, introducing new chickens causes stress which can be detrimental to health. Most importantly, the stability of the chicken community is key, as hens in stable flocks feed more, enjoy better health and well-being, and lay more.
Garnham, L. and Løvlie, H. 2018. Sophisticated fowl: the complex behaviour and cognitive skills of chickens and red junglefowl. Behavioral Sciences, 8(1), 13. https://www.mdpi.com/2076-328X/8/1/13/htm
Marino, L. 2017. Thinking chickens: a review of cognition, emotion, and behavior in the domestic chicken. Animal Cognition, 20(2), 127–147. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10071-016-1064-4
Marino, L. and Colvin, C. M. 2017. Thinking Chickens White Paper. https://www.farmsanctuary.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/TSP_CHICKENS_WhitePaper.pdf