The Fascinating Lives of Chickens

Brainy, Social, Talkin Birds with Big Personalities

Chicken's make fun pets
Chickens make great yard pets, and they can be as much fun as cats and dogs. I keep a few chickens in the yard as pets, and everyday when the weather is good I let them out of the fenced chicken yard and into the open yard. I try to wait till noon to let them out, hoping that they will be done with their egg laying and that other creatures that may prey on my chickens will have already found their meal elseware. My chickens like to play in the open yard, and when they see me comming to let them out its like watching an anxous child. Another advantage of letting the chickens out is it's easier to clean the hen house when they are not under foot. Sometimes I close the gate behind them so I can finish without having their help.

One of the first things you need to consider when your thinking about getting chickens are where are they going to sleep. Your not building a Hen House or chicken coop to keep the chickens in. Your building a hen house or chicken coop to keep other animals out. If you don't do a good job, one morning you may wake up and find your chickens have been eaten by racoons.

Chickens are smart. If you provide them with a place to live with food and water, they will be home every day before dark. If one should get out and can't get back in you will probley find it roosting in a nearby tree very close to the Hen House.

If you are planing to add a roster to your Hen House, be carefull not to get between him and the girls. You don't want him to consider you a threat. If you can get along with your roster you will find he makes a good watch dog. Letting you know when someone enters the yard, and he will act like a sheep dog, watching over and keeping the girls together. A large roster may be more than you can handle, consider a smaller breed.

Chickens will eat almost anything. In addition to chicken feed and scratch grain, I feed mine table scraps. I tell my friends and anyone that will listen to my chicken stories that I feed my chickens everything but chicken. I also say that cows and pigs are scared to walk through my yard because if my chickens see them they will be thinking "Lunch". Think about it. They eat plants and bugs, so you know they will like left over vegies and steak. I cut the left overs up into little bitty pieces. They come running everytime they hear the house door open to see if I'm bringing them a snack.1

I know they are looking for a snack, but I can be home for an hour or more before I see my cats, and when I call my chickens they come running. I call my cats and they can't be bothered.

Chickens are smart, leading animal behavior scientists from across the globe now tell us that chickens are inquisitive and interesting animals whose cognitive abilities are more advanced than those of cats, dogs, and even some primates. Chickens understand sophisticated intellectual concepts, they learn from watching each other, they demonstrate self-control, they worry about the future, and even have cultural knowledge that is passed from generation to generation.

Chickens comprehend cause-and-effect relationships and understand that objects still exist even after they are hidden from view.2 This puts the cognitive abilities of chickens above those of small human children.3 Scientists are so impressed with what we now know about the intellect of chickens and other birds that a group of international experts recently called for a new naming system to reflect the complex, mammal-like structure of avian brains.4 Dr. Christine Nicol, who studies chicken intelligence, reflected, They may be bird brains, but we need to redefine what we mean by bird brains. Chickens have shown us they can do things people didn't think they could do. There are hidden depths to chickens, definitely. 5

When in their natural surroundings, not on factory farms, chickens form complex social hierarchies, also known as pecking orders, and every chicken knows his or her place on the social ladder and remembers the faces and ranks of more than 100 other birds.6 People who have spent time with chickens know that each bird has a different personality that often relates to his or her place in the pecking order some are gregarious and fearless, while others are more shy and watchful; some chickens enjoy human company, while others are standoffish, shy, or even a bit aggressive. Just like dogs, cats, and humans, each chicken is an individual with a distinct personality.

Brainy Birds
Several research teams have recently published findings on chicken intelligence that have challenged old notions about avian cognitive abilities. For instance, scientists have found that chickens clearly understand cause-and-effect relationships, an advanced comprehension skill that puts their intellect beyond that of dogs. In the book The Development of Brain and Behaviour in the Chicken, Dr. Lesley Rogers, a professor of neuroscience and animal behavior, concludes, It is now clear that birds have cognitive capacities equivalent to those of mammals, even primates. 7

In one experiment that explored chickens understanding of causal relationships, researchers found that when injured chickens were offered the choice between regular food and food that contained a painkiller, the birds soon understood that the medicated food made them feel better, and they learned to seek it out it over the other choices. The chickens will take the analgesic every time, says Dr. Joy Mench, a professor in the Department of Animal Sciences at the University of California at Davis. They understood cause and effect and learned how to make the best decision.8

Chickens can also grasp other complex mental concepts. For instance, according to Evans, chickens are able to understand that objects still exist even after they are hidden or removed from view. This level of cognition is actually beyond the capacity of small human children.9 Researchers also recently reported that chickens can anticipate the future and demonstrate self-control, something previously attributed only to humans and other primates. 10 Scientists made this discovery after they observed that when given the option between pecking a button and receiving a small food reward instantly or holding out for 22 seconds in order to receive a larger food reward, chickens in the study demonstrated self-control by holding out for the larger reward over 90 percent of the time.11

Chickens are social animals who form complex social hierarchies and interact in complex ways that are indicative of what anthropologists call culture. For example, researchers have shown that chickens learn from observing the success and failure of others in their community. One experiment that demonstrated this finding involved teaching one group of chickens to peck red and green buttons a certain number of times to obtain a food reward. Researchers were surprised to find that when a new group of chickens watched those who had learned how to push the buttons for food, the new chickens quickly caught on by watching the others. At a scientific conference, Dr. Christine Nicol, who worked on the on the study, told her colleagues, They may be bird brains, but we need to redefine what we mean by bird brains. Chickens have shown us they can do things people didn't think they could do. There are hidden depths to chickens, definitely. 12

Researchers have also found that chickens have a cultural knowledge that they pass down from generation to generation. John Webster, a professor at Bristol University in the U.K., set up a study in which he gave chickens a mixture of yellow and blue kernels of corn. The blue kernels were tainted with chemicals that made the birds feel sick, and they quickly learned to avoid the blue corn entirely (this is also another example of their understanding of cause and effect).

When the chickens in Websters study had their young, he spread yellow and blue corn around the farm, and even though he made it so that both types were harmless, the mother hens remembered that the blue corn had previously made them sick, and they steered their young away from it. In an article in the London Times, Webster explains, What this tells us is that the mother hen has learnt what food is good and what is bad for her, that she cares so much for her chicks she will not let them eat the bad food, and she is passing on to her young what she has learnt. To me, that is pretty close to culture and an advanced one at that. Chickens are sentient creatures and have feelings of their own. 13

Scientists have been so impressed with the cognitive capabilities of birds that a group of international experts recently called for a new naming system to reflect the advanced nature of birds brains. According to an article that appeared in The Washington Post, The new system, which draws upon many of the words used to describe the human brain and has broad support among scientists, acknowledges the now overwhelming evidence that avian and mammalian brains are remarkably similar a fact that explains why many kinds of bird are not just twitchily resourceful but able to design and manufacture tools, solve mathematical problems and, in many cases, use language in ways that even chimpanzees and other primates cannot. 14

Social Smarts
People who have spent time with chickens know that they have complex social structures, adept communication skills, and distinct personalities, just as we do. Colorado State University Distinguished Professor Dr. Bernard Rollins notes, Contrary to what one may hear from the industry, chickens are complex behaviorally, do quite well in learning, show a rich social organization, and have a diverse repertoire of calls. Anyone who has kept barnyard chickens recognizes their significant differences in personality. 15

Like people, chickens each have a place or rank within their group some birds are dominant, and others are expected to be more submissive because they are on a lower social rung. Chickens know their places within the hierarchy, and they act accordingly for instance, when learning how to perform a new task, they often follow the lead of the dominant members in their group.16 Mench explains, Chickens show sophisticated social behavior. That's what a pecking order is all about. 17 Chickens also remember the faces of those in their social group; Mench continues, They can recognize more than a hundred other chickens and remember them. 18 Scientists agree that chickens complex social structures and good memories are undeniable signs of advanced intelligence comparable to that of mammals.

Talkin Chickens
Chickens communicate with each other through their clucks Mench explains, They have more than thirty types of vocalizations.19 They have different calls to distinguish between threats that are approaching by land and those that are approaching over water, and a mother hen begins to teach these calls to her chicks before they even hatch she clucks softly to them while sitting on the eggs, and they chirp back to her and to each other from inside their shells.20,21

Small Birds with Big Personalities
Like all animals, chickens love their families and value their own lives. The social nature of chickens means that they are always looking out for their families and for other chickens in their group. In the wild, chickens spend most of their time in groups they enjoy foraging for food, taking dustbaths, and roosting in trees together at night. After he toured United Poultry Concerns in 1998, Ira Glass, the host of National Public Radios This American Life, was so impressed with the personalities of the chickens he met that he hasn't eaten chicken or any other animal flesh since.

Mother hens care deeply for their babies Jesus even refers to the loving protectiveness of a hen toward her chicks in the Gospels, which were written almost 2,000 years ago.22 Indeed, a mother hen will turn her eggs as many as five times an hour and cluck soothingly to her unborn chicks.23 Hens prefer to have private nests for their eggs in protected areas far away from predators. According to The Humane Society of the United States, The desire for a private nest is so strong, in fact, that a hen will often go without food and water, if necessary, to use a nest. 24 This demonstrates the fact that hens will sacrifice their own comfort if it means protecting their chicks.

Besides bonding to their young, chickens also form strong friendships and enjoy spending time with their companions, just like we do. Kim Sturla, the manager of Animal Place, a sanctuary for farmed animals near Sacramento, recounts a touching story of two chickens. We rescued an elderly hen, Mary, from a city dump and later an elderly rooster, Notorious Boy. They bonded, and they would roost on the picnic table. One stormy night with the rain really pelting down, I went to put them in the barn and I saw the rooster had his wing extended over the hen, protecting her. 25

1 William Grimes, If Chickens Are So Smart, Why Aren't They Eating Us? The New York Times 12 Jan. 2003, late ed..
2 Grimes.
3 Grimes.
4 Rick Weiss, Bird Brains Get Some New Names, and New Respect, The Washington Post 1 Feb. 2005: A10.
5 Ananova, Chickens Not Just Bird Brains, 2005.
6 Michael Specter, The Extremist, The New Yorker 14 Apr. 2003.
7 Lesley Rogers, The Development of Brain and Behaviour in the Chicken, CABI Publishing: Oxfordshire, U.K., 1995: 217.
8 Specter.
9 Grimes.
10 Jennifer Viegas, Study: Chickens Think About Future, Discovery News 14 Jul. 2005.
11 Viegas.
12 Ananova.
13 Valerie Elliott, Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road? London Times Online 18 Mar. 2005.
14 Weiss.
15 Bernard Rollin, Farm Animal Welfare: Social, Bioethical, and Research Issues, Iowa State University Press: Ames, Iowa, 1995: 118.
16 Ananova.
17 Specter.
18 Specter.
19 Specter.
20 Grimes.
21 The Humane Society of the United States, Chickens 2005.
22 The Bible, Matthew 23:37-38 (New King James version), 2005.
23 The Humane Society of the United States.
24 The Humane Society of the United States.
25 Alex Cukan, Chickens More Than Just Dumb Clucks, United Press International, 20 Sep. 2002.


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