The surprising intelligence of chickens

bird brain

How intelligent are chickens?

The term ‘bird brain’ has long been used to insult people who have done something stupid. It’s a phrase we even use to describe ourselves when our common sense abandons us. The implication, of course, is that birds are ‘a couple of eggs short of a basket’, as the saying goes. But is this really true? Recent research on the intelligence of chickens seems to show that our feathered friends are a little more clued up than we give them credit for.

For a start, chickens learn really quickly. Whilst it can take the average human child a couple of years to get their head around simple numeracy, a chick can do this within a couple of hours of hatching. Despite not being able to count, it knows how many there are of things and can distinguish between up to five objects. Similarly, if you offer it things, it can understand size and always goes for the biggest.

In human babies, it takes a year or so for the brain to comprehend that things still exist when they move out of view. Experiments have proved that birds’ brains have a much better understanding of the nature of reality. A chicken knows something is still there and will look for it.

Studies have also shown that hens have the capacity for self-control in situations which are of benefit to them. In one experiment, scientists devised a situation where, when they fed a group of chickens; those that were first to the food got much less time to eat it then those who waited. After a while over 90% of the chickens learned that, if they waited longer, they could eat for longer, totally reversing the pecking order. A case of, “You first, dear, I insist!”  This puts chicken intelligence on a par with a four year old child. Quite a feat.

Perhaps even more astonishing is that chickens can use the height and position of the sun to navigate, where most of us can’t do it without a mobile phone, Google Maps and GPS. They can, from being only a fortnight old, exhibit the same skills that ancient sailors used to cross the oceans.

One of the major signs of intelligence, of course, is the ability to communicate. And whilst a chicken lacks the oratorical skills of the parrot or the miner bird, they are still able to communicate using signals that make sense to each other. The do this through making sound and through body language.

Chickens are also socially intelligent animals. Young chicks learn which food to eat from their mothers. As they grow older, the mother hen adapts her behaviour to how the chicks have developed, teaching them new and more complex feeding skills.

We all know about the social hierarchy in a flock, the so called pecking order. However, in order to understand this, be a part of the social group and know their place in it, a chicken needs some ability to reason and have the long term memory to develop relationships over time with other members of the flock. And as a group, they learn from each other, develop new skills and co-ordinate things like defending themselves when under attack. They also have complex mating rituals in which the females evaluate males on their ability to provide food before making a choice of which male (if there’s more than one available) to choose.

Despite their brain’s being very small, our chickens are remarkably bright little creatures. So, the next time you spend some time with yours, stop and take a look at their intelligent behaviour. You never know, you might learn something.

Further reading

For a more scientific explanation of chicken intelligence, visit Scientific American.

2 thoughts on “The surprising intelligence of chickens

  1. When our two very freindly hens stopped laying, we got rid of them, cleaned the coop that was inside an enclosed run and got a couple of six month old hens. The coop has a ladder for the hens to climb to the upper level where there is straw for nesting and laying eggs and the door to get into the coop was left wide open. The feed and water is in the run.

    We put the new hens into the run and left them and every night for a week I checked the run and could not see them so assumed that the hens had gone into the coop and had gone to the upper level. However, at the end of the week I checked the upper nesting area and it was obvious that the hens had not been there and that night I found them huddled into a corner of the run, so I picked them up and put them into the nesting area and moved the feed and water into the lower part and closed all of the doors.

    The next day, the hens remained on the upper level and by night time had not gone down the ladder to eat and drink and slept in the upper level. The next day, they must have been hungry, but they did not go down for the food so in the afternoon I transferred them to the lower area and kept them locked inside the coop. That night they climbed the ladder to get to the upper area – but the next day they stayed there and slept there all night and the following day I had to move them down to the ground level again.

    Now, that proves to me that these hens are stupid!

  2. Hi William. From a human perspective, it sounds like they are being stupid but I am sure from the hens’ point of view there is a reason they stay away from the bottom of the coop. It could be that they can still smell the scent of your old hens or that there is something about the floor of the coop they do not like? It could be the disinfectant you used, some kind of mite or there’s even the possibility that in the gap between your old hens leaving and your new hens arriving, that mice or rats took the opportunity to move in. It could also just be a case of it taking time for them to adjust to their new home.

    As for sleeping at the top, this is natural behaviour for chickens – they always like to perch higher up as it makes them feel more secure.

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