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  • Writer's pictureInga

Unravelling the Surprising Intelligence of Chickens: Beyond the Cluck

When pondering intelligent creatures, chickens might not be the first to come to mind. However, beneath their seemingly simplistic behaviours lies a fascinating realm of cognitive abilities and social dynamics. Delving into the intelligence of chickens unveils a rich tapestry of adaptability, communication, problem-solving, and social intricacies that challenge conventional perceptions. Let's explore the remarkable intelligence of these feathered beings.

Chickens are highly social animals, exhibiting complex social hierarchies within their flocks. They recognize and remember individual faces, forming bonds and alliances. Studies have shown that chickens can distinguish between familiar and unfamiliar individuals, displaying preferences for certain companions and even holding grudges against others. 

Contrary to popular belief, chickens possess impressive cognitive skills. They demonstrate numerical abilities, being capable of basic arithmetic and understanding concepts of quantity. In experiments, chickens have successfully navigated mazes, exhibited self-control, and even displayed a degree of understanding of object permanence, a fundamental concept in cognitive development.

They display social intelligence. Chickens exhibit a wide range of emotions, including empathy, fear, and happiness. They are sensitive to the emotions of their flockmates, reacting to distress calls and exhibiting comforting behaviours. Research has shown that chickens experience positive emotions such as pleasure when engaging in activities like dust bathing or foraging for food, further highlighting their emotional complexity.

Dust bathing chicken at Riggert’s Farm, Eimke/Lower Saxony/Germany - Credit Flickr, Oxfordian

Communication among chickens is intricate and multifaceted. They use a diverse repertoire of vocalisations, body language, and facial expressions to convey information and maintain social cohesion within the flock. From warning calls in response to predators to maternal clucks to communicate with their offspring, chickens demonstrate a sophisticated understanding of communication dynamics.

Hen with five chicks - Credit:

Chickens are natural problem-solvers, capable of devising creative solutions to challenges they encounter. Whether it's accessing hard-to-reach food sources or navigating complex environments, chickens exhibit resourcefulness and adaptability. Studies have revealed their ability to learn from observation, innovate novel strategies, and adapt their behaviours based on past experiences.

Chickens engage in cultural transmission, passing on knowledge and behaviours from one generation to the next. They learn from observing the actions of their flockmates and can adopt new behaviours through social learning. This ability to transmit cultural knowledge contributes to the collective intelligence of the flock and enables them to adapt to changing environmental conditions over time.

Chicken Laying Eggs In Coop at Heartland Family Farm, Bloomington/Indiana, the home to 350 hens who lay over 900 eggs weekly - Credit Flickr, Annie Corrigan

In conclusion, the intelligence of chickens extends far beyond the stereotype of mindless pecking birds. From their complex social structures to their cognitive abilities and emotional depth, chickens exhibit a remarkable array of intelligent behaviours. Understanding and appreciating the intelligence of chickens not only enhances our appreciation for these birds but also challenges our perceptions of intelligence across the animal kingdom. As we continue to unravel the mysteries of avian cognition, let us recognize the profound complexity of the humble chicken.

The author likes to add that all this information raises an important question: Chicken in factory-farming conditions are denied their natural living experiences as shown above. So they must live in distress! No doubt about that...
Factory-farmed chickens, such as these hens on a farm in Fleurus/Belgium, often live in extremely crowded conditions - Credit: Yves Logghe AP Photo

Cage hens are unable to roam and explore as they are confined to a relatively small space. In most cage farms, the hens are unable to practise some natural behaviours like nesting and dust-bathing.

This type of farming will likely continue as long as most people are unconcerned about where their food comes from and unaware of chickens' remarkable nature.

The debate between factory farming and free-range chicken and egg production encompasses complex ethical, environmental, and health considerations. Factory farming, while efficient in meeting high demand for poultry, raises concerns regarding animal welfare, environmental degradation, and potential health risks associated with intensive farming practices. On the other hand, free-range chicken farming offers better living conditions for the birds, promotes environmental sustainability, and may result in healthier products. 

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Scientific American, May 2017 (viewed 27.02.2024)


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