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How Smart Are Chickens?

Chickens are much smarter than you think! 

Chickens’ intelligence is often underestimated. But backyard chicken keepers know that the stereotype of the “bird brained” chook is unfair. Many chickens possess intelligence and personalities to rival other household pets, even cats and dogs. Some studies show chickens to have cognitive abilities on par with toddlers!

If you’ve ever spent much time with chickens, you may have been surprised by their ability to learn and problem solve… or escape! So how smart are chickens, really?

Key takeaways

  • Scientific studies have shown that chicken intelligence is comparable to that of other pets and toddlers
  • Senses: Chickens can recognise individual voices, remember up to 100 individuals, understand object permanence and focus on near and distant objects the same time
  • Social and Emotional Intelligence: Chickens use complex communication, experience a range of emotions and form close bonds. They even have some level of self-awareness and ability to consider other's perspectives.
  • Cognitive Abilities: Chickens can learn and remember tasks, solve problems, use reasoning, perform basic arithmetic, and navigate effectively.
  • Backyard chicken keepers should stimulate their chickens' intelligence by providing free ranging opportunities and activities when their chickens are contained.

Chicken intelligence

We’ve looked into the scientific research to summarise what we do, and don’t, know about how smart chickens are!

Senses

Hearing

Chickens can hear sounds outside of the human range. They can also recognise different chicken’s voices.

Chicks begin peeping while still in the egg, and a mother hen clucks to her eggs while on the nest. This forms a bond between the chick and hen, as well as between hatchmates. Cheeping also stimulates growth in less developed chicks in order to synchronise hatching.

Sight and visual cognition

Chickens have the ability to focus on both nearby and distant objects at the same time, which is pretty cool!

Chickens also have visual cognition abilities similar to toddlers. Studies on one- and two-day old chicks show that they understand object permanence, something that develops in humans around the age of 2. These chicks understand that something exists even when out of sight and are able to identify partially hidden objects, mentally filling in the missing information.

When it comes to recognising other birds, not only can chickens remember up to 100 other chickens, but they can also recognise known and unknown birds in pictures!

Social and emotional intelligence

Communication

Chickens communicate with a wide variety of body language and sounds in a complex system that we do not fully understand.

Chicken vocalisations are complex and interesting – not only do specific clucks have specific meanings, but they are referential, so they can have different meanings depending on context.

Referential communication is similar to using words. For example, roosters have different alarm calls for different types of predators. But roosters will also change their calls depending on how much risk the predator poses to the rooster individually, and to the whole flock, as well as whether females are present.

Perspective

Chickens are even capable of using deceit in communication, which shows that they can consider the perspective of other chickens and predict the other bird’s behaviour. For example, roosters sometimes use a food call to attract hens when there is no food present. While hens will stop responding to a rooster who does this regularly, it still shows that chicken communication is the result of thought, not just instinct. Another example is lower ranked roosters, which will still tid-bit to attract hens if a dominant rooster is present, but will omit sound from the display to avoid detection.

Emotional capacity

Chickens are capable of experiencing a range of emotions including fear, happiness, anticipation and even empathy, which is usually associated with higher-order thinking and doesn’t even fully develop in humans until they are teenagers.

Chickens show empathy by responding to distressed calls from others and even showing comforting behaviours, something previously thought to be limited to mammals.

In one study, hens were exposed to an unpleasant air puff. When they saw the same air puff used on their chicks, the hens showed distress. This shows that the hens were able to understand the experience and sympathise with their chicks, sharing their chicks’ emotional state.

Social complexity

Anyone who has ever introduced new chickens to their flock will know that there is a strict social hierarchy. Not only do birds know and remember their place in the hierarchy, they can recognise up to 100 other individuals and know exactly where they all stand in relation to one another. Chickens can even remember one another after a period of time.

Chickens form complex social bonds, often having close relationships with certain birds within their group. They may socialise with these birds, share nests or roosting spots, groom one another and even share food. Chickens who have lost a close companion even show signs of sadness and may continue to look for their companion in the coop or run.

Self-awareness

Chickens can recognise themselves as individuals in relation to other birds in the flock. A new study even suggests that roosters may be able to recognise themselves in a mirror!

Self-control

Chickens have a certainly level of self-control. For example, they are able to wait to access food in order to attain a more desirable treat or larger portion. The famous marshmallow test shows that this is something that some 5 year olds still struggle with!

Cognitive abilities

Learning

Chickens possess excellent learning capabilities. You will know this if you have ever trained your chickens! They can quickly learn to associate specific cues with rewards or punishments, and adjust their behaviour accordingly. Chickens can be trained to perform various tasks and can remember these learned behaviours for extended periods. They learn quickly from watching other chickens.

For example, in one study chickens were taught that certain sounds predicted a positive, negative or neutral outcome. Not only were the chickens able to learn and remember the sounds, but their reactions to the sounds displayed their ability to predict a future outcome based on the sound played.

Memory

Episodic memory means being able to remember personal experiences. Reactions to predators, or being able to learn, shows that chickens have episodic memory. For example, they quickly learn where to locate food and water, and can find their way back to their roost or coop even from far away. In studies, chickens can remember the trajectory of a ball and even what types of food are available at different times in different locations.

Problem-solving

Contrary to popular belief, chickens are capable of solving complex problems… for example, how to get out of the run and into the garden when you’re not home!

Chickens can solve mazes and complete other problem-solving tasks. They have even been seen using tools to access hard-to-reach food, a behaviour previously associated with mammals and birds thought to have higher intelligence.

Reasoning and logic

One of the best examples of reasoning in chickens comes from a study into social hierarchies. Chickens were shown a pecking order face-off between a known and unknown bird. Based on which bird won the face-off and the observing chicken’s social position in relation to the known bird, observing chickens were able to determine their status in relation to the unknown bird and used this information to decide whether to show submission or dominance when introduced to the unknown bird. This type of transitive reasoning is something humans don’t develop until around the age of 7 and shows complex reasoning as well as some level of self-awareness.

Arithmetic

Chickens are able to determine smaller and larger quantities of objects. They are also able to do basic calculations, including estimating periods of time up to about 5 minutes, and addition and subtraction.

One study found that chickens could even determine whether the quantity of objects behind two screens was larger or smaller after watching a series of additions and subtractions between the screens!

Navigation and spatial awareness

Another remarkable aspect of chicken intelligence is their innate navigational skills. Despite their seemingly simple brains, chickens possess a built in GPS system that allows them to navigate over long distances with remarkable accuracy. The use landmarks, the position of the sun and the Earth’s magnetic field to orient themselves, making them adept at finding their way in unfamiliar territories and explaining why they can roam widely and still come home to roost every night without fail.

Chicken intelligence in backyard coops

So what does all this mean for backyard chicken keepers? After all, you already know that your chickens are smart! Well, mainly its information to help you refute any nay-saying friends. 

But it is also a reminder that providing Boredom Busters and Brooder Enrichment really is important for your chickens' happiness and well-being if they are not free ranging! And hopefully, understanding chicken intelligence will help you better understand your chickens and their behaviour.

References

The information in this article comes from a range of scientific studies. These are references to the original texts if you want to learn more:

The development of social learning in chicks

Object permanence

Problem solving

Thinking Chickens: A review of cognition, emotion and behaviour

This is another review of a range of different studies into chicken intelligence

Happy chicken keeping!

Rachael at Dine a Chook Australia

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