I’m often curious to hear how some folks speak of chickens as though they aren’t sentient beings. We refer to avian species, and chickens in particular, as having birdbrains, equating them with stupidity. I don’t think birds have the same range of emotions or the capacity of comprehension in the same way as ours, but I also don’t believe that they are devoid of attachments and feelings.
Despite chickens being the most widespread bird species on the planet – numbering 19 billion – most people see them as sources of food and not complex animals sharing many traits with their wild cousins. A scan of the scientific literature on chicken cognition and behavior will disappoint you as it’s narrowly focused on their management and welfare solely based on their productivity and usefulness as producers of meat and eggs.
Why do we feel the need to elevate our species and ascribe to us superior attributes over all other living things? I happen to think that, despite our intelligence and potential, we’re not the centre of the universe and we’d learn a lot more about whom we shared the planet with if we weren’t so egocentric. Having pets – cats and dogs – does give you some insight into the emotional life of other beings, but if you watch your flock closely, and over time, I think you’d agree that chickens have feelings too.
If you hatch chicks you’ll notice that the bonds they form with each other often last their entire lives. It’s not that they don’t accept other members of the flock, but they are most closely knit with the ones they formed special attachments with.
Four years ago, I was overrun with broody hens. I devised a plan to kill two birds with one stone, figuratively speaking. I offered to hatch chicks for friends in exchange for keeping one pullet. I had two hens go broody at the same time: one had 8 chicks and the other 9. I wanted to hold on to the chicks until the hens were done with them, but one of the families wanted their kids to experience the baby stage.
Long story short, I got talked into giving them the chicks at a couple of days old under the misguided idea that chickens get over the loss of their chicks once they are out of sight. Wrong. I put the two clutches in two boxes and sent them off to their new homes (who happened to be neighbours). One of the hens was clearly distressed and called for her chicks for hours. Needless to say I asked for the chicks back. I guiltily endured hearing the hen still calling, even after I put her to bed that night. The first thing she did the next morning was run out to the crate where she’d been with her chicks. The other hen wasn’t as upset and I questioned how she’d deal with the return of her babies.
The chicks came back in one box – 17 fluff balls mixed together. I wondered how I was going to figure out how to return the chicks to the right hen. No problem, as soon as I opened the box the hens called and the babies instantly knew which mother to head for. You’ve never seen a more heart-warming reunion. I vowed I would never separate a hen from her chicks until after she had signaled she was done with them.
In 2018 I donated eggs to an elementary school and they hatched 26 chicks, which I got back when they were a couple of weeks old. Two of them, Skye and Corazon, were among my most friendly youngsters and inseparable from each other. They often hopped in my lap and were the subject of my picture taking. Just after Corazon started laying she had a minor prolapse, which I was able to fix. Shortly after that, she had a major prolapse, which the flock pecked and made worse.
I had her in a sick bay and when she started to feel better I put her in a 4’x9’ pen within my 1200 square foot run. Skye came to visit her daily and they chatted through the wire. When I returned her to the flock I saw Skye giving her a tour of the coop and the newly installed roost bars. Sadly, she prolapsed again and I made the difficult decision to euthanize her. Skye lost her best friend and has never replaced her.
Recent studies have shown similarities in the brains of birds and mammals, revealing similar cognitive abilities. The part of the avian brain involved in problem solving and other higher-order cognitive capacities is similar in mammal brains, providing more evidence for similar cognitive capacities and the existence of complex emotions in the two groups. Historical studies have focused on negative emotions (e.g. fear, boredom), but it’s now recognized that many species, including chickens, experience positive emotions (e.g. empathy) as well.
Grab a chair and a coffee and sit with your flock and just observe them. You’ll quickly learn that they have different personalities and are thinking and feeling beings. Anyone who has spent time with animals, of whatever species, will have stories to tell about how they continue to surprise us. Those stories have always been there if only we were open to listening to them.
If you’ve got a story about the emotional life of your birds please feel free to share it in the comments section.
Credit: Lori Marino