While you may know what a chicken is, you may not know much else about them. Unless you own chickens yourself or spend significant time around these birds, their lives can be a mystery. When most people think of chickens, they picture these birds pecking the ground for food, laying eggs, or providing meat.

If someone would like to own chickens, they may be wondering what else they need to know about these birds. Do chickens have feelings and personalities? If so, does anything have to be considered before welcoming these birds into your life?

Surprising as it may be to learn, chickens do have feelings and can express their emotions in various ways. Each bird also has a unique personality. Let’s get to know chickens better and understand them on a deeper level.

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The Chicken Brain

Jersey Giant Chicken
Image Credit By: Anna Hoychuk, Shutterstock

It can be hard to imagine that chickens are anything other than livestock, but their cognitive abilities are comparable to those of mammals. The chicken’s forebrain, which is used for cognition and emotional capacity, is of the same anatomical structure as a mammal’s forebrain. This is scientific evidence that chickens are capable of having feelings and demonstrating and understanding emotions.

Chickens have been compared to having the same emotional depth as a companion dog or cat, and now it’s clear why that might be true.

Dr. Chris Evans, the administrator of the animal behavior lab at Macquarie University in Australia, talks about a trick that he plays on audiences at conferences. He describes the attributes of a chicken without naming the animal. The audience then assumes that he is talking about monkeys. The two animals’ behaviors are similar, suggesting that chickens are more intelligent than we once thought.

Do Chickens Have Feelings?

Since chickens are capable of experiencing feelings, it’s safe to assume from their brain structure that they can feel a wide variety of emotions. Without being able to ask them, it’s impossible to know for sure exactly what they’re feeling, but observing how chickens behave can shed light on their emotional state.

For example, chickens appear to be depressed when they are separated from their flock. They have a strong sense of community and are social animals. They can flock together for friendship, warmth, or when feeling scared. Isolated chickens have shown signs of stress when kept apart from others, such as feather plucking and self-harm.

While it’s difficult to tell what a chicken is feeling, the evidence supports that they are capable of experiencing complex positive and negative emotions. Interestingly enough, they can also display emotional contagion, which is a form of empathy.

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Empathic Chickens

Frizzle Chicken
Image Credit: minka2507, Pixabay

Empathy is considered to be a form of emotional intelligence and is the capacity to relate to, share, and understand the emotions of another. Hens show empathy in different ways, but the proof that they are capable of feeling this emotion is how they react when their chicks are in distress.

An experiment was conducted in 2011 to test the hens’ empathic awareness. Researchers exposed chicks to uncomfortable puffs of air, which led them to make distress calls, increase ground pecking, and reduce their movement. The hen, experiencing empathy for her chicks, shows signs of distress themselves with increased heart rates and loud calls to them. Researchers interpreted these signs as displays of empathy. A follow-up experiment the next year showed that the hens made stronger distress calls to their chicks during this time than they made to their mothers. These experiments also proved that hens have strong maternal instincts.

Another experiment was done at Bristol University, where chickens were fed a mix of blue and yellow corn. The blue corn kernels were coated with chemicals that would make the chickens feel sick. Soon after realizing that the blue corn caused the illness but the yellow corn didn’t, the chickens learned to completely avoid the blue corn. When the hens had chicks, the same corn mixture was offered to them. This time, the blue corn was perfectly safe to eat. The hens still steered their chicks away from it, teaching them not to eat it. This not only proves that the hens didn’t want their chicks to feel sick but also that chickens can possess cultural knowledge and pass this down to their offspring.

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Do Chickens Have Personalities?

a flock of chickens
Image Credit: Capri23auto, Pixabay

Chickens in flocks have a pecking order where every one of them knows their place in it. This social hierarchy helps them get along and proves that they can recognize the faces and ranks of other birds. They see each other as individuals and can differentiate between each other even in flocks of over 100 birds.

Their personalities usually form from their place in the pecking order. Some chickens can be bold and courageous. Others are shy and reserved. Some might even be affectionate, while others are aggressive. As dogs, cats, and people have different personalities, the same differences have been noticed in chickens.

How Can I Tell If My Chicken Is Happy?

We may not be able to know exactly how happy a chicken is at any given moment, but there are things that we can do to help them be as happy as possible. The Farm Animal Welfare Council has established guidelines for welfare that are known as the Five Freedoms. These are accepted as the gold standard for the treatment of animals and will encourage and support their physical and mental well-being. They are:

  1. Freedom from hunger and thirst
  2. Freedom from discomfort
  3. Freedom from pain, injury, and disease
  4. Freedom to express normal and natural behavior
  5. Freedom from fear and distress

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Are Chickens Smart?

Free-range-chicken-on-an-organic-farm_Samir-Behlic_shutterstock
Image Credit: Samir Behlic, Shutterstock

Chickens are becoming increasingly popular pets. Even those that are kept as backyard egg-layers are treated far better today than how they were in the past. Learning more about chickens and how they behave leads people to see them as more than just livestock and more as sentient beings that are deserving of comfortable lives.

While chickens don’t purr or play fetch with you, they do show signs that their intelligence may rival that of a dog or cat. In some tests, chickens have proven to have the intelligence of a 4-year-old human. For example, chickens were taught that if they refuse food, they will receive more food later. An overwhelming 93% of the birds chose to wait for the larger reward. Chickens can understand time and anticipate things that are going to happen in the future.

Chickens also show affection in their own ways.

Can Chickens Feel Pain?

Yes, chickens can feel pain. They have various receptors in their skin that enable them to feel temperature, pressure, pain, and distress. The tips of their beaks are highly sensitive areas, and beak injuries can be especially painful for them.

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Final Thoughts

Chickens are living beings with personalities that can feel a wide range of emotions. They can also feel pain, fear, and comfort. They are intelligent animals that display empathy toward their young. While people are often surprised to learn these facts about chickens, they are important to know if you plan to keep these birds. By understanding more about these feathered friends, we can help make their lives more enjoyable and beneficial for them and the people who choose to care for them.


Featured Image Credit: Dewi Cahyaningrum, Shutterstock