3 Myths About Chickens, Debunked

Chickens are not what you expect.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love my hens. I love their enthusiastic productivity, their damn near egg-a-day fecundity. I love their retirement plan (soup) almost as much. But there are a lot of myths about chickens floating around out there, and they deserved to be debunked.

Myth One: Chickens Are Smart

“Hey, where’d everyone go?”

Chicken lovers will tell you how intelligent chickens are, and will get all aflutter and offended over phrases like “bird-brain.” Now I don’t think I had any unrealistic expectations here, but I’ve been taken aback by just how not-smart chickens are. We’re certainly not talking dog smart here, or cat smart, or pig smart. I’ve decided your average chicken is packing about as much processing power as a VIC-20. You know, 5 kilobytes of RAM and a BASIC interpreter.

I can say with absolute confidence that Nick Park movies are not documentaries. At no point have I discovered any signs of an organized escape attempt. There is no partially completed mechanical flying chicken hidden in the coop and none of the hens speak in a Scottish accent.

However, like people, chickens display quite the range of stupidity. Our dumbest chicken is noticeably dumber than the rest. She’s also quite the co-dependent and gets distressed when she’s not in close proximity to the other girls. But here’s the thing that makes her supremely stupid: she manages to lose the rest of the flock in our 8′x12′ coop.  Sometimes I see her, wandering around and ba-gawking desperately for her friends, who are 5 feet from her. It’s staggering.

I’ll allow that chickens are entertaining, amusing, delightful, pleasant, contributory, cute, fluffy, relaxing, excellent recyclers of scrap food, plucky, and simultaneously excellent exemplars of herding behavior and Brownian motion. But they’re also stupid.

Myth Two: Chickens Can’t Fly

“If I see people, I’ll start ba-gawking and we’ll go back to pretending we can’t fly.”

To paraphrase Gimli the Dwarf, “Chickens are natural sprinters.” Yes, chickens can fly, though it’s not in any kind of Soaring Eagle way. The world record for longest chicken flight is 13 seconds. Chickens  are not like the perpetually-on-the-wing swifts, this much is clear. But so what? An Olympic weight lifter is not a marathoner, but is no less an athlete.

I’m pretty sure chickens themselves started the whole chickens-don’t-fly myth. They’ve propagated it to lull us into a false sense of security so we’d build short fences and assume they’d be too busy scratching and pecking to notice the succulent arugula in the 18″ raised bed just behind the fence.

Given the chance and sufficient motivation, a chicken will summon up all of her strength and endurance and go for it – fly just enough to get over the fence, flap up on top of the bucket of feed, or flee from your outstretched, well-meaning arms.

It turns out that 13 seconds of flight translates to quite a distance – over 300 feet! That’s certainly enough range for a chicken who wants to escape a suburban enclosure to go for it.  A chicken always has enough flight capability to get to where you don’t want them. Particularly if arugula seedlings are involved.

Myth Three: The “Mother Hen” Thing. 

“Offspring or dinner – you say po-tay-to, I say po-tah-to. Either way, eggs are yummy.”

The over-bearing, over-protective moniker “Mother Hen” would lead you to believe that chickens are excellent mamas. To be fair, we don’t have a rooster and we didn’t select breeds known for broodiness. In fact we wanted just the opposite, hens inclined away from maternal excellence and egg-sitting behavior. Perhaps we are catching them on an off night, and who hasn’t had a moment of sub-par parenting, coming back from the club after a night of Jaeger bombs and Jell-O shots. So it’s very possible that certain hens are mothering hens, nurturing hens, giving hens.

But not ours.

It is simply disturbing how ferociously a group of chickens will descend upon a plate of scrambled eggs. They also enjoy egg shells, fried eggs, French toast, bread pudding, frittata and omlettes.

You get the idea, right? Chickens eat their young. They are Fine Young Cannibals, and tasty eggs just drive them crazy.

So, knowing what I know now, would I hesitate to adopt more stupid, flighty, cannibals? Nope, not for a moment.

Comments

  1. Thanks for the reality check! We attended the Seattle Tilth class on starting with chicks a couple weekends ago. It was great, but we were told repeatedly that “Chickens aren’t stupid”, to which I found myself thinking “Really?” Good to know I’m not the only one convinced of their pea brains. Although I am considering clicker training mine. Just cuz..

    Chickens arrive in T-minus 2 months. Hopefully the dogs don’t eat them.

  2. Re cannibalism, a hawk hit one of our hens (first one to this in 37 years) and took two bites of shoulder before being shooed away. Her sisters gather round her for the funeral, crooned their horror-struck grief for three or four seconds, then turned to and picked up where the hawk left off. I confiscated the goods for soup.

  3. Thanks for debunking the chicken myths. I want chickens very much, but my husband isn’t completely sold on the idea. Maybe I’ll direct him to your post. The one myth about free-range, home-grown chickens that I am hoping is actually true is how much better their eggs taste than store-bought.

  4. Chickens are a curious thing. It’s no wonder we decided to domesticate such an animal. They do everything. They eat scraps, provide manure, eat bugs, till up garden beds, provide eggs, they fly… I agree to your myths debunked. What is forgotten in the craze to have backyard chickens is that chickens are exactly that. They are chickens. They are and will always be brilliant at being themselves. They are always in the present. They scratch, they poop, they eat bugs, they lay eggs, and they eat anything. They do all this without any discretion and have no concept of our values. i.e. They think: “this cabbage is good, I eat it.” They don’t think that we don’t want them to eat the cabbage and therefore restrain themselves. Anyway, you can tell I’ve philosophized chickens quite a lot while working the garden. A few weeks ago one of my hens made a funny squawk and then she was in the air soaring a distance of 30ft and going 10ft high to get to the top of the hill by the house. It did seem more fun than walking.

  5. I’ve been warned not to feed chickens eggs or egg shells, as they might get into the habit of eating their own freshly laid eggs.

    • Just Nick says:

      We feed them the eggshells to help up their calcium intake (recycling!). Haven’t had any significant problems with them eating freshly laid eggs, but it might just be that we harvest pretty frequently. Or it might be that our hens prefer their eggs cooked up in a nice omlette with some bacon and chard.

    • Well, actually this is another confirmation of thier stoopid gene- if you crush the shells flat before feeding them – the chickens don’t recognise them as eggs. Crushed egg shells, shell grit and anything like that are an excellent source of calcium back to the hens- just as your discarded oyster shells and other crustacean bits……..

  6. Soooooo, I’ve had a couple hens that were excellent, uber protective moms and I’ve had some that were horrendous moms. All of them, however, are cannibals. When our goats accidentally killed our chicks guess what the first order of business was for our hens? You got it! Eat them. Yeah, it was nasty.

  7. Maybe it was because I had low expectations for my birds, but they have actually proven themselves to be smarter than I had at first given them credit for, which relates to your second myth that chickens can’t fly. My birds have gotten themselves into some interesting spaces out of pure curiosity. I don’t know if that quite makes them “smart” per se, but definitely more creative than I had expected. They also seem to be able to find good places to hide when a predator is around or there may be the threat of predation. Probably instinct, but non-the-less, I was impressed by their ability to take care of themselves on that level.

  8. LMAO! Just found your blog today and am loving your writing!

  9. Great post! I wish I could keep chickens where I live. For now, I’ll read about them.

  10. Thank you for one of the best laughs I’ve had in weeks! I used to keep chickens and it brought back so many “fond” memories of their antics that all I could do and am still doing is laughing! I will be sharing this post…its a good one even if someone has never been around the birds. Thanks again!

  11. I am cracking UP reading this….so funny. Love it.

  12. I’m going to debunk a couple of your debunking myths. ;) I’ll agree, hens don’t tend to be very protective of their eggs unless they are broody, or if they have live chicks to protect. The same chickens who will eat eggs will peck our hands when they’re broody to prevent us from taking their eggs. Last summer we got 7 baby chicks. We had two broody chickens, so instead of raising the chicks ourselves with heat lamps, we decided to see if the two hens would adopt them. Wow. It was really an amazing and different experience. The two hens wouldn’t let any of the other chickens around the chicks, nor would they let us anywhere them. They had a different call for when they thought danger was nearby, and the chicks knew to respond and run back to safety. My 14 year old son nearly got his hand pecked off when he tried to hold one of the chicks. (Since we normally raise them in our house at first, we’re used to picking them up whenever.) If you ever get the opportunity, you should try to let one of your hens raise some chicks. It was a really neat experience.

    My husband has claimed to have witnessed an organized escape. We hadn’t let the chickens roam our yard in a few days, so we decided to let them out one day. My husband swears they were lined up at the door, with one chicken hollering military style, “go, go, go, go” while single file they flew out of the coop, right into my husbands face.

    But yes, I will completely back you up on their ability to fly. Their coop is connected to a covered 8′x12′ chicken run, and when we decided it wasn’t big enough, we added another huge run with without any roof or covering. Some of the chickens realized that they can fly ontop of the 8′ run, walk across it, and be free. They wont fly over the 6′ fence that surrounds their run, but 8′ high wooden beam? No probs. And about chickens not being intelligent? I agree that they are more driven my instinct than brain power, but the rooster that learned he could fly out of the run has been giving lessons to some of the hens, and they’ve been learning with remarkable ease.

  13. New to the blog, but let me say that anyone who can fit LOTR and a Vic 20 into a post about chickens is alright with me!

  14. Excellent post, and I agree with all of your points. Fortunately my chickens have not had the motivation to fly out of their run, even though the fence is not that high. I probably shouldn’t have said that…but I did have a flying experience the other day. It recently snowed over a foot, and the chickens are terrified of the stuff. I came home and began knocking snow off the building adjacent to the coop and they begin freaking out, flying higher than my head. Pretty soon, one of my less tame hens had gone out of the coop and flown to the far end of the run. Now perched on a cinder block, surrounded by snow, she has no idea how to get back without actually touching the snow. It took her about 15 minutes to go 30 feet, but she did make it on her own once she realized there was only one way out of the situation. Chickens are never dull, that’s for sure.

  15. Haven’t read through the other comments to see if this is redundant, but since you don’t have a rooster, your hens eating their own eggs is NOT akin to eating their young. Those eggs aren’t fertilized. It’s more like eating their own menstration. And isn’t that a nicer thought?

  16. Love that you guys are discovering all these hilarious antics! I will agree that their instinct is far stronger than their intelligence. I am amazed that with no teaching these creatures know exactly where we want them to lay an egg, and that at a few days old they know how to scratch and peck…it really is amazing. They are not tidy, and couldn’t care less if they were eating grass or a patch of prize winning broccoli. As far as the egg eating you shouldn’t have any problems feeding them cooked eggs and crushed shells, we do the same. I’ve lost quite a few eggs in the nesting due to ultra thin shells or an accidental chicken misstep; after they’ve eaten the insides they leave the box and almost immediately forget about it, it’s never pompted a recurring problem.

  17. dixiebelle says:

    Hey, maybe your dumb chicken is just poor sighted?

  18. Chickens can definitely fly. Early on, my layers would just stare at the shed near their run. And then they quit that, maybe because I caught them staring.

    One of the delawares is definitely too fat to fly, but she sure can run and flap her wings to run fast. The other delaware managed to escape the run in the fall. We found her prancing on the patio, beaking all over the glass door for attention. She must have managed a bit of climbing, to get out of the run. We don’t question these things at this point; we just observe them and work to prevent them, and leave out our little boy cat to herd the girls if necessary.

  19. How flippant the unobservant become when dismissing what they don’t understand. After keeping chickens for over 25 years, I can assure you they are quite intelligent, capable of a surprisingly wide range of behaviors (both good and bad) including self sacrifice, bullying, loyalty, sharing, lying and affection.

    Just to give you an idea of how badly you are misinterpreting common behavior; your “baw-gawking” hen isn’t looking for her “lost” friends, she is sounding an alarm about something OUTSIDE the fence. She is observant, not stupid. Whether or not you would agree that there’s any danger, something has drawn her attention. If you kept a male bird, he would rush over at her alarm call in an attempt to ensure the safety of his hens. It’s no less ‘stupid’ for a hen to call a non existent rooster (that for all the hen knows, might be in the neighborhood) than it is for a human to leave a message on an answering machine, or for scientists to put a golden record on the Voyager. The point isn’t whether there is anyone to act on or even receive the message, it’s that the message was sent.

    • You are so right in your comments Melody. I to have been raising chickens for over 25 years. Large and small free range flocks. There is much more intelligence there then people will give them credit for. I also find that the term hen-pecked is for real…our roosters try not to crow too much and keep out of the way of the hens….He does his job but most of them think he is a target for harassment. His life is short lived if he looks to different.

    • Amen! Chickens are excellent at being chickens, which is a pretty awesome thing to be. They don’t look at the world like we do, but that’s not the definition of stupid. And a mama hen is truly a wonder to behold. She teaches her chicks what is food and what is not, keeps them safe and warm, and woe unto any other chicken (or other creature) who tries to interfere with them. Likewise, I think roosters are pretty awesome. The better ones are protective without being aggressive, and they do little courtship dances for the ladies. And yes, chickens will eat any broken eggs in a flash, but feeding them crushed shells or cooked eggs won’t turn them into egg-breakers. They know better than to let any good food go to waste. There are all kinds of intelligence. Chickens don’t do math or compose poetry, as far as we know, but it’s kinda silly to call them stupid. They are excellent at being themselves.
      Last, ability to fly depends largely on the breed. I have one, a Buff Brahma, that can barely get to the lower roost (about 3 feet high; the higher one is 6 feet), yet others such as my Shamo/Sumatra cross can fly pretty high when they need or want to.

  20. I has been my experience that the intelligence of chickens increases in direct ratio to the amount of freedom they enjoy. I strongly suspect the same is true of humans.

    • Amen. Ours have the run of our farm, and that includes the house, just because we have four dogs and five cats and are in and out constantly ourselves, so they have the means, motive and opportunity. Two of our hens prefer to lay their eggs next to the printer on my boyfriend’s desk. This is a little inconvenient at times, especially when they both want the same spot at once, and then there is a squawk fest, let me tell you. They figure it’s a safe place to lay, and they’re right. Those eggs are never stolen by the ravens or crushed by another hen. We find it charming. Most of the hens avail themselves of two of our three pastures daily, as well as the yard and compost heap and, if they can sneak in, the kitchen floor, where they have been known to find tasty morsels.

  21. our flock has acreage for a run….freedom plus…

  22. Arrianne says:

    I’ve only ever had 1 hen who was an excellent broody hen. She once attacked a large dog and chased him out of the yard. I think he ran away out of confusion and surprise more than fear though. I’ve never seen anything so funny in my life.

    They seem to vary a lot in personality and intelligence.

  23. Allen In AK says:

    Couple of things. We always had chickens growing up and we always clipped the wingd, ie cut the longer flight feathers so the wing was squared on the tip. Doesnt hurt them at all, but keeps them flying only at lower elevations since they cant get full lift. We also always gave our chickens crushed oyster shell. Make a huge difference in egg survival. I wouldnt say they are smart, but they are not stupid either. Certainly characters. We had one where we got a hen and a duck from somebody. We put them in the coop with everyone else. They were always together. We would watch the duck (male) try to ride the hen. They were a couple. The time came for the duck to…well, be removed from the coop, if you know what I mean. He was invited to dinner. The next day, we went out to get eggs and had a very surprising find. Our nest box was about 3 ft of the ground and had a perch on the front. She had managed to fly up and wedge her head in between the perch and the nest box and hung herself. It was the craziest thing. We have always referred to that as the Romeo and Juliet of poultry. Really, I mean what are the chances of a freak accident like that normally, let alone the day after we ate the duck?

  24. My chickens are so dumb that they forgot they can fly.
    I wouldn’t want them any other way.

  25. Here’s another myth… chickens are quieter than dogs, lol. For the most part, mine are, but the first time I heard one of the girls bawking for what felt like 10 minutes straight (probably just 2), I was horrified and was cringing at what the neighbors might think. Then I noticed that my girls weren’t the only chickens in the neighborhood… there is a coop across the street and their chickens can get just as loud. Still, all in all, they’re quieter than the goats behind us when they greet their owners. No complaints from the neighbors, they love the chickens and the eggs.

  26. Hello from Sweden. Interesting and fun read by both the blog owner and commentators. I wish to share a chicken story. I visited a semi-retired farmer couple of years ago. They only had forty house hold sheep, a dog, couple of cats, some peacocks and about twenty or so chickens, the amount varied slightly, if the fox had been around at inopportune moments. These chickens had been let out of the coop and were fed and obviously cared for by their owners but roamed free at the spacious farm. The curious thing was that the chickens had become couples. Rooster and hen couples graciously strutting up and down the walkways and in the fields. I can’t swear to that they were monogamous but it looked that way. The couples would fly as high as to sit on low barn rafters or roofs and I spent hours watching these chickens. The rooster would dig/scratch up worms for his sweetheart and then tilt his head and utter cooing sounds and watching her lovingly eat the tidbits. I never saw any of the roosters fight.

  27. My son came across your blog and forwarded it to me, so I’ve been perusing your site and randomly reading posts. I grew up in the rural midwest and in addition to the grain farming, cattle, etc., we had 20,000 laying hens, so you know what I and my siblings did after school every day :-). Not a big egg person, but LOVED your comment on chicken’s retirement plan (soup) and I’m still smiling at it.
    We do have a few chickens on our farm for eggs and soup… they are also great at keeping the woodticks at bay. Thanks for a good read.

  28. Tom Nelson says:

    There never was a myth that chickens were smart. The myth is that chickens are stupid.
    Apparently, they are not as stupid as the people who perpetuate that myth, would have us believe.

  29. Loved this! Chickens smart? I wouldn’t use the word ‘smart’ by any means. They definitely are creatures of habit and can become tame and friendly, but I watched my beautiful rooster, after eating a full meal of chicken crumbles, notice my husband who was sawing logs into rounds, and that rooster went after the pile of sawdust gulping it down like it was going out of style! I chased him off several times then finally gave up and figured I’d have a dead rooster the next day with a belly like a presto log. Nope. Never bothered him a bit. I also figure they must not have much for taste buds after seeing that bizarre behavior. Love my chickens, one of the best things I ever did.

  30. Adrian Pierce says:

    I admit chickens can be stupid, also uneducated humans as well making that point… I’ve never seen anyone try to teach a chicken anything. Say that you locked up a bunch of people in a pen since birth… don’t say it’s never happened because it has. Humans who haven’t been taught anything and are isolated for the beginning years in life become eternally retarded with the max intelligence of around a 3 year old.
    -Look up information of feral children, they never adjust, they can’t learn a formal language most can’t speak at all, they also can’t be taught basic human skills such as eating with a utensil even with years of training. So what does this have to do with chickens? Well if you restrain animals and make it so they can survive without any skills and breed them together, and they are never allowed to learn or evolve amongst their species they aren’t stupid genetically they just are being held back from meeting a higher potential.
    -I honestly hate the judgment of intelligence based on breed it lacks substantial evidence I’ve actually seen huge improvements amongst animals who have been taught rather then restricted by humans, we behold a lot of knowledge that over time could make huge leaps in the growth of their species. Now i’m not saying there are any current restrictions to what they can learn, a bonobo is much farther along in their intellectual advancement then say a chicken which also makes them far easier to teach and the improvements made appear far more impressive then what a chicken may achieve after strenuous amounts of training.
    -There are people who think bonobos and chimps are stupid as well, that isn’t something anyone can call judgment on, it’s similar to what eugenicists believed, well bonobos have been taught farther then believed they could ever achieve, there are examples of bonobos learning formal sign language yet some ignorant people still decide that it’s just “training” not “educating” them, well if they retain the information and can understand it isn’t that similar to how humans learn? I watch people mock their intelligence even when they have seen them trying to teach each other skills they learned from humans I find that animals are far more susceptible to adapting then humans are at learning skills of another species.
    -I guarantee a chicken who has been actively trained and adopted as a pet will be smarter then a chicken who has been sheltered in a 8′x12′ coop and it may not seem like a huge improvement because you may only notice they are “double” what their current generations intelligence is which still isn’t much but that isn’t their species full potential only the full potential of that specific chicken.

    Unfortunately it would be hard to find humans responsible enough to follow through with teaching animals generation after generation especially after the person dies and someone would have to take their place. You say that the people who say their chickens are smart don’t know what they are talking about but what about differences in the way they care for their chickens, and what if they stimulate their chickens in different ways then you? Their chickens could easily be smarter then yours since you have little interest in the advancement of their intelligence.

    I’m not a vegetarian, I do eat chickens I honestly don’t care whether people want to believe chickens are genetically stupid, but there is plenty of evidence otherwise. People also think turkeys are stupid to someone told me that their domesticated turkeys would look up and open their mouths when it rained and they were so stupid that they would sit their and drown unless he locked them inside when it rained. So does that make turkeys genetically stupid? Well wild turkeys aren’t extinct and are much smarter then domesticated you would have to be blind to not see that humans an easily cause regression in the intelligence of animals so how is it such a stretch for the opposite to be true and that humans may be able to help them advance in intelligence? Honestly I foresee people reading 1/25th and responding to only a tiny bit without taking into account the rest but it still has to be said I feel responsible for it to be heard I am not a radical I am not against any of what people do to animals I just object to people having only one perspective and holding too it without being rational.

  31. Some chickens are dumb, some are smart. Kind of like anything alive on this earth. The ones that get no learning stimuli when they’re just a few days old? More likely to be dumb. Not always but, look, that’s when their brains are biologically geared to pick up on everything and it’s usually when they’re just left alone in a brooder. Anyway- example: The one we had to hand raise alone and got to spend time interacting in a complex enviroment from the second day out of the egg? She’s still smart enough to figure out which way (and where) a door opens- but back then she would run towards the opening side of the doors when let out of her pen (that got moved all around that winter, she figured it out on door she hadn’t even seen us open before) and when she’d work her way the main door? She’d grab my outdoor shoes by the shoe laces – pulling them towards it – while looking back and forth between the outside, my outside shoes, and me. I didn’t teach her that, she figured out how it all went together and happened on her own. And that’s just the tip of it. Hell, she trained me. She’s smarter than my Pyrenees mix and almost as smart as my Australian Shepard. She has better spatial reasoning than that incredibly intelligent dog though. She can figure out where things are from the outside or inside even if she’s never had first hand expeience from the other view. And the mother hen thing, I think that was more your misunderstanding of a term. Plus, the cannibalism…. That was a weird connection to try to draw. Theyre not humans with our cultural sensibilties. Chickens eat meat. Chickens don’t care what kind of dead meat it is as long as it tastes good enough. Most chickens only seem to have one other chicken they really like hang with, like a friend, even in a big flock. Frenimies is maybe more descriptive of what a normal flock dynamic often is. Chicken is delicious. Why would those dinosaurs hesitate eating that meat that is no longer that other dinosaur they didn’t even like that much? But that doesn’t mean they won’t be devoted mothers… And it’s that observed mothering nature that many hens possess that coined a term people used for the same nature in humans. The same way as hen-pecked was used. Though, just as for the other term, not all hens hen-peck. But, anyway, scientific studies have backed up that chickens are smarter, in general, than whatever a small scale personal observation of idiocy in a flock member here and there might show.

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