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Are Chickens Smart? Here’s What Science Tells Us

Oliver Jones

While some birds have a reputation for being intelligent, like African gray parrots, crows, and ravens, others don’t (we’re looking at you, turkeys!). What about chickens?

Most animal behavior experts agree that chickens are smart, sensitive, and social animals. Let’s look at what science says about the intelligence of chickens.

One researcher’s review of the scientific literature found that chickens are as smart as other birds, even the ones regarded as highly intelligent. They also have some of the same mental abilities seen in mammals and even primates.

This study found that chickens have some impressive cognitive abilities. Research shows that chickens are thought to have:

  • Basic arithmetic capacity
  • The capacity to reason and make logical inferences
  • Self-awareness
  • Time perception
  • Negative and positive emotions, including empathy
  • Distinct personalities

How did chickens get so smart? The key may lie in the fact that they live in flocks.

chicken divider

Are Social Animals More Intelligent?

Some of the most intelligent animals are the ones that live in groups, including chickens and other birds.

What’s the connection? Scientists think that the challenges of living, communicating, and getting along with others lead to social intelligence.

Some examples of social intelligence include things like group problem-solving and decision-making. Social animals are also experts at group synchronization…flocking is an example of this.

Another important aspect of social intelligence is complex communication, which chickens share with intelligent animals like dolphins and, of course, humans.

How Do Chickens Communicate?

Research has shown that chickens communicate with each other in a variety of verbal and visual ways. Researchers have recognized dozens of different vocalizations, along with different types of visual signaling.

The information they communicate to each other tends to be either about predators or finding food.

When predators are nearby, males will tend to sound the alarm while females will try to make themselves hard to see.

Males will communicate with vocalizations and visual displays (called tidbitting) when they find food, often in competition with other males to impress the females.

This competition can lead to some deceptive and manipulative behavior.

Subordinate males will sneak in some quiet tidbitting when dominant males aren’t close by. Males will also make food-finding calls to attract females even when there is no food.

chicken assembly
Image Credit: Pixabay

Social Hierarchy in Chickens

No overview of the intelligence of chickens would be complete without mentioning the pecking order. The pecking order is a system of social ranking in a flock.

Chickens organize themselves in a hierarchy of dominance, with each chicken understanding its place and other chickens’ places in the group.

The pecking order can be complex and an understanding of it requires self-awareness as well as an understanding of the other individuals in the flock.

Research has shown that establishing and maintaining the social hierarchy in a flock requires learning ability because chickens must learn the hierarchy of each individual in the flock (as well as re-learn a new one when there are changes).

Why is the pecking order such a big part of chicken society? It’s a strategy for group survival, not just to maintain order in the flock, but because chickens are prey animals, the pecking order ensures that the fittest members have the best chance for survival.


Featured Image Credit: Pixabay

Oliver Jones

Oliver (Ollie) Jones - A zoologist and freelance writer living in South Australia with his partner Alex, their dog Pepper, and their cat Steve (who declined to be pictured). Ollie, originally from the USA, holds his master's degree in wildlife biology and moved to Australia to pursue his career and passion but has found a new love for working online and writing about animals of all types.