By Christine Heinrichs – As your chickens scratch for food and jockey for position in the social order, you can see that chicken behavior is purposeful. They respond to changing conditions, get excited about food, and help each other avoid predators. The smart behavior flock keepers observe is the starting point for scientists to research what that chicken behavior means.
“A lot of science starts with an observation,” said K-Lynn Smith, a research fellow at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, who has looked into chicken behavior. “We test it systematically to affirm or refute it. We have to be able to show it’s not a one-off or explained by something else.”
Intelligence is defined as the ability to deal with new or trying situations and apply knowledge to manipulate one’s environment. That’s exactly what chicken behavior does when they signal each other about food, danger, and sex. They cluck and flap to communicate.
Chicken behavior isn’t reflex or rote. It’s flexible, in the sense that they are able to change their response according to situations. They can find solutions to the problems they confront. They learn from their own experience and by watching others. They know what they are doing.
Research has identified at least 24 distinct chicken noises, a kind of chicken language, which allows chickens to sound the alarm for both aerial and ground predators. Dominant roosters have signals to attract females, and tidbitting invites the flock to share tasty food.
Put some fresh corn or watermelon in your chicken’s pen. Their clucks, calls, and flaps clearly let their flock mates know what’s going on. They understand the status organization of their flock, and where they stand in it.
Food and Sex
Tidbitting is the term used for the way chickens repeatedly pick up a bit of food and drop it, showing other chickens what they’ve got, along with a pleasant, inviting cluck. Males do it to attract females. Mother hens do it to teach their chicks what chicken feed is.
Tidbitting can get a hen’s attention, leading to her favors. But hens have good memories, too. Roosters who try tidbitting without having the tasty treats to share can get the cold shoulder later. Roosters can earn a bad reputation for not coming through with the goods.
The roosters who attempt to deceive, and the hens who are soon on to them, show how smart they are. That kind of elaborate social interplay is not for the simple and dumb.
“Females select mates on a range of traits,” said Smith. “The redness of the comb is an indicator of the strength of his (a rooster’s) immune system, but she’s watching his behavior as well. She wants a male who is providing food, not attacking.”
If you have a breeding flock with more than one rooster, the dominant rooster will chase off those lower in the pecking order. They figure out how to attract hens to mate without attracting the alpha rooster too. They tidbit silently if the dominant rooster is within hearing distance.
Mating with more than one rooster is good chicken behavior for the flock. It supports genetic diversity. Even if the dominant rooster doesn’t want to tolerate it.
Notice that hens often lay in one favored nest. It may not be the nest that’s more desirable, but some innate ability to count. They are looking for enough eggs to make a clutch and be worth setting.
“Being broody and raising chicks is a big investment for a hen,” said Smith. “She’s vulnerable while she is on the nest, and then she takes six weeks to care for the offspring.”
Chickens are a prey species. Danger lurks by land and by air. The chicken who first spies a land-based marauder alerts the flock loudly. Chicken predators from the sky require more stealthy defense.
You’ve heard the loud, insistent clucking of “Danger, Fox!” Four-legged predators sneak up behind the shrubbery – they need to get close enough to pounce. When one chicken wises up and tells the rest of the flock, that advantage is gone. Sometimes the stalker will give up and retreat in the face of this noisy chicken behavior.
Hawks and owls attack from above. The flock’s clucking may attract birds soaring overhead, looking for prey. Roosters and hens with chicks warn others of overhead danger. Other birds usually stay quiet and take cover. They may call to each other from their safe sanctuary.
Their clucks can indicate how big, how far, and how fast the flying threat is. Chickens rely on each other to help keep them safe.
Life in the Flock
The pecking order is the social organization of the flock. It’s not just who gets pecked and then pecks the next one down. Hens can calculate where a new hen fits in the flock by watching who is pecking her. That’s actually a pretty smart thing to be able to figure out.
Mother hens can empathize with their chicks. Researchers studied how hens responded when their chicks got an unexpected puff of air. It ruffled the chicks but didn’t hurt them. But the mothers got as upset as the babies did.
Chickens are so smart that they can pose challenges to the researchers trying to study them. Some of Dr. Smith’s birds became pets who followed her around, instead of acting like chickens whose behavior she could observe neutrally. She brought them home to her daughter.
“They are smarter and have higher capacities than people give them credit for,” said Smith.
What chicken behavior have you observed in your flock that made sense to you?