Chicken Feelings – According to Science


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Chickens are possibly the most popular domesticated animal around the world. They are primarily used for meat and eggs, so it is a bit uncommon to have observations from the general public on chickens’ ability to feel or experience emotions. Still, it is important to realize that chickens are complex creatures, and like all animals, are capable of having many different types of feelings.

Do chickens have feelings? Chickens have the ability to feel a wide variety of emotions. Although it is unclear whether chickens feel sadness when humans take their eggs, scientists do know that they are capable of empathy, experiencing fear, having distinct personalities, and more.

woman holding chicken in arms

It has become common knowledge that birds are an incredibly intelligent group of animals. They are capable of making decisions, have specific social structures, and even develop emotional connections with each other. All of these abilities and then some have been found in chickens – it turns out that they’re a lot more than a source of meat and eggs.

Do Chickens Get Sad When You Take Their Eggs?

Chickens are seen as a commodity, so it is difficult for people to perceive them with the emotions we would normally consider another bird or livestock species to have.

It is estimated that chickens are in households and farms and ranches worldwide, making up for 19 billion individuals producing eggs and meat for communities around the world.

Because of how commonplace they are (and rarely are they owned as something other than livestock), it’s hard to imagine that they have a rich evolutionary history and their cognition, and therefore, emotional capacity is comparable to many species we know and love.

It is important to note that the avian (biological Class Aves, or birds) forebrain – the portion of the brain dedicated to “high” cognitive functions like thinking and emotions – is developed from the same neuroanatomical substrate (nerve- or nervous system-related anatomy structures) as the mammalian forebrain. This means that, theoretically, they are capable of the same cognitive and emotional awareness.

This said it is certainly possible that chickens have the capacity of becoming sad. However, just like all cognitive behaviors, this is an incredibly difficult trait to measure.

Still, there is no evidence that the cognitive abilities of the domestic chicken have been reduced or altered in any way from that of its ancestor, the red junglefowl (Gallus gallus).

A Chicken’s Emotions for Her Eggs

An emotional experience is one that occurs on many levels: behavioral, physiological, cognitive, and some extent of sentience. It has been shown that birds experience both positive and negative emotions and that chickens specifically experience emotions in anticipation of an event, this is called the “anticipatory emotional response.”

For example, an experiment was conducted wherein chickens were taught to differentiate between three separate sounds that represented a positive, negative, or neutral outcome after a delay of 15 seconds. The hens showed many different kinds of emotional responses, ranging from anxiety to comfort.

That said, it is possible that chickens do experience a shift in emotions before or while a person is removing their eggs – especially if the hen is broody. While it is not sure if these emotional changes are representative of sadness, chickens certainly experience negative emotions when their eggs are taken from them, however, this applies largely to hens that are sitting on their eggs.

It is important to take into consideration the fact that chickens will cannibalize eggs that are left in their coops for too long. This is why you must distinguish between the eggs taken from broody hens versus those who couldn’t care less. Before the eggs have hatched, there is no evidence that hens feel sadness for being separated from their offspring.

A Chicken’s Emotions for Her Chicks

The emotions of chickens are a bit different and more complex when discussing the relationships between hens and their chicks. Studies have shown that they may be capable of empathy toward their chicks. In one particular study, researchers defined “empathy” to be an individual’s ability to be affected by and/or share another individual’s emotional state.

In the past, hens have been observed to show a heightened level of sensitivity to the emotional states and behaviors of their chicks, particularly to situations in which their chicks “make mistakes” (i.e. attempting to eat something inedible like a rock due to mistaking it for a grain).

It was found that hens do, in fact, have at least some extent of empathetic capabilities. When a group of hens observed their chicks being exposed to mildly uncomfortable situations (e.g. a puff of air), researchers learned that the hens’ physiological reactions were distinct from their response to being exposed to the uncomfortable stimulus themselves.

This suggested that the hens were capable of sharing in the emotional experience or state of another individual. Still, it’s not quite possible to say if there is a real emotional component to their experience of empathy.  

Do Chickens Get Attached to Their Owners?

Chickens can certainly be affected by the emotional or mental disposition of their owners. This is because the way the human interacts with their animals will likely be influenced by their emotional state at the time. (The person may have a shorter fuse with the animals if they are frustrated, or may not offer as many treats if they are sad, etc.)

Of course, a chicken’s feelings of affection or attachment to its owner must be distinguished from its association of the person from rewards or positive experiences (e.g. association of the person to memories of receiving food rewards like treats). This is different from attachment to the human and more of a positive anticipatory response to the treat.

Additionally, the standards and practices of care contribute to either the positive or negative experience of the chicken. For instance, a good owner will be more likely to have happy chickens than a new or mediocre owner will. The emotional and overall welfare of the chicken is directly influenced by the way in which their owner cares for them.

Can Chickens Feel Affection?

Subjectively it can certainly be said that chickens feel some sort of positive emotion when with their owners. Community members of the Backyard Chicken have expressed the many experiences they’ve had with their chickens that suggest they feel some level of “love” or “affection” when interacting with their owners.

For example, one user described memories of cuddling with her hen: the hen would, by her own volition, approach and sit on the lap of her owner. The woman described readily apparent distinctions between the vocalizations her hen would make while sitting on her lap versus most other circumstances.

Others described memories of their chickens being “excited” when the owner arrived from an extended absence or simply upon entering the coop after being apart for the day. Chicks (and adults) have been said to seemingly enjoy being pet and held, and adult hens to merrily follow their owners around the yard.

As we know, chickens are highly social creatures. In consideration of this, with the knowledge that researchers have found of chickens’ ability to experience empathy, it is safe to say that chickens can, in fact, become attached to their owners.

However, there is not yet concrete evidence to support this (on the other hand, there is no evidence to say that they don’t become attached to their owners either).

Do Chickens Recognize Their Owners?

Given that chickens have the ability to recognize conspecifics – meaning individuals of the same species – based on visual, olfactory, and many other types of cues, it is not far-fetched to believe that they can also recognize their owners using the same mechanisms.

In fact, this is the reason why behaviors such as those described above are able to happen. The chicken is able to recall a memory associated with a specific human, and their response to that human is based on those memories.

The woman who cuddles with her chickens – this is potentially a daily occurrence. The chicken recognizes her, and so willingly participates in this ritual whenever she is present.

It is also said that chickens can recognize up to 100 individual human faces – although this is anecdotal in nature, repeated exposure to the same flock of chickens will confirm their ability to recognize humans for you straight away.

What Senses Does a Chicken Have?

Chickens have many of the same senses that humans do. As previously mentioned, their cognitive and emotional capacity has not been compromised by several thousand years of domestication as is the case with dogs and wolves.

Chickens are sensitive to the sensations of touch, sight, and taste more strongly than the rest of their senses. However, they are capable of hearing and olfactory (smell) sensations, of course, and some breeds can even detect magnetic fields!

Just like us, domestic chickens are capable of differentiating between different types of physical touch sensations: pressure, pain, and determining the temperature of what it’s come into contact with (hot or cold).

And yes, they’re capable of feeling through their beak – the tip of their beak to be exact. They have a special cluster of nerves called mechanoreceptors that allow them to experience touch with their beaks.

Regarding vision, chickens have an incredible ability that allows them to focus on more than one object of their visual field. They can simultaneously focus on objects both near and far.

Chickens can also see a much broader range of colors than humans. Their hearing is much better as well, as they can hear sounds that humans cannot, being able to detect both low- and high-frequency sound.

Similarities Between the Chicken and the Red Junglefowl

The red junglefowl is the ancestor of the domestic chicken, and the two have not substantial differences from one another despite potentially tens of thousands of years of domestication.

It is a species native to Southeast Asia, and domestication efforts took place in many different areas. (It is also thought that the gray junglefowl, Gallus sonneratii could possibly be integrated into domestic chickens as well.)

Researchers have found that fowl species show a range of behaviors and emotional states that people don’t typically expect from a species viewed so widely as a source of food.

Fowl can feel boredom, frustration, and positivity, and live in complex social structures similar to those of domestic chickens (typically living in flocks made up of 2-15 individuals).

Just like their descendants, the red junglefowl is able to simultaneously use each of their eyes for a different purpose: their right eye is normally used for focusing on smaller, finer details, whereas the left eye is used for novel (new) stimuli, spotting and focusing on predators, and distinguishing between family members.

Regarding personality, it is said that there is some degree of genetic inheritance that plays into the personalities – or behavioral syndromes (more on this later) – of individual fowls, however, they definitely display distinct differences in preferences and behavior between individuals.

Can Chickens Feel Fear?

Just like many – perhaps all – beings in the Animal Kingdom, chickens can absolutely feel fear. Fear is known to be an evolutionarily necessary sensation – it is what keeps prey animals from being eaten by their predators… well, that’s the hope anyway.

As the chicken is a flightless bird, somewhat like its ancestor, the red junglefowl, it needs to have a fear response to give itself a chance to escape death.

Fear is a type of stress response present in all complex animals, predator, and prey alike. It is often integrated into the way animals interact with one another, and, especially for social species, has a very specific place in communication systems. For example, chickens are known to have at least 30 distinct vocalizations, a handful of them dedicated to alarming the flock to danger.

In fact, roosters have been observed to alert the flock to the presence of a hawk or other predator. This is a defense behavior that has evolved in all birds, although it may differ on who is making the alarm vocalization – male or female – based on a given species’ social structure.

Particularly regarding chickens, the evolutionary significance of fearful behavior is shown in the persistence of it in the red junglefowl. Fear is regarded as an “affective state,” meaning an emotional or cognitive state that affects the decision-making, social interactions, and other cognitive processes of an animal. Fowls who live in a more enriched, safer environment experience less fear than those that don’t.

Can Chickens Think?

The study of human and non-human animal’s sentience based on their ability to form thoughts, make decisions, socialize, and generally experience their environment is called cognition.

In recent years, the field of cognitive science has grown tremendously, and much about the cognitive processes of chickens has been learned. Just like all birds, domestic chickens have been found to be quite intelligent.

Like many species, they are constantly making decisions about their environment and foraging (eating) patterns and behaviors based on physiological signals, such as temperature and scents.

Interestingly enough, it has also been learned that chickens are among one of the many species that make a majority of their decisions based on their emotional state (this is called “cognitive bias”).

Researchers have tested this theory by comparing the behavioral responses of birds who came from an enrichment-filled enclosure versus those who lived a relatively boring life.

When given the option of opening a food container (of an ambiguous color, so as not to influence decisions based on bright colors), enrichment-starved birds opened the container less often than the others.

This suggested that their moods strongly influenced their enthusiasm for food rewards and the researches referred to these birds as more “pessimistic” than those who were exposed to enrichment. It was also discovered that, in addition to the environment, relationships with other birds in the flock, level of fear, and motivation to feed all played a part in the bird’s decision-making process.

Do Chickens Have Personalities?

Chickens absolutely have personalities! Well, to be more accurate and appropriate, chickens most certainly have what are called “behavioral syndromes.”

Behavioral syndromes are the non-human animal version of personality. This term has been introduced to rid the cognitive behavior research community of the very normal and somewhat-forgivable behavior of anthropomorphizing.

A behavioral syndrome is a pattern of behaviors that occurs with a variety of frequencies that distinguishes one individual from another. A non-human animal’s behavioral syndrome can be defined by bold (lack of fear) behaviors, motivation to travel for food, and other things that may affect the well-being or decision-making process of a given animal.

Remember that chickens are not machines. This means that any given individual is capable of displaying behaviors that are in some way different from another’s behaviors.

This may be a dangerous generalization, but it can be said that any animal with a frontal lobe can exhibit behavioral syndromes to a certain extent. In fact, researchers have said that “personality traits are ubiquitous in the animal kingdom.”

Behavioral syndromes have also been recorded in the red junglefowl, in many different traits: cognition, fearfulness, and more. Of course, in addition to research, there is abundant anecdotal evidence that chickens absolutely have personalities. Just ask your local farmer or backyard gardener!

References

Edgar, J. L., Lowe, J. C., Paul, E. S., & Nicol, C. J. (2011). Avian maternal response to chick distress. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences278(1721), 3129-3134. doi:10.1098/rspb.2010.2701

Garnham, L., & Lovlie, H. (2018). Sophisticated fowl: The complex behaviour and cognitive skills of chickens and red junglefowl. Behavioral Sciences8(1), 13. doi:10.3390/bs8010013

Marino, L. (2017). Thinking chickens: a review of cognition, emotion, and behavior in the domestic chicken. Animal Cognition20(2), 127-147. doi:10.1007/s10071-016-1064-4

April

April has owned and worked with domestic fowl including chickens, turkeys, geese, ducks, and guineas since 1998. She has a B.S. in Agriculture from Cal Poly in Pomona, CA where she studied genetics, nutrition and reproduction.

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