What is a Chicken

Just What is a Chicken? And Why This Really Matters

chicken history

Gallus Domesticus

Ever wonder what gallus domesticus is? Where did they come from, what makes them cluck”? The key to maintaining sturdy birds, emotionally content birds and birds that build the immunity and vigor to withstand cold, laying and everything else that life throws at them is rooted in the biological design and INTENT of the species.

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We all know that our cats are obligate carnivores, designed to bring down prey after a stealth attack, walking on tiptoe and exploding with that final lightening strike. Our dogs were opportunistic omnivores and hunters, traveling for miles to scavenge with their packs. Our horses were designed to move in herds and graze continually.
What about those feathered bird-brains flittering about your homestead?

Part 1

The dinosaurs in your garden

Prehistoric Lineage

Your kids will be thrilled to know there are dinosaurs in the coop. And the dinosaurs still have the genes for teeth (talpid2 gene). Scientists are currently trying to reverse the evolutionary process and make…um…a chick-a-saur. Maniraptoran theropods were the ancestors of the present chicken and other avian beings. This includes the famous velociraptor (6 feet long) which actually was a feathered dinosaur – the movie got it wrong there  – but their brain size suggests these social creatures were quite intelligent. Paleontologists have found 66 million year-old fossils of bird-like dinosaurs called oviraptosaurs.

chicken history

Gallus domesticus – skeleton. “Photo: Ric Morris, Flickr”

Researchers at the University of Kent reveal that chickens (and turkeys) have had the least divergent variation in chromosome structure from their dinosaur origins.

chicken history

The oviraptosaur. “Photo: James Hay, Flickr”

Dr. Griffen explains, “We found that the chicken has the most similar overall chromosome pattern to its avian dinosaur ancestor.” Cool.  And yes, scientists are trying to harvest ancestral DNA from chickens to recreate a little dinosaur. And no, you can’t get dinosaur DNA out of amber sealed mosquitoes.  Cool idea, but…nope. We may soon be brushing our birds’ teeth.

Part 2

Bird brain.

“Why thank you!”

My chickens edit my writing. You’re welcome! Recent scholarship into avian cognition informs us what we chickie keepers already know chickens are extremely intelligent. Dr. Christine Nichols and Dr. Chris Evans (both Australian researchers) have listed several of the behaviors exhibited by our feathered Einsteins. These abilities, state Carolynn Smith and Jane Johnson (The Chicken Challenge:

What Contemporary Studies of Fowl Mean for Science and Ethics, 2012) demonstrate that “the size and density of neurons within the brain and the connectivity between the different regions… may be more important in determining cognitive function than the overall brain volume or brain region ratios typically measured… connectivity would be more important than simple [brain]size.” Chickens are continually trumping preconceived assumptions and showing some pretty brainy attributes that have yet to be truly explained.

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Here is a short list:

  • Learn from others. Called observational learning, chickens will watch someone else do something and learn from the results. Observational learning is critical in super prey (everything wants to eat chicken) animals. Vigilance, categorizing information and being a fast-learner are benefits to survival. You can’t wait to find out if all hawks are bad or just this one. You also can’t waste time and energy randomly freaking out.
    • chicken history

      My editor and researcher.

      Referencing learning the ability to understand a concept and then apply it elsewhere.

    • Are able to reason logically and understand the persistence of objects that corn you hid behind the feed bag is still there, and I will find it once you leave.”
    • Navigate using a sun-compass.
    • Demonstrate self-control or willpower. Studies showed that a chicken will wait for a better treat cache rather than take a smaller reward. They also exhibit self-awareness, other-awareness and self and other-assessments. Hmm, I can’t fly that far so I will use the ladder.” Nope, I can’t fight Mary but I can try to browbeat that cockerel. I may be able to get Lucy to help me. Chickens also recognize their own names and the names of others. They can understand that they are what is being reflected back in a mirror.
  • Practice complex foraging and decision-making. A chicken will choose to forage in an area with suitable cover or in areas with close access to cover. They are jungle animals. Cover = safety.
    • Exhibit Theory of mind. This term refers to the ability to understand that other animals have intent and a separate mind.” Chickens use language and register social cues from other chickens and other animals to gauge food sources, safety and potential events (being able to project thinking into the future and including feelings such as worry or anticipation what will or may happen). This is why your birds can tell what you may be up to and how that will affect them. Hey, Rupert, Farmer Bill is heading for the garage where he stores the birdseed. Betcha I can find more of the shelled sunflower than you.
chicken history

“You want to dig under the older leaves. That’s where the worms go. George! That better not be an eye-roll!”

    • Chickens deliberately share information and knowledge and pass down this knowledge through generations behaviorists call this culture. The best way to watch chickens sharing cultural knowledge is by observing a hen teaching her chicks what to eat and how to find food, where to sleep, where to dust bathe; and by a bird learning the ropes in a new flock.
    • Chickens are able to think about strategies and hold onto ideas in order to implement them at an opportune time. I’ll wait until Ms. Lilac has to lay before I go and see what she was eating.
    • Use a complex language that mirrors that of prairie dogs, dolphins, other birds like parrots (who have actually been taught human language) and primates (who also have been taught human sign language). Chickens are able to convey the concept of an abstract thought and to carry that into following conversations and according to behaviorist Carolynn L. Smith, this exchange of thought has only been demonstrated in fowl and a few primate species.” (http://digitalcommons.calpoly.edu/bts/vol15/iss1/6/)

Chickens lie, openly deceive and engage in feigning exhibitions (the rooster using the food call to deceive a hen into thinking he has food when he does not. The hens are rarely fooled twice! The hen is aware that another is lying and is not to be trusted in a future meeting. Again, this is an extremely complex ability.).

Dr. Nichols opens talks by listing these cognitive traits as a trick at conferences, I sometimes list these attributes, without mentioning chickens, and people think I’m talking about monkeys. These traits are not novel or special concepts. Having these capabilities is crucial to survival. They involve being able to predict good nesting areas (you have to understand the future if you are going to need 21 days of safety to reproduce), and employ empathy (the bluejays are screeching, something’s up) to be wary of predators and to maintain flock well-being; we are all in this together mentality.

chicken history

Ugh. That lab tech didn’t remove the phosphates as I stated. I wish I had hands.

Part 3

What does all this mean?

All chickens are descended from the pheasants named gallus gallus (jungle fowl). There is a reason why pet food is now formulated based on these “ancestral” models and why the commercials remind us our dogs are descended from the wolf. Our chickens’ behavior and physiology is an echo of the survival needs of their ancestors (well, the dinosaurs are a wee stretch…but still cool). Three key elements must guide our keeping practices in order to prevent unpleasant issues from arising in our flocks:

1. Provide a variety of cover and room for the birds to exhibit those natural intelligences and behaviors: foraging and searching to prevent boredom, social interaction, dust bathing, roosting, quiet nest areas, etc. This is critical to eliminating stress, fear responses, feather picking and other boredom induced habits. Even if you are keeping quiet breeds like silkies or cochins, chickens still have a need to “find” food and scavenge – add leaf litter or mulch piles and provide the birds free-range time (covered pens, chicken tractors or with you being “shepherd” or “chick-herd”). Not giving the birds the behavioral options that they are genetically designed to engage in, opens the door to chronic stress, poor welfare related disease outbreaks and poor performance.

2. Provide proper feed. Chickens are omnivores and hunter gatherers. Use only the best chicken feed and add supplements during times when the birds cannot forage for beneficial nutrition from greens and “wild” foodstuffs as well as collecting grit and varieties of soil. Variety in their diet is extremely important. Sea kelp is a great addition as well as lettuce, kale, spinach, fruits (do not feed avocado and citrus) and treats like sunflower seeds and mealworms. High fat foods like sunflower and corn are usually fed in the winter – feed very sparingly, if at all, in warm weather as these are “heat” foods. Try a variety to see what the birds enjoy. Never feed stale or spoiled food.

3. Never overpopulate or under-populate your flock as chickens are flock animals and rely on each other for security and contentment. Space is variable as you can create loft areas and layering by adding shelves (my coop has three layers of shelf areas and decks, complete with roosting sites). Some breeds need more space than others and the environment/weather, time spend indoors and other such situations all play a role in determining space needs. Always add more space than less. Also keep things in balance – not too many cockerels to hen ratios. Cleanliness is critical and an old Victorian saying sums up the rule: “your coop must be clean enough for a lady to shelter in it during a wet spell.” If you wouldn’t sit and relax in your coop – it isn’t clean enough. Dirty litter, damp litter, and manure/stale feed build-up is a severe health risk to the birds and to you. There should be no build-up of manure or filth and no smell of manure or ammonia in the coop. All water and feed dishes must be clean and the water and food, fresh.

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When planning and caring for your feisty dinosaurs, basing your actions on what the chicken is will always lead towards the right decision and happy chickens. And darn it, I found another blueprint for a Hadron Collider in the coop again.


  1. Mike March 21, 2015
    • Andrea M March 30, 2015

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