We don’t think so and we’re not alone! The term bird-brained is often used in a derogatory sense, referring to someone who is not very bright. Yet birds, and chickens in particular, have very complex brains that process information in a specific way.
Research has also shown that hens display intricate cognitive, social and emotional behaviours that put them on an intellectual par with primates. Not quite so bird-brained after all!
So just how clever are our chickens? Pretty darn brainy, actually. Scientific and anecdotal evidence has proven consistently that poultry display high levels of intelligence. If you own hens, you won’t need us to tell you that each hen is an individual. She has her own little quirks and habits that make her unique. What’s more, chickens are aware of themselves as being separate from others – hence their complex social interactions to establish a pecking order – displaying a level of consciousness that we normally only attribute to certain species.
They exhibit high levels of empathy too. Just watch a hen with her chicks! She fusses constantly to ensure they are ok, and even begins communicating with them whilst they are inside the shell, so they know the sound of her ‘voice’ once they have hatched. The term ‘mother hen’ is a cliché for a reason!
Possibly our favourite fact? Chickens dream! Much like a dog acting as if he is chasing something in his sleep, hens experience REM sleep. During this period, it is believed that they can have vivid dreams just like we do, Although, what your hens are dreaming about remains a mystery.
The scientific bit
Chickens, like humans, have a lateralized brain, though this is more pronounced in our feathered friends than in our own brains. Lateralization means the brain consists of two halves (known as hemispheres) that ‘divide up’ tasks, with each hemisphere processing information in a different way. It is fascinating to realise that not only can a hen see the world using both eyes (binocular vision) they can also use each eye to look at a separate image at the same time with no overlap of visual information between the eyes. This is known as monocular vision.
Being a prey animal in nature the chicken relies on the location of its eyes to give a panoramic view of the environment and to warn of potential danger from predators; for this it uses its monocular vision. Its binocular vision is used when foraging for food and to identify other members of the flock.
Now for the clever part; chickens can process two sets of information at the same time! While using one eye to look for food, the other eye is scanning for predators. If you have ever tried sneaking up behind a hen you will know how well this system works!
Are they ambidextrous?
Yes, they are! You may have seen this in action when your hens perform the same scratching routine in a set pattern, using a series of scratches. Chickens usually start with their left foot which is controlled by the right side of the brain. If the chicken finds food with its right foot, the right eye will see it first. The left side of the brain, linked to the right eye is responsible for the chicken deciding if an object is food or not. A quick decision can then be made, and the food eaten quickly.
Chickens have quick reflexes and can switch between sides swiftly, but you may have noticed they tend to favour the right eye to search for feed and the left eye tends to be more for identifying predators. This is because, when your chicken is still in the egg waiting to hatch, the left side of the head is usually tucked under the wing. More light therefore passes through the shell and reaches the right eye at the important time when the nerves associated with vision are developing.
So, in the traditional sense, our feathered friends are not so bird-brained after all! Want to know more about hens and their health? Check out our health and welfare blog.