You may be thinking, “what do you mean, how do they breathe?” Because surely, chickens breathe like any other animal? Well, it’s actually very different. The truth is that chickens have a specialised system for getting oxygen into their body and removing carbon dioxide. They use an efficient combination of two methods to obtain oxygen, allowing them to indulge in highly energetic activities such as flying and running all day long.
As you might expect, air enters through the nostrils, and passes through the pharynx and trachea. Chickens have long necks because they need to preen those hard to reach feathers, therefore they have a longer trachea to allow a relatively large amount of air to enter in one breath. The typical breathing rate for a hen is
12-37 breaths per minute. That’s compared to cockerels with a breathing rate of 18-20 breaths per minute and a human adult of 12–20 breaths per minute.
The trachea is protected by the larynx which makes sure food does not enter the airway when the chicken is swallowing.
The trachea branches into smaller bronchi, which enter the lungs and then branch into secondary bronchi and hundreds of small loops called Parabronchi. This results in a large surface area within a relatively small space and more efficient transfer of oxygen.
The lungs are attached to the ribs and only expand a little when air is breathed in. The lungs don’t expand like a balloon as happens when humans breathe. The rib cage in chickens is far more rigid than in mammals and provides a strong anchor point for the large flight-enabling muscles.
Now here’s the interesting bit… chickens also use their bones to help them breathe!
In addition to the trachea and lung system, the avian secondary bronchi lead into separate air sacs, and from there into the pneumatic bones.
Pneumatic bones contain a light honeycomb structure of air-filled cavities. These bones provide a secondary route by which air exchange can occur. The air sacs that connect the lungs to the pneumatic bones have very thin walls; they act like bellows to pull air into the relatively rigid lungs.
And that’s how chickens breathe!