© We request that you credit United Poultry Concerns as the source
of any information you derive from this article to be used in your
own work. Thank you.
Origin of Chickens
All varieties of domestic chickens, including the game fowl, are
scientifically regarded as descendants of the Red Jungle Fowl (Fumihito,
et al). The Red Jungle Fowl is a native of Southeast Asia. These
birds have existed for tens of thousands of years in their natural
habitat. Their contemporary wild relatives carry on the autonomous
social organization and behavior of their ancestors.
Social Organization and Behavior of Chickens
Laying Hens, a report published in 1994 by the Swiss Society for the
Protection of Animals, describes the primary behavior of wild and feral
fowl as follows: "Fowls spend most of their day foraging for food.
Chickens peck and scratch. Chickens frequently take sun baths. Fowls
take regular dust baths to keep their feathers in condition. Fowls sleep
in elevated places. Hens make their nests in sheltered places" (11-14).
Laying Hens summarizes: "Jungle fowls and feral domestic chickens
generally live in small groups. Each group comprises a dominant cock,
one or more hens, and immature birds. During the mating and rearing
phase, the hens separate off within the group territory so that the cock
is left alone or with a non-broody hen. . . . In nature and in husbandry
systems adapted to their behavioral needs, fowls form a strong social
structure. Although they are capable of distinguishing 80 or more
members of their own species, they prefer to live in small groups"
Roosters Don't Spend Their Time Fighting
Field studies of wild, feral, and domestic chickens show a complex
social life with virtually no fighting. "No serious fights were
observed," according to a 13-month study of feral chickens on Northwest
Island off the coast of Queensland, Australia (McBride, et al., 135).
This study depicts in detail the courtly and protective behavior of the
cock, or rooster, towards his hens and chicks.
For instance, when a hen is ready to lay her egg, she gives a nesting
call, inviting her mate to join her in finding a nesting site. Together
they find and create a nest by pulling and flinging around themselves
twigs, feathers, hay, leaves, and loose dirt, after they have scraped a
depression in the ground with their beaks and feet. Upon laying her egg,
the hen issues an "egg cackle," which brings the rooster to her side,
and together they rejoin the flock.
In their chapter on roosters, Rick and Gail Luttmann write in Chickens
in Your Backyard, "Most fighting is not very serious. . . . "[F]ights
seldom last long and rarely injure the combatants" (49).
Chickens-roosters more often but hens also-do ritual face-offs and
showdowns that last a few minutes at most and involve almost no physical
contact. From time to time one rooster will chase another rooster off,
but that is all. When a new rooster or hen is introduced to a flock
there may be (but there isn't always) some initial same-sex fighting
until the birds establish agreement about the social order. This period
seldom lasts longer than a couple of days (Davis, personal observation
at United Poultry Concerns, where our rescued chickens pursue their
activities inside large fenced yards containing trees, bushes,
peripheral areas of ground foliage and shade, open spaces, sand piles,
straw bales, and chicken houses with straw-covered wooden or dirt
Describing a serious fight that broke out between roosters penned up
together, McBride, et al. state: "A fight of this type was never seen in
the wild. Its fatal end was due possibly to the restriction of movements
in the pen, as well as to the inability of a defeated bird to escape by
flying into a tree" (158).
Chickens are foragers with an evolutionary instinct to range and search
for food. They have excellent full-color vision and highly developed
hearing that enables them to recognize the location and identity of
other members of the flock over vast areas of dense foliage. Biologist
Marian Stamp Dawkins writes: "Junglefowl, which are the wild ancestors
of our domesticated chickens, spend long hours scratching away at the
covering of leaves that hides one of their favorite foods-the minute
seeds of bamboo. An ancestral memory of this way of life seems to have
carried down the generations . . . so that even highly domesticated
breeds have the same drive to scratch away to get their food-if they
have the opportunity" (153).
Capacity for Pain and Suffering
Birds including chickens experience pain and suffering the same as
humans and other mammals. Like mammals, chickens and other birds have
nociceptors-pain receptors. Behavioral evidence supports
neurophysiological evidence of chickens' ability to suffer pain, fear,
and other forms of distress. In "Pain in Birds," Michael Gentle writes:
"Comparing pain in birds with mammals, it is clear that, with regard to
the anatomical, physiological, and behavioural parameters measured,
there are no major differences and therefore the ethical considerations
normally afforded to mammals should be extended to birds" (Gentle, 1992,
In "Behavioural and Physiological Responses to Pain in the Chicken,"
Michael Gentle concludes: "The close similarity between birds and
mammals in their physiological and behavioural response to painful
stimuli argues for a common sensory and emotional experience." Chickens'
beaks and skin are full of pain-sensitive nerves. Debeaking and
feather-pulling cause pain which has been characterized both
behaviorally and physiologically in chickens. To those who ask whether
the combs of roosters and hens can feel pain the answer is yes. In comb
pinch tests, for example, chickens show "active avoidance behaviour . .
. and vigorous escape attempts involving jumping, wing flapping and
occasionally calling" (Gentle, 1991, 1917).
Science shows that chickens have complex cognitive (mental)
capabilities. In The Development of Brain and Behaviour in the Chickens
(1995), avian specialist Lesley J. Rogers says that the chicken has "a
complex nervous system designed to form a multitude of memories and to
make complex decisions" (218), and that "[w]ith increased knowledge of
the behaviour and cognitive abilities of the chicken has come the
realization that the chicken is not an inferior species to be treated
merely as a food source" (213).
References and Suggested Reading
Wild and feral chickens raise their families and fend for themselves the
same as other birds. Field studies show that domesticated chickens
resume a natural state of existence that may be masked but not
extinguished by the domestic environment. One example is the feral
chickens of Riverbend in North Charleston, South Carolina. These birds
left the plantations on which they were originally placed to live
independently in the surrounding woods. White leghorn hens rescued from
battery cages instinctually roost in the branches of trees and bushes,
like their wild relatives and ancestors (Davis, personal observation).
It is increasingly recognized that chickens are hardy, social, and
intelligent birds and that "birds have cognitive capacities equivalent
to those of mammals, even primates" (Rogers, 217).
Davis, Karen. Personal Observations at United Poultry Concerns' chicken
sanctuary in Machipongo, Virginia, from 1990 - March-April 2002.
Davis, Karen. Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the
Modern Poultry Industry (Summertown, TN: Book Publishing Company, 1996).
Davis, Karen. More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and
Reality (New York: Lantern Books, 2001).
Dawkins, Marian Stamp. Through Our Eyes Only? The Search for Animal
Consciousness (New York: W.H. Freeman, 1993).
Fumihito, A., et al., "One subspecies of the red junglefowl (Gallus
gallus gallus) suffices as the matriarchic ancestor of all domestic
breeds." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 91
(December 1994), pp. 12505-12509.
Gentle, Michael. "Behavioural and Physiological Responses to Pain in the
Chicken." Symposium 34: Pain and Stress in Birds. Wellington, New
Zealand: New Zealand Ornithological Congress Trust Board, 1991, pp.
M[ichael] J. Gentle. "Pain in Birds." Animal Welfare. Universities
Federation for Animal Welfare, Vol. 1, 1992, pp. 235-247.
Luttmann, Rick & Gail. Chickens in your Backyard: A Beginner's Guide.
(Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press, 1976).
McBride, G., et al. "The Social Organization and Behaviour of the Feral
Domestic Fowl." Animal Behaviour Monographs, Part Three. Vol. 2, No. 3,
1969, pp. 127-181.
Roger, Lesley J. The Development of Brain and Behaviour in the Chicken.
(Wallingford UK: Cab International, 1995).
Swiss Society for the Protection of Animals STS. Laying Hens: 12 years
of experience with new husbandry systems in Switzerland. Basel,
Karen Davis, PhD, is the President of United Poultry Concerns, Inc., a
nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate and respectful
treatment of domestic fowl. For more information write to:
United Poultry Concerns, Inc.|
PO Box 150
Machipongo, VA 23405-0150
(Cockfighting - Chickens are Foragers, Not Fighters)