Revised 2002

Chickens are Foragers, Not Fighters

By Karen Davis, PhD
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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" (11-14).

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 floors).

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, 235).

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).

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).

References and Suggested Reading

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. 1915-1920.

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, Switzerland, 1994.