Many people have been conditioned to look at chickens and eggs as nothing more than food, but in reality chickens are intelligent, sentient beings with the capacity to suffer and experience joy just like our dogs. Looking at them as mere morsels on a plate blinds us to the chicken's remarkable traits as well as the sheer cruelty that they endure in factory farms. Egg-laying hens are often packed in wire cages with little room to move, and chickens raised for meat are also either caged or crowded together on the floors of filthy sheds, denied the ability to express natural behaviours and then slaughtered without even basic animal welfare standards in place.
Studies show that chickens can identify numbers up to 10 and are able to recognize human faces.
At Humane Society International/India, we dedicate one of our biggest campaigns for the protection of hens and chickens and want to give you a glimpse into their wonderful, innate abilities to make you understand why they are just as precious as our dogs and cats. Prepare to be amazed!
1. Look who's talking too!
Chickens have a well-developed system of communication that is ingrained in their brains even before they hatch. The embryos are known to be quite chatty, and known to emit distress or pleasure calls to which the mothers respond. Have you wondered how chicks find their mother right after they hatch even though they have never seen her? Well, they have the extraordinary ability to recognize the voice of their mother even before they hatch because they have been hearing her as embryos.
When allowed to flourish in their natural environment, these garrulous birds will show you that the word "cluck" doesn't quite describe all of their conversations. Chickens are known to produce 19 different types of vocalizations, including two separate alarm calls for land and aerial predators. Males call out to females when they find food. Each rooster even has a different call.
2. Look Ma, no hands!
Chickens are not the clumsy creatures we may think they are. Their beaks are highly innervated: the tips are very sensitive and have neural receptors that help them recognize and respond to various stimuli. Chickens are able to use their beaks to pick up things, identify food by taste, preen and defend themselves.
3. I spy with my eye...
Chickens have excellent eyesight. While a normal human field of vision is between 170 and 180 degrees, a chicken's visual field is 330 degrees. In addition, unlike us, they can detect ultraviolet light, which helps them see far more colours and shades than the human eye can. Much of their food, such as insects and seeds, tends to reflect UV light, whereas green leaves and dirt do not. The resultant contrast from the reflection makes the former easily visible to the birds.
4. More space, please!
All it takes is a rainy day for us to complain about being "cooped up" at home. Imagine then how horrific it must be to spend your entire life in a coop when you are inherently built to run free. When allowed to roam free, chickens indulge in their naturally inquisitive tendencies and will scratch and peck at the soil in search of grubs. They love to groom themselves and will spend hours preening their feathers to perfection. They may not soar into open skies like other birds, but don't be surprised if you find a chicken on the wing, looking for the perfect branch to perch on.
5. Chicken-brained? Now that's a compliment!
Chickens are smart birds whose intelligence is often underrated. Studies show that chickens can identify numbers up to 10 and are able to recognize human faces. They are also keen observers and learn from the responses of others in the flock. For example, by observing their mother and/or other hens, chicks learn to pick a particular type of food while avoiding those that were left out or were found to be unpalatable or harmful by others.
Hens call to their chicks who are yet to hatch, and teach them the sound of their voice.
They also have a remarkable sense of time—for example, you will find that when there are established feeding times, chickens will demand to be fed at the same time every day. While it takes human babies six to seven months on average to understand than an object taken out of the field of vision still exists, chicks possess this ability just days after their birth.
6. Mamma knows best!
Hens display a number of behaviours that show they are very devoted mothers. They look for a secluded spot to lay their eggs, waiting patiently till the eggs hatch. They call to their chicks who are yet to hatch, and teach them the sound of their voice. Once the chicks emerge, the mothers will brood over the chicks by spreading their wings over them to protect them from predators and offer warmth. They keep a close eye on their chicks, teaching them through various vocalizations and feeding displays, the nitty-gritties of picking the right food and avoiding predators.
Chickens are all of this and much more! Despite their definitive emotional and cognitive abilities and heart-warming personalities, we fail to recognize these fascinating creatures as loving, feeling beings. Now that we know what wonderful creatures they really are, we should strive to end their exploitation at human hands by taking a pledge to leave them off our plates for this World Vegetarian Day, which falls on 1 October. And you can go further by following the 3 Rs of eating: reducing your intake of animal products, refining your diet by avoiding foods produced in the worst production systems and replacing them with plant-based substitutes. You can be sure that chickens everywhere will cluck "Thank you!"