Chickens are the most widely found bird in the world, and there are only a few countries where they do not live. With an estimated six to eight chickens per person, they are also the most populous bird.1 Nevertheless, perhaps because chickens are typically perceived to have low intelligence,2 because we associate them with barnyards, because we have heard stories about their propensity for vicious attacks, or because they are seen as a mere commodity, they have not traditionally been viewed as pets.
This perception, however, is changing – and for good reason. Having a chicken or rooster as a pet, even an indoor pet, can be a rewarding and enriching experience in the same way a more conventional pet can. Though literature on their intelligence, cognition, and behaviour is still quite limited, there is enough scientific and anecdotal evidence that chickens and roosters are social, intelligent, affectionate, and empathetic.3 In essence, they fulfill the criteria that many people look for in an animal companion.
Choosing a rooster or chicken as a pet
Roosters are social animals with a patriarchal hierarchy. When baby chicks are born into the flock, almost immediately after birth they imprint on the first living being they see, and this individual then becomes the model for learned behaviours.4 When considering a chicken or rooster as a pet, the ideal situation is for the pet guardian to be that first living being a chick sees. An imprinted chick will follow their guardian around like their mother and can more readily adapt to an interspecies family – even one that includes typical predators like cats or larger pets like dogs.
Choosing a chick before its imprinting stage may not always be possible. Nonetheless, with regular handling, even young adults and older birds can still become affectionate and come to view their human guardian as part of their social structure.
When choosing an older rooster or chicken, individual personality plays an important role. It is the individual characteristics that describe and account for patterns of affect, cognition, and behaviour in chickens even more so than breed.5 In studying cognitive bias linked to emotions, for example, the differences among individuals were shown to be much stronger than differences even among the same breed.6 Thus, just like matching the temperament of a dog or cat to the potential pet owner, it is advisable to look for appropriate individual characteristics, such as willingness to interact with you, when selecting an older chicken or rooster as a pet.
Cognition, behavior, and intelligence
What can you expect from a pet chicken or rooster in terms of cognitive ability? Tied to both their social nature and especially food, some cognitive aspects are similar to what we recognize as intelligence in other species, including humans. Chickens have shown the ability to exercise self-control, do logical inference,7 and anticipate future events and outcomes. They have an episodic memory, meaning they are capable of remembering the “where” and “what” of specific events, making them capable of learning toilet training using operant conditioning with a positive reinforcer, for example.3
As social animals they have been shown to demonstrate social cognition and complexity to visually recognize, discriminate, and navigate social relationships in conspecifics.8 Chickens form social hierarchies, with one rooster maintaining dominance over a group of hens. When there is more than one rooster in a flock, they will fight and establish a hierarchy between themselves. The frequency and intensity of these hierarchy-confirming behaviors varies with the roosters’ environment and also their individual temperament.9 Some roosters are more disposed towards active aggression and other status-seeking behaviors (like crowing) than others. Dominance is not a mark of intelligence,10 but I’ve found that ensuring adequate mental stimulation can help keep aggressive and status-seeking behaviors to a minimum.
Anecdotal evidence points to their ability to discern members in interspecies relationships as well. In my experience, they do establish and recognize a hierarchy within a household, and are not afraid to display social dominance behaviors with larger housemates!
For anyone who has worked with or had a chicken as a pet, it will come as no surprise that chickens are also capable of complex emotions (positive and negative) as well as empathy. Furthermore, they have the ability to share the emotional state of another being, they show decision-making capabilities, and demonstrate emotional responses when anticipating certain events.11 As a result, they are very capable of reacting to reinforcers, anticipating them in response to showing the correct behaviour on command. Moreover, just like with cats or dogs, chickens demonstrate social (observational) learning, and roosters have also been known to manipulate situations to their advantage where food or social interactions are at stake. So, they will learn when other pets are being trained in the household.
What may also come as a surprise is that chickens and roosters are able to distinguish quantities (the cup more food is better), simple ordinality, and arithmetic operations of up to five objects.12 There is therefore a whole range of fun and enriching things – beyond standard things like come, sit, jump – around counting that you can teach and play with a pet chicken or rooster!
For a thorough look at the cognitive abilities, emotional capacities, and social behavior of chickens, I recommend this recent review article by Lori Marino.3
Of course, having a chicken or rooster as a pet is not without its challenges. A potential rooster owner must consider some practical aspects of having one at home, but learning a few basic things about how chickens and roosters understand and interact with their world will make a mutual relationship much more rewarding.
Chicken and rooster 101: A review of the five senses
Chickens have a well-developed sense of smell and taste, which they use in foraging for food. In fact, their sense of smell can even save the day. On more than one occasion my rooster saved the day by warning me about a forgotten pot on the stove! Even so, as many backyard chicken owners will tell you, a chicken is a curious animal and may try to eat things that might not be entirely safe for them to consume. It is advisable to carefully research what plants and food items can be dangerous to them to prevent emergency visits to the vet. (And as with all things internet-related, please do cross-reference and don’t believe everything you read. I have seen posts that claim that citrus are dangerous to chickens, yet my rooster loved mandarin oranges every day as part of his diet.)
Chickens also have excellent hearing. In fact, they can hear the full range of frequencies we do, as well as lower ones. They also have very acute visual abilities that allow them to see both up close and far away at the same time. So, don’t be fooled if a chicken seems focused on a bird flying in the sky above with one eye…with the other they can still be paying attention to you! In addition, they can see a much broader range of colours than we can, though, like us, their night vision is poor.13 This is good to remember in the evening or night hours because fingers reaching in to handle or pet your chicken can receive an unexpected defensive peck in an attempt to “see” what is coming towards them.
Then there is the fifth sense: touch. Chickens use their beaks to explore the world around them. The beak is a very complex sensory organ with quite specialized tactile discriminations14 and chickens use it not only to eat, drink, and preen, but also to investigate, grasp, and manipulate both food and non-food items.
The beak can also be used as a weapon for both aggression and defence (especially at night, when they cannot see). An unsuspecting recipient of a peck (e.g., during a session of operant conditioning) is often startled and misinterprets this form of communication as an aggressive action – especially where roosters are concerned. Yet chickens are quite capable of regulating the intensity of their pecks, so what may seem to be aggression may in fact be simple curiosity and exploration. That is not to say that your pet will not use their beak to defend themself or even you – if they feel the situation warrants it.
Perhaps it is worth mentioning that as chickens and especially roosters mature, they will explore and push the boundaries in their attempt to establish themselves in the social structure. The intensity of their pecking can increase at this time, even towards their human guardian, which should and can successfully be addressed. When my rooster reached his gangly teenage stage, he began to peck at my bare feet with greater intensity, even breaking my skin once (the one and only time he did in all of ten years!). I used differential reinforcement of an incompatible behavior — I removed my feet and presented a more appropriate object.
Communication beyond pecking
Chickens also communicate with their body and eyes, and learning to read them goes a long way in understanding both emotions and intentions and ultimately in developing a richer relationship. Through observation, a guardian can learn to distinguish their pet’s mood: “soft” eyes (dilated pupil and open eyelids) and head inclined to the side indicate curiosity, while narrowed eyes and smaller pupil can indicate alertness (flat feathers) or aggression (puffed feathers). Fear, warnings, courtship, friendliness, hierarchy confirmation, and informing of food sources (tidbitting) are just some of the information and behaviour that a guardian can expect to learn when getting to know their pet’s body language.
Vocalization also plays a major role in a chicken’s communication. With a large repertoire of at least 24 distinct vocalizations, chickens show complexity in communication.15,16 A rooster, for example, has a separate and distinct call for aerial and terrestrial predators.17 He can also change tactics depending on the situation: An alarm call is more likely when a female is present (evolutionary instinct to safeguard mate and offspring); the call is longer and louder when a rooster is safely under cover; and both chickens and roosters demonstrate audience effects, i.e., if someone familiar is present they are more likely to vocalize.18 Hence a guardian who takes the time to pay attention is likely to be rewarded with more interaction.
Lastly, one often-asked question and misconception about roosters concerns crowing. As a rooster matures, he will begin to crow around 3 to 5 months of age. When and how often an adult rooster crows is dictated by the individual rooster as well as his environment.
Crowing is a form of dominant and territorial communication, and in the morning and evening, with his hormones spiking, a rooster crows to announce his social position and check on his flock – a chicken roll call, if you will.19 The amount he crows at these times seems to depend on his sense of security. In between these two times, frequency and duration of crowing has anecdotally been linked to boredom, territorial insecurity and assurance, dominance, fear, and a general need to communicate with his group.20 It is interesting, that, like dogs who bark when their guardian leaves, an insecure sole pet rooster is also apt to crow more. This can, however, be controlled by ensuring your rooster is stimulated, has enough food, and feels territorially safe.
Personally, I accepted some degree of crowing when I decided to keep my rooster as a pet, though my decision was influenced by my location (a country with no zoning and noise laws related to animals). I addressed only two critical times: early mornings and evenings. With some behaviour modification my rooster learned to wait until I woke up before he started a short bout of crowing in the morning, and in the evening he rarely felt the need to vocalize after 4 p.m.
Daily routine: Food, cleanliness, sleeping arrangements
Although it is beyond the scope of this article to discuss everything related to a pet chicken’s daily routine and needs, there are three other areas to briefly touch on: feeding, cleanliness, and sleeping arrangements.
Feeding and sleep are interconnected in the chicken. Unless a guardian is willing to devote time to institute a strict lighting regimen which influences digestion and thus healthy nutrition in the chicken, ad libitum feeding is recommended.21 Chickens are omnivores, feeding on chicken feed, corn, wheat, fresh fruit, vegetables, and other plant matter (grass, dandelion, thistle), grit and dirt, small invertebrates (bugs, worms) and other protein. Since I had other pets in my household that were not free-feeding, I settled for grain, grit, and water being available at all times and provided greens, vegetables, fruit, and protein during regular set feeding times. In addition, I allowed time during daily walks and outings for my rooster to feed on what was naturally available outdoors.
In terms of cleaning, chickens preen themselves to keep clean, lubricate and remove excess oil from their feathers, and rid themselves of unwanted pests. To this end they instinctually “bathe” by rolling around in sand or dirt, occasionally in water. If access to a garden where these can be made available is not possible, a blanket can serve the same purpose. Your chicken or rooster will happily roll around and scratch in something soft, and may prefer it even if sand or water for bathing is offered.
Related to this and perhaps of more concern to the pet guardian is toilet training. Using operant conditioning with positive reinforcement a chicken can learn to be toilet trained to a specific location. The key is for the guardian to learn and catch the chicken or rooster before elimination occurs. Harder to detect in some individuals, a chicken will usually adopt a wider stance, their tail will become more upright, and their body will inflate (as if they are about to vigorously vocalize). Moving them to the desired location may temporarily stop the elimination, so patience is required at this stage in order to mark (e.g., with a clicker) and reinforce the behaviour with a high-value treat. Another option is purchasing chicken “diapers” that have a pouch in the back for elimination.
Finally, during the night, because a chicken has no night vision, elimination will occur where the pet sleeps. In the wild and at home, chickens like to roost above the ground – not only for cleanliness, but because as prey animals, this offers safety from ground and aerial predators. Providing a perch that conforms to their claw size and is sufficiently off the ground ensures that they feel safe and comfortable. Otherwise, expect them to move around during the night in an effort to avoid sleeping in their own droppings.
Regular handling brings up a couple of anatomical issues: the beak and wings. Making sure wings are tucked in during handling is important both for the bird’s sake as well as the guardian’s. It is all too easy to break an un-tucked wing – and getting a flapping wing in the nose from a panicky chicken or rooster can hurt! Beaks, too, can cause an unaware guardian pain. Exploratory pecking starts to be an issue in the teenage years, especially with a rooster, who may also become more aggressive as he matures. (This is true even if the chick has imprinted on the guardian.) Aggression can usually be addressed with behaviour modification, but a good personality match is key.
Convinced that this is for you?
If a guardian is willing to learn about the needs and put in the time to understand what their pet chicken is saying, they can expect to be richly rewarded with a close relationship. Regular handling combined with their natural tendency to socialize makes chickens very attentive pets that love to interact with their guardian. They are curious about everything new, interested in what you do, and will enjoy playing both mentally challenging and active games. And when you want to wind down and relax, a chicken or rooster will be right there by your side, ready to be petted and cuddled, and they will even affectionately preen you back!
This article is dedicated to Joey (Baboo) the Roo, the most amazing friend in the world – and all those people who just didn’t understand why.
Pauline Hruska changed careers from executive management to training animals and is in the process of becoming a qualified behaviour consultant thanks to her rooster Joey, who she was lucky enough to share her life with for ten years. Specializing in cats and roosters, she is an avid animal advocate who helps people better understand the needs of all pets regardless of size, helping to strengthen our bond with and responsibility to all living things. Pauline lives with her five cats, dog, and horse in the Czech Republic.
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