If you ask most people to make a list of the smartest animals, dogs – along with the likes of chimpanzees, elephants and dolphins – are likely to feature prominently. Chickens, on the other hand, are much more likely to appear on lists of the least intelligent.
However, it turns out we may be underestimating the intelligence of these quirky birds, and in this post, we look at why this is as we answer the question, are chickens more intelligent than dogs?
Dogs vs Chickens – how we see them
There are several reasons why we usually consider dogs to be far more intelligent than chickens, and one of the most important is familiarity.
Dogs – along with cats – are the animal people are likely to have the most contact with. We treat them as beloved family members with their own distinct personalities, and many people experience the intelligence and emotions of dogs every day.
Chickens, conversely, are usually not seen as pets. They are animals that are farmed for meat or eggs, and unless you happen to keep chickens, there’s a good chance you interact with them only rarely – if ever.
As a result, we are more familiar with how smart dogs are – while most people probably don’t think much about chickens’ level of intelligence.
For people who eat meat, this is probably a more comfortable view to take too because it makes it easier to accept chickens being reared on battery farms simply for slaughter without giving too much thought to their suffering.
Spending time with chickens can change your mind
However, as one experiment involving a group of students showed, when people spend time with chickens, their views tend to change.
In the experiment, a group of students was asked to rate the intelligence of chickens, after which they spent time training chickens.
After spending time with the chickens, they were then asked to re-evaluate the chickens’ intelligence – and the chickens fared much better in their second estimation.
Different types of intelligence
It can be difficult to compare the intelligence of dogs and chickens because they have different types of intelligence, and they have evolved – or have been bred – for very different environments.
However, there are several areas where chickens demonstrate levels of intelligence that may match or even exceed dogs – so let’s have a look at some now.
1. Chickens can trick each other
Chickens are social animals, and they are able to communicate important messages to other members of their flock.
However, researchers have discovered that roosters will sometimes make the “food” call when no food is present just to attract more females.
The hens are smart too, though – after a male tries this on a few times, the females will get wise to his tactics and start ignoring his calls!
2. Chickens are curious and get bored
This ability to signal that food is present is not always abused in this way, and chickens’ ability to accurately relay positive messages about the presence of food – or negative messages about the presence of predators – shows a level of awareness of their surroundings and each other.
At the same time, as any chicken keeper knows, chickens are curious creatures that will actively investigate anything new that turns up in their coop.
On the other hand, chickens that are not stimulated by novelty and new things to explore can quickly start displaying boredom behaviors such as picking at their cages, hardly the actions of mindless animals who have no awareness of their surroundings.
3. Chickens display self-control
The ability to restrain oneself now for a greater reward later is one that can be taught to dogs – and one that is also displayed by certain other animals including great apes – but it’s something that human babies can take some time to master.
Nevertheless, this kind of self-control is something that chickens have demonstrated, pointing to a certain level of intelligence and awareness in this area.
In an experiment, chickens were given the option of choosing a small treat immediately or a larger treat later, and after they learned how it worked, the chickens were able to hold back on the smaller treat with the expectation of a larger treat later.
This shows that they have at least some notion of the concept of time – and that they don’t exist only in the present and can at least partially plan for the future.
4. Chickens remember
Closely related to self-control and an awareness of time is the ability to remember past events, so-called “episodic memory” – and this is another trait that chickens have also displayed.
In one experiment investigating this, researchers “devalued” one type of food by feeding it to some chicks in advance.
After that, a few minutes later, the chicks were given the choice of the devalued food and another option – and they chose the new food over the devalued option.
This experiment shows that chickens are able to remember past events for at least a short time, showing they have some notion of the past as well as the future and don’t simply exist in the present.
5. Chickens can count
In other experiments, chickens have been shown to be able to do basic arithmetic, even just a few days after emerging from their eggs.
Chicks in an experiment showed that they understood the idea of “more than” and “less than” by choosing the greater quantity offered to them, and they also showed that they can add or subtract up to five items.
6. Chickens have complex social structures
Even people who have never kept chickens before will know the expression “pecking order”, and those who keep flocks of their own will know just how important this concept is in chicken society.
Chickens know their place in the flock, and they understand who their superiors and inferiors are. This is the kind of social intelligence displayed by wolves, the ancestors of dogs, as well as primates including monkeys, the great apes and even humans.
7. Chickens can be logical
An impressive kind of intelligence that chickens display is the ability to use basic logic, using what is known as “transitive inference”.
To understand what transitive inference means, let’s take an example.
If you are told that John is richer than Paul and Guy is richer than John, you should easily be able to work out that Guy is richer than Paul, even though you haven’t been told this directly – and chickens have displayed this same kind of logical reasoning.
If a chicken sees another chicken being defeated by a newcomer, if the chicken has already been defeated by the chicken that lost the fight, it won’t try to fight the newcomer.
This is because they understand that if the newcomer defeated a chicken they lost to, they won’t have a chance against the new unknown chicken.
For humans, this kind of reasoning is normal, but in the animal world, this kind of reasoning is much more exceptional.
8. Chickens show empathy
If we are evaluating chickens’ intelligence compared with dogs, emotional intelligence is something we need to look at, and as it turns out, chickens appear to display some signs of empathy.
When a chicken sees another chicken suffering, it can also show signs of distress, which indicates that at least on some level, they have an empathetic understanding of what suffering means and what the other chicken is experiencing.
9. Chickens can recognize different humans
One of the things that mark dogs out from many other animals – and one of the things that have led to them being labeled “man’s best friend” is their ability to recognize their owners.
Dogs undoubtedly recognize different people, and they react differently to people they like – and ones they don’t like.
However, this ability is not unique to dogs, and it is something that will be familiar to anyone who keeps chickens too.
Chickens can remember individual humans and will react differently to ones who treat them well and ones that treat them badly.
So even in this area of intelligence that usually marks dogs out as one of the most unique animals – and one of the traits that makes dogs such a perfect pet – chickens can display at least some of the same types of intelligence.
10. Chickens recognize their names
Similar to this is chicken’s ability to recognize their names.
Dogs are among the most trainable animals, another trait that has seen them become one of the most ubiquitous pets in the world.
Dogs learn easily, and they respond to a large number of commands – and while chickens can’t match this ability, they are at least able to recognize their own names, something that indicates a certain level of intelligence.
Chickens can match dogs in certain areas of intelligence
As we said at the beginning, dogs and chickens have very different types of intelligence, which is only to be expected because of their different evolutionary histories.
The idea that chickens are dumb and dogs are smart is also reinforced by the way we perceive both species – one is considered “man’s best friend” while the other is usually seen as no more than a resource to be exploited for meat and eggs.
However, as anyone who has had close contact with chickens will say, they display clear signs of intelligence, and individual chickens all have their own personalities – and the science backs this up.
So while it’s a bit of a stretch to say that chickens are more intelligent than dogs, it would be wrong to write them off as just dumb animals that have little understanding of the world around them.