Chickens are incredibly smart, as smart as mammals like cats, dogs and even primates. They navigate by the sun. A chicken is able to understand that recently hidden objects still exist, a talent that is beyond the capacity of small human children. Chickens show sophisticated social behavior; they form friendships and social hierarchies, recognize one another, love their young, and grieve the loss of close friends or family members. A mother hen will turn her eggs as many as five times an hour and cluck to her unborn chicks, who will chirp back to her and to one another from inside their shells.
A video produced by the Association for the Study of Animal Behavior shows chickens learning which bowls contain food by watching television, learning to peck a button three times in order to obtain food, and figuring out how to navigate a complex obstacle course in order to get to a nesting box. In 2002, the PBS documentary The Natural History of the Chicken revealed that “chickens love to watch television and have vision similar to humans. They also seem to enjoy all forms of music, especially classical.” Another source mentioned that some chickens prefer classic rock music. Different pickin’s for different chickens.
The language of chickens, known among us fanciers as Chickenese, is quite remarkable. Chickens have more than 30 distinct cries to communicate with one another, including separate alarm calls depending on whether a predator is traveling by land or sea. I realize that this fact may be a gunshot to the foot of my whole theory that my chickens were responding to the geese because of an ancient relationship. It’s possible, of course, that they may have been giving a cry of alarm instead of singing a song of recognition, but frankly, I was there, and I don’t think so.
Among the Chickenese phrases I have come to recognize are hello and good morning; thank you; I laid that one and I’m so proud; water, please; open this darn gate; and here she comes! As I’ve told a number of people, in middle age I care a great deal less about whether or not people like me, but my heart just sings every single time I step out the door and look up to see fifteen chickens barreling toward me from all over the yard as fast as their little legs will carry them. It is my steadfast belief that they think of me as family; I can do no less than think the same of them.