This may be the most challenging question to answer about chickens. It’s natural for pet owners to want to know that their pets can feel an attachment to them and, indeed, show affection and even love, in return for the love that the owner shows to their pets.
It’s not common for chickens to get attached to humans, however, they have been found to follow their owners from time to time. This could be down to the fact they relate feeding time when their owner is around. However, many chicken owners are 100% positive that chickens do feel affection for them.
So, let’s take a look at the evidence we do have about chicken’s ability to bond with their owners and their own kind and see what we can conclude. We’ll also see why chickens may also be a little prejudiced against some people too.
Chickens Can Recognize Their Owner’s Faces
One thing that is for sure is that chickens can learn to recognize a number of human faces (up to 100, in fact, which probably makes them as good at telling people apart as people are).
This means that when your face shows up every day to feed them, it quickly gets remembered and from then on in – your chickens know who you are, though they probably don’t realize that they are owned by you but they certainly appreciate being fed by you and that’s the important thing – to them, at least.
Chickens Understand Object Permanence Better Than Human Babies
Some say this indicates that a chicken is somehow smarter than a human baby, but we’re not quite so certain that’s true but what is true is this – chicks can come to grips with object permanence at the age of about 2 days old. In humans, this ability comes at about 2 years old!
What is object permanence? It’s an understanding that even when something can’t be perceived (that is touched, smelled, tasted, etc.) that it still exists. For babies, when something is removed from their sphere of influence, it appears that for all intents and purposes that something ceases to exist.
Oddly, many animals that are commonly held to be “smarter” than chickens struggle with this concept too and even adult cats can find it hard to come to grips with.
Chickens Talk To Their Young Before They Hatch
A mother hen tries to create a bond with her young before they hatch, and that means that they spend quite a bit of time talking to their eggs. Unlike human babies which just tend to wriggle around a bit when their mother talks to them in the womb, baby chickens can actually answer back from within the egg!
They start to peep and squeak in the final few days before hatching.
The practice works too. After a chick emerges into the world, it is completely attuned to its mother’s voice. When they hear it, they will follow their mother absolutely anywhere.
This may not be a direct display of affection as we have no means of asking chickens how they feel about their young or their babies how they feel about their mothers but it mirrors similar displays of affection in humans and their young and other species too.
Chickens Love To Play
If a chicken is able to feel affection, then we would expect it to show other social skills as well and one thing’s for certain – chickens love to play with each other and, indeed, with their owners.
They particularly love shiny things and things that they can eat. In fact, if you want to watch chickens play a lot, then food is the primary motivator for chicken play.
While they may be brighter than we’d, perhaps, expect birds to be – no chicken will be making an appearance on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” any time soon.
That means if you want to get your chickens to play with you in a specific way, you’re going to need to spend some time patiently walking them through what’s expected and you shouldn’t feel let down if they can’t work it out at all.
But they will play and that’s important because it suggests that chickens are social creatures and affection is more useful to a social animal than a solitary one.
Science Norway reports on several experiments which have shown that left to their own devices, chickens will invent their own fun with each other.
Chickens Can Show Empathy For Each Other
In the study, “Thinking chickens: a review of cognition, emotion, and behavior in the domestic chicken” by Lori Marino, they proved that chickens show genuine empathy for each other and more specifically for their chicks.
They showed that a mother chicken becomes distressed when she is unable to find her chicks and that her chicks are distressed in return when they hear their mother’s distress. Their heartbeats race and they call more loudly when this happens.
Do Chickens Show Affection To Humans?
Now comes the $6 million question and while we’ve shown that chickens can recognize people and that they have similar behaviors in certain aspects, which might suggest that chickens can feel affection – we haven’t proven that they can be affectionate to humans.
Affection, as defined by the dictionary is “a gentle feeling of fondness or liking”. Unfortunately, there is no way for us to ask a chicken (or, indeed, any other kind of bird) whether they feel affection for us and without that confirmation, we find ourselves in a grey area.
The Argument Against
Those who say that birds and chickens can’t feel or show affection for their humans warn that we are falling into anthropomorphism. Which is a really big word which means “given other things human-like properties when, in fact, no such property exists.”
Casey in her study, “Anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism as influences in the quality of life of companion animals” and Daston et al. in “Thinking with animals: new perspectives on anthropomorphism” both argue that we perceive affection in pets when we treat pets with affection.
They believe that no such affection exists because they preclude animals from feeling complex emotions as human beings do and while they note that bonds can exist between humans and animals (including chickens) these bonds are almost certainly based on mutual benefits and not genuine affection.
The Argument In Favor
The argument in favor is made by the owners of chickens who say categorically that their birds have affection for them.
Claudia Calvi on Quora says, “My husband loved his little Langshans more than the other breeds because they would come up and talk to him and keep him company in the garden. I like a little game bird that runs up to me and stays close. But I love the massive Australian game birds we had, two dinosaurs that jumped heavily into the feed bucket and looked at me with lively inquisitive eyes. I know it was food love but there was so much interest and joy in seeing me.”
Carla Carlisle writing in The Telegraph says, “For some time now I’ve kept a breed of chickens called Dark Brahmas who enchant with their feathered legs and good nature. They are lap-chickens who love companionship, sunshine, and conversation. They are gentle, modest and affectionate.”
You can find many other such stories splashed all over the Internet from chicken owners who are adamant that their birds are affectionate toward them.
Does It Matter Who Is Right?
We question whether it matters if chickens feel affection or not. What matters, from our perspective at least, is that owners feel that they receive genuine affection from their birds.
If this is real or not, isn’t very important, because it has the same impact on the owner’s happiness and well-being and thus, this “affection” is of the same value as the “affection” received from a dog or a cat or any other pet.
Maybe chicken owners are fooling themselves but in the scheme of things this isn’t a crime and if it improves the quality of their lives, who can blame them for enjoying the sun while it shines?
Can A Chicken Feel Love?
We don’t know if chickens can feel love for human beings any more than we know if their affection for human beings is real or not. What we do know is that chickens exhibit the behaviors we associate with maternal love and the love that children have for their mothers in return.
Can A Chicken Be Prejudiced?
We’ll leave our exploration of chicken psychology with a rather peculiar fact. Chickens are prejudiced. They like hanging out with attractive people more than they do ugly people. Well, to be 100% clear about this – chickens prefer people with symmetrical faces.
Symmetry in faces has been shown to be the most attractive characteristic to other people, so it seems that chickens are a little prejudiced but we’re almost certain that they don’t mean anything by it.
Do chickens get attached to humans? As we said at the start, we don’t know. There are certainly signs that chickens have feelings of some kind, but biologists reject this idea of “affection” whereas owners embrace it. We say that it doesn’t matter much, if you feel affection from your chickens, then it’s as real as any other kind of affection and chickens make for wonderful pets.