Are Chickens Smarter Than Your Toddler?

I clearly remember being at the state fair as a young child and coming face-to-face with a tic-tac-toe playing chicken. My father fronted the quarter (or however much it cost) to have me, a free-willed 9-year-old boy, test my wits against a chicken. I felt a deep reluctance, not simply because the action seemed extremely odd, but because I wondered: What if this chicken turned out to be smarter than me? How would I ever live this one down?

Well, I happened to beat the tic-tac-toe playing chicken (two out of three, if I remember correctly) and had my fears put to rest — but this may have just been because I was nine years old, and not four or younger. News from the UK states that average barnyard hens are more than capable of beating the average toddler in challenges involving mathematical reasoning and logic, including numeracy, self-control and even basic structural engineering.

“The domesticated chicken is something of a phenomenon,” claimed Christine Nicol, professor of animal welfare at Bristol University, and she went on to say, “”Studies over the past 20 years have revealed their finely honed sensory capacities, their ability to think, draw inferences, apply logic and plan ahead.” In Nicol’s research she also found that hens have an understanding of physics, along with the ability to plan ahead and exhibit self-control, with 93% of hens understanding that if they waited longer to start eating food, they would be allowed access to it for longer. Most toddlers can barely grasp the concept of delaying gratification.

But to be fair, toddlers than make enormous developmental leaps (as they had during infancy) and grow to easily outsmart and surpass even the most accomplished chicken, whereas chickens just become someone’s dinner, or simply continue to peck at the ground. That said, should information like this provide us with a more evolved view and appreciation of hens and the like? Should it be an embarrassment to our striving toddlers? On the developmental spectrum, does it even matter?

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Glennis Whitney
Glennis Whitneyabout a year ago

They out smarted me quiet a few times, thank you for sharing.

Glennis Whitney
Glennis Whitneyabout a year ago

They were always 2 jumps ahead of me on the farm, great article.

Rosemary H.
Rosemary H.3 years ago

Until it was built on, I used to go for walks past a small wood that had been wired in as a supersize pen for a number of Cuckoo Marans. I always stopped to admire them, but they took little notice until the day when I found an ivy-covered branch that looked so attractive I decided to take it home. They spotted the greenery and were up to the wire in a flash. However big their enclosure, they had eaten all the grass, so I started to pick them handfuls every time I went to see them. They always came to see me eagerly for their fresh grass. 'You haven't trained them,' said my partner. 'They've trained you! ;) '

I was unable to go that way for some months, so next time I went for that walk, I thought the chickens would have forgotten me. They hadn't - they were up to the wire in a flash! One day I was passing on my motorbike and stopped. Disguised by my helmet and weatherproof clothing, I thought of people who always wear the same clothes to go near animals who might not otherwise recognise them. What! Not recognise me! There was no fooling those chickens!

Rosemary H.
Rosemary H.3 years ago

Soon afterwards I went to visit a family who had a number of trail hounds in an outdoor enclosure. I'd seen the hounds several times the previous winter, and they had been pleased to see me. While I waited for the house door to open, of course I expected the hounds to recognise me. They didn't and I was told they were actually upset by the unexpected appearance of a stranger! Thinking of the chickens, I was of course very surprised.

So now I doubt the ideas we grow up with about dogs being intelligent and chickens being stupid. I guess it depends on the breed, but some chickens are much smarter than some dogs!

Rosemary H.
Rosemary H.3 years ago

My own experiences of chickens is that they are very smart - in fact smarter than some breeds of dog - and I wish this article was long enough to elaborate, or had some good links.

Rosemary H.
Rosemary H.3 years ago

The story about the chickens too stupid to reverse and find their way out amazes me! All I can think of is this - birds have a very high rate of metabolism to enable flight, and domestic chickens are descended from jungle fowl who can fly as strongly as pigeons. Because of their rate of metabolism, birds have to keep their body temperatures constant by keeping their plumage in perfect trim. A drop in body temperature can soon spell death for a bird.

Possibly reversing out of the woodpile scraped the chickens' plumage in the wrong direction. Too much of this and they would be very uncomfortable, and no doubt their instincts would make them afraid. The lead bird would be trapped with the others behind, blocking her in. The bird at the rear had to overcome flocking instinct to 'leave' first.

I don't know for sure because I didn't see the chickens or the woodpile, but it's all I can think of. I don't wish to argue or upset you, but my own experiences of 'stupid' animals are usually that the human who reached this conclusion didn't understand the way the animals' minds work.

Carrie-Anne Brown

thanks for sharing :)

Suju Bala
Suju Bala3 years ago

thank you.. i love the picture of the child holding the chick.. such love for a little baby chick.. warmed my heart.
Life is as dear to a mute creature as it is to man. Just as one wants happiness and fears pain, just as one wants to live and not die, so do other creatures.
- His Holiness The Dalai Lama

Alexandra Hayward


Manuela C.
Manuela C.3 years ago

Of course they are.