Chicken IQ

When I first got chickens I did a fair bit of reading about them. There’s plenty of evidence pointing to the fact that chooks are pretty darned bright. They communicate with numerous different clucks and calls, they recognise individual (up to 100 of them) chickens and humans and they can be trained – maybe not to sit and stay, but complex concepts like delayed gratification they get. Chicken lovers are full of clever chicken stories. Let me add mine to the mix.

Lately, on a pretty much twice-daily basis, we’ve been chopping up vegetable matter (sweet corn husks, broccoli stumps, kohlrabi leaves,….) to feed to our girls. We have heaps of offcuts and the chooks really don’t eat scraps if they aren’t chopped; there’s too much easier pickings out there. We’ve learned that if we mix it in our mini-food processor, it gets nice and small and the girls gobble it up. Of course mixing it with yogurt and adding a dollop of yogurt on top makes it even better. (Luckily I make our yogurt so we don’t need to be stingy.)

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A while ago Frank asked me if I thought that the girls would start to recognise the sound of the food processor and get ready for their food. I said, “no way”. I was confident in this because a) we make all kinds of noise in the house and why would they pay attention to something coming from an internal room? b) sometimes we blend a good 30 minutes before serving (we often prepare treats before going out and locking the girls in their run) and c) sometimes we blend for ourselves and they don’t get a treat. How could they make the connection?

I am amazed and pleased to say I was wrong. Now, whenever the food processor starts, Isabel makes a very loud call. If it’s not the same call she makes when she’s separated from the flock (i.e., the other 2 chickens) it is so close that I can’t tell the difference. She moves near the back door and keeps issuing that whine while the treat prep continues and for a few minutes after. It happens every time we mix, always within a few seconds of the food processor being turned on. There’s no denying that Isabel has figured out this sound precedes her favourite treat – yogurt.

Here’s their afternoon treat. Yes, I reuse the morning plates and bowls without washing; I don’t think they care. I now provide 3 servings. I used to prepare 1 until I realised that Bronwyn started pushing the other 2 away after the first mad feeding frenzy – I added a 2nd plate for Isabel and Rosie to share. Then I noticed Isabel had started biting Rosie and chasing her away from the 2nd plate. Poor Rosie would walk around looking forlornly at the treat plates. Isabel’s a scratcher (she scrapes her foot across any treat plate) so there were bits on the grass for Rosie to steal, but still. Now the house rule is all treats must be delivered in 3 equal and separate portions. Imagine if I had a dozen birds!

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Here’s Isabel proving she doesn’t care if the bowl is dirty.

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Not only has Isabel figured out what that blending sound (often) means, she’s also learned that each treat plate comes complete with a dollop of yogurt. She rushes to each plate as I set it down and takes a huge beak-full of yogurt before relinquishing the rest to the other hens.

Chickens may not have the IQ of a primate, but they aren’t just dumb beasts either. Of course mine are much cleverer than the average chooks 😉

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About Laura Rittenhouse

I'm an American-Australian author, gardener and traveller. Go to my writing website: www.laurarittenhouse.com for more. If you're trying to find my gardening blog, it's here.
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24 Responses to Chicken IQ

  1. so funny! but you are right, if my chooks see me they run towards me wanting corn! x

    • I spend so much time with my chooks that they often just look up and assuming I don’t have a plate in my hand, just got back to pecking. They always migrate towards the area of the garden where I am, but they are over the belief that I exist only for the purpose of giving them special treats – I’m just the head chook. Not that they don’t live in hope, but gone are the days of the youthful enthusiasm – I think my girls have grown up.

  2. vuchickens says:

    Very cool. I too am amazed by how smart they can be. Go Isabel!

    • I often think Isabel is the smartest – then I’m positive it’s Bronwyn – then I decide Rosie is the brains. It think the truth is all chickens are pretty smart, they just hide it well. (If they didn’t jiggle their heads all the time I’m sure they’d have a better reputation. What is up with that constant head-jiggle? It just looks plain dumb.)

  3. Coop Poop says:

    Oh man…I think even my picky chooks would eat your scrumpious meal!! Hell, I’ll even eat it – and off a dirty plate too!! YUM!! I had a friend bring over pulp from her raw food diet (juicing) and they would not touch it. Perhaps if I food process the real stuff with liquid intact and not just the pulpy stuff, they would eat it! I’ll try Kohlrabi leaves next!

    As for your smart chickens – you betcha they have the food processor thing figured out!! Don’t ya just LOVE your chickens! And by the way, looks like your chickens got you wrapped around their little…finger – whatever lol!! 🙂 (what IS one digit of a claw called?)

    • I am sure your girls will eat the pulp if you mix it with a bit of water and yogurt (never tried milk but it probably works – chooks love dairy).

      Yes, I LOVE my chickens. And they do have me wrapped around their little toe. (Is it toes? 3 toes? I just don’t know.) That’s not surprising – I’m a pushover. The big surprise is my hubby dotes on the silly birds. He thinks they deserve multiple treat plates a day. Sometimes he tries to hide behind the “I don’t want to waste it” excuse but then I catch him squatting and talking to the chooks and he’s totally busted 🙂

  4. Linda says:

    Chickens are quite the characters…I had a good time playing with a friend’s one day…never would have thought they were all so bright! Thanks for sharing such a lovely story.

    • I love that you call your interaction with a chicken “playing”. It’s not like they retrieve a ball or anything, but they are fun to hang out with. I like to think of them as more like adults who enjoy just sitting around chatting (they are very talkative) rather than kids who prefer rough and tumble games.

      • Linda says:

        Aww, they were very sweet. One of hers would very easily allow you to hold her…and I loved how they would eat bits of greens and treats right from my hands. They were just a load of fun! Of course, the two roosters were awfully rowdy as the females hadn’t matured yet.

        • My one disappointment (okay, there are others but I’m ignoring those for now) is none of my girls like to be held or touched. They walk up, stand on my foot, settle and nap on my foot, peck at my legs and clothes, hover and then…. I reach my arm out and they back away.

          The only time I can easily touch them is at night when I’m locking them up. I take advantage of their need to roost by petting each one on their chest and telling them how beautiful they are. I’ve been doing this since I first got them. In the first weeks they whined and tried to move away, now they just resign themselves to being tucked in. I can see them rolling their eyes as I approach “oh no, here comes the toucher again”.

          • Linda says:

            Lol! The little darlings! Yeah, they never seem to be very open to handling…there was only one that was very accepting of it and another that tolerated it. Most of them would run away as fast as they could if I tried to grab them! The two that are more accepting were handled a lot as chicks, so I guess that made a difference for her.

            • I got my girls as pullets so they were not used to humans at all. My guess is the only handling they’d had had been traumatic (they’ve all had their beaks trimmed – eeeek). They didn’t even know how to eat grass or forage at all – they just wanted grain from a container. They’ve certainly changed and love foraging, but handling is still a bit of an iffy proposition. They’re happy to eat from my hand but, as far as they’re concerned, that’s all hands are good for 🙂

              • Linda says:

                The poor dears…I didn’t realize some places trimmed beaks on the pullets. I know my friend got hers as pullets, but they have their beaks (ouch). I guess that’d help hers have an easier time accepting people. Will have to look out for this when I finally have room for chickens!

  5. I think the beaks are trimmed at like day 1 (ouch). I bought my chickens off a guy who buys them apparently from large farms. He says it’s very difficult to buy Isa Browns in Aus that aren’t debeaked as most are destined for the battery hen life. I hate that mine are debeaked but I like the thought that I’ve saved them from a life in a small cage (shudder). When I get more chickens (when these stop laying they will live out their days in lazy garden grazing in my backyard) I am not sure what I’ll do. I doubt I’ll get chicks and so maybe I’ll try a different breed??? Luckily I have a good year before I have to worry about that.

  6. I can just imagine Isabel rushing to each plate to get a sneaky beakful of yoghurt off each treat plate before the others get to it. Love it.

  7. I love the chicken behaviour tales. I know birds are a lot smarter than you think until you are actually with on a day to day basis. I was very surprised that they liked yoghurt and dairy, I think you can get a false set idea about what animals will eat.

    • I have been constantly surprised about chickens – they are nothing like I expected. They are friendly, curious, have quite a refined palate and, of course, are clever little things. I am guessing most birds are the same.

      • What I really need is chickens you could train not to scratch and dig up your flowers.

        • Bronwyn clearly knows she’s not supposed to get into my veggie patch because when I catch her in it she looks guilty (sort of hangs her head) squats and waits for me to come lift her out. She even waddles over to me l when I call her – she’d never do that in the open garden. Unfortunately I think it’s a far cry between knowing you’re doing wrong and avoiding doing wrong.

          Chicken morals – interesting concept.

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