Chicken Behaviors and Senses

Jonathan Balcombe (text) and L.A. Watson (illustrations)
Sensory nerves are located throughout the beak and help chickens negotiate fine movements when feeding, preening, building nests and in social interaction. Because the beak is so important for functions of touch and contain sensory nerves, birds subjected to the painful ordeal of de-beaking lose a significant part of their sensory system. It has been compared to losing one’s fingertips.
Chickens have olfactory receptors in their upper jaw and can respond to particular scents. This is helpful when making food choices. They can even react to odors that they were exposed to before hatching. Recent genetic analyses found that chickens have a similar number of olfactory receptors as humans, suggesting a comparable sense of smell to ours. A study conducted in Sweden and published in 2012 found that domestic chickens can detect predators using solely their sense of smell. The chickens reacted to predator scents (tiger and hunting dog droppings), with more watchful behavior, but they were unfazed by elephant and antelope dung. That chickens will not mate with close relatives, even those they didn’t grow up with, suggests that they are able to sniff out hens that are their siblings.
The location of the chicken’s eyes on either side of their head allows them to have panoramic vision of about 300 degrees. Chickens have good color vision and they can see in two completely different ways. They can use binocular vision, in which both eyes combine to view an object with enhanced depth perception (especially useful when foraging), or they can use monocular vision to look at separate objects on either side of their head (e.g., when watching out for predators). Chickens quickly learned to avoid colored feed that made them ill, and they prefer to peck at 3D rather than flat objects. Body postures and displays are forms of visual communication that play a vital role in the social order of chicken flocks.
A good sense of hearing is important when trying to distinguish between different kinds of vocalizations including those between a mother hen and her brood. The feathers that surround the ear help to channel sound into the ear canal. Like mammals, birds have an outer ear, a middle ear, and an inner ear. Birds are able to perceive sounds more quickly than can humans. They are also adept at pinpointing the source of a sound by assessing the lag time between the sound's arrival at either side of the head.

Listen as UnCooped co-curator Abbie Rogers explains the basic parts of a chicken's anatomy with Sam, a rooster who lives at Goat Mountain Ranch Sanctuary in Leicester, North Carolina. Then see other chicken behaviors such as: 


Chickens love to sunbathe and, like dustbathing, it is often a social behavior.  Aside from its purely pleasurable aspect, sunbathing is also thought to maintain feather health.  These happy hens are sunning themselves at Goat Mountain Ranch Sanctuary in Leicester, NC.

Hen & chicks

Mother hens guide their chicks to food through demonstration and soft vocalizations.  The chicks, imprinted on their mother, look to her as their primary role model.  Hens also protect their chicks with great devotion, either sheltering them under her wings or attacking a predator to drive it away.  Mother hen Lulu was very wary of the cameraman (someone she doesn’t know), and stayed on the alert for the entire filming session at Goat Mountain Ranch Sanctuary in Leicester, NC.


In this video, Hugh, a rooster at Goat Mountain Ranch Sanctuary in Leicester, NC, hears other roosters announcing their locations and responds in kind.  Roosters crow to help establish territory in relation to other roosters.

Mating display

Roosters will usually initiate mating with a courtship dance in which they drop a wing to the ground and dance in a circle around the hen.  If the hen is receptive to mating, she will crouch down for the rooster to mount her.  Unfortunately for Hugh, these hens both snub him.


Chickens preen themselves and each other to “comb” their feathers and spread body oils.  Allopreening (preening each other) also reinforces social relationships.  In this video clip, the white hen seems to be removing a piece of food or debris from her companion’s face.  Both hens live at Goat Mountain Ranch Sanctuary in Leicester, NC.


Sam, the rooster on the outside of the fence, has found food, and Petunia the hen cannot figure out how to get to it.  She paces the fence anxiously and expresses her agitation through vocalizations.  Sam and Petunia live at Goat Mountain Ranch Sanctuary in Leicester, NC.