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Few of us will ever know why the chicken crossed the road, but we do know that they’re intelligent, amusing, and, sometimes, challenging.
Why do chickens eat their own eggs? Can chickens swim and, if so, do they do breaststroke?
Read on to discover some home truths about your feathered friends, their origins, and their oddities.
1. Where Do Chickens Come From?
The most obvious answer is “the other side of the road”, but a more accurate response would be from the jungles of South East Asia. Charles Darwin believed that the chicken was directly “descended from the red junglefowl Gallus gallus”, hence the chicken’s Latin name being Gallus gallus domesticus.
Further studies suggest that at least one other bird species contributed some genes to the humble chicken.
Researchers at Uppsala University concluded that “the gray junglefowl was probably crossed with an early form of the domesticated chicken”, contributing “the genes for yellow skin” which are now “spread among billions of domesticated chickens around the world.
2. Can Chickens Fly?
Despite their chubby bodies and over-developed flight muscles, chickens can fly, although not very far nor very gracefully. My rooster loves to show off by flapping inelegantly onto a fence post from where he can crow about his achievements to a flock of adoring, and slightly less agile, hens.
On the other side of the coin, why can’t chickens fly?
According to Michael Habib of the Dinosaur Institute at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum, humans are directly responsible for the chicken’s clumsy approach to flight. “We did that to them,” he says. “We did it through the oldest kind of genetic engineering we’ve got, which is selective breeding.”
Many domestic chickens are even further impaired. Clipping wings is a common practice designed to prevent flighty behavior and airborne escape. We used to have a little collection of bantams who loved to roost in the nearby trees. It was only by clipping their wings that we could stop them from roaming further than we desired.
3. How Many Chickens Are There in the World?
Everyone knows you should never count your chickens before they’re hatched, but has anyone tried counting them at all? They have and, according to a report from Statista, in 2018 there were 23,709 descendants of Tyrannosaurus Rex scratching the surface of the earth – that’s over nine billion more than there were in 2000!
In 2016, the Chinese were the biggest producers of chickens, contributing “9.6 billion chickens” with the US following close behind with a feather-flapping 8.9 billion. That translates to 30 chickens per US citizen!
4. How Long Do Chickens Live For?
A friend of mine proudly told me that the oldest members of her flock were reaching the grand old age of 14. That night, a caracal (South African lynx) stole into the coop and, sadly, put an end to her hen’s impressively long life.
Experts estimate that chickens kept in a free-range environment, like those on homesteads and back yards, have an average life expectancy of between 8-10 years.
The world-record-holder for the longest living chicken is, as far as the Guinness World Records concerned, a Red Pyle chicken named Matilda who lived to be 16 years old. Hailing from Alabama, Matilda was a working hen who “acted as an assistant for magician Keith Barton”, never laid an egg, and spent her entire life indoors.
If hens can live to such ripe old ages, how long do roosters live? To be fair, there’s little difference in life expectancy, with the average ranging between 5 to 8 years and the oldest, purportedly, surviving for two decades!
5. Is a Chicken a Bird?
Being related to the Tyrannosaurus Rex doesn’t stop the chicken from being classified as a bird, despite many people struggling “to see them as typical birds”.
Although a more accurate definition of the chicken is a galliform – a type of “heavy-bodied ground-feeding bird” – chickens are still birds.
Easily distinguishable thanks to its one comb and two wattles approach to life, the chicken is, nonetheless, “a type of domesticated fowl”. It doesn’t give birth – it lays eggs. So no more speculating, “Is it a bird? Is it a plane?” etc, ok? It’s a bird. Period.
6. Can Chickens Swim?
Even more unlikely than seeing a chicken take flight is seeing one paddle across the water like a duck. Weirdly enough, however, chickens can swim, albeit for a brief period. Unlike ducks whose feathers repel water, chickens quickly “become heavy and waterlogged, which causes them to tire quickly.”
Chickens certainly won’t take to swimming like a duck to water and most owners never have to worry about floating fowls. Sadly, I have lost a little chick to drowning after I failed to place a rock in the water bowl to enable his escape but I very much doubt he jumped in to purposefully test the waters.
7. What Are the Best Names for Chickens?
I’ve never named my chickens and I’m beginning to feel rather guilty about it. I only have 10, so it’s not a difficult challenge, even if four of them are identical.
Among the most popular names for chickens are some well-known classics like Big Bird and Henrietta. Fortunately, there are also some more creative ones. I’m quite tempted to name my rooster Chuck Norris and my large white hen, Amelia Egghart.
Not quite what you had in mind? Get some more inspiration from our epic list of 115 Cute and Funny Chicken Names for Your Hens and Roosters.
8. You Kinda Have to Name the Coop Too
When our flock of Indian Runner ducks arrived last year, we opened what we believe to be South Africa’s first Quackpackers but our poor chickens still live in a plain old, nameless coop.
Why have I never thought to give it a name? Cluckingham Palace would do just fine. Or maybe The Eggloo would be a better choice? What do you reckon? Find the perfect name for your chicken coop by checking out our 105 chicken coop names here. here.
9. What Is a Group of Chickens Called?
Now we’ve named our feathered friends and their home, it’s time to get our collective nouns in a row. I always thought a group of chickens was a flock but, it appears, that’s not the only option.
Maybe you have a brood of chickens in your backyard and maybe Elle, the editor at Outdoor Happens just has a clutch or a peep. I might start calling mine a conspiracy, although that’s usually reserved for lemurs!
What collective term do you use to refer to your little collection of dinosaurs?
10. Are Eggs Meat?
Although eggs do come from chickens, they’re not considered to be either meat or dairy. Some vegetarians refuse to eat fertilized eggs on the basis that it “destroys a developing animal.” However, the experts say, “fertilized eggs rarely develop into embryos because they require very specific conditions to do so.”
While eggs have “a similar quality of protein” to meat and can be “used interchangeably”, they are neither meat nor poultry. So, they’re just eggs, then? Egg-actly!
11. Why Do Chickens Eat Their Own Eggs?
It’s a common occurrence and something I’ve witnessed on and off for the past decade. You arrive at the coop and there’s a mess of broken shells and yolks everywhere.
Why are the chickens eating their own eggs? From what I’ve seen, it’s often caused by conflict when the number of roosters gets too high. Scientists say it’s the result of a lack of calcium.
12. How Smart Are Chickens?
There are many times I call my chickens stupid but it’s not really fair. Their ridiculous behavior and complete inability to figure out where the entrance to the coop is, apparently, not a fair indication of the chicken’s intellect.
A research study performed in 2017 revealed that “chickens are intelligent and emotional animals with individual personalities” while one conducted in Italy three years earlier demonstrated how “chicks can add and subtract using numbers smaller than five”.
Not only that, chickens have “over 30 unique noises they can produce”, experience rapid-eye-movement sleep, indicating an ability to dream, and “have better vision than humans”.
I wonder why they can’t remember where the gate to their coop is?
13. How Do Chickens Mate?
My rooster starts every day with some enthusiastic mating so I can confirm that there’s very little romance involved. Having said that, there is a little foreplay as the rooster prances about before mounting his hen of choice.
Just as there’s no romance involved, there’s no penetration either. Rather than having a penis, a rooster has a cloaca or vent instead. He uses this to both pass feces and “to transfer sperm to a hen”. Similarly, the hen, lacking a vagina of any description, receives the sperm through the same orifice she uses for eggs and the yucky stuff.
To fertilize an egg, the rooster and hen must exchange a “cloacal kiss” which sounds much easier than it is. In reality, “a bit of avian gymnastics” is required to get everything lined up!
Of course, you don’t need a rooster around – your hens will lay regardless – but, if you do, you could look forward to some fluffy yellow chicks three weeks after the cloacal kiss has been performed.
14. What Is a Pullet?
A pullet is a young hen under the age of one year that has not started laying yet. Chickens usually lay their first egg at 18 weeks old, but their effort often comes out much smaller than a standard chicken egg. They are nevertheless delicious and “incredible for poaching and frying”.
15. How Hard Is It To Raise Backyard Chickens?
How hard is it to raise chickens is similar to asking, “How long is a piece of string?”. On my smallholding in South Africa, it’s quite hard as there are numerous predators, from caracal and jackal to snakes and eagles, who are just as keen on chicken as we are.
You need a decent-sized, sanitary coop (more about that to follow) where you can keep your flock safe overnight. You also need to provide food, water, and shelter during the day. Good fences and regular observation are also key to raising healthy chickens.
A couple of problems that may occur is chickens getting into your vegetable garden and decimating your spinach, or just making themselves at home in your living room. Other animals, especially dogs and cats, may find such behavior abhorrent!
16. How Much Space Do Chickens Need?
According to my little flock of 10, they need just over 6ha so just under 15 acres apiece! I think they may be exaggerating!
A popular rule of thumb is to provide “4 square feet per chicken in the coop along with 10 square feet per chicken in the run”. That’s assuming you’re prepared to get up early every morning to let your chickens out and then put them away again at dusk.
There are, inevitably, a lot of influencing factors, from your environment to the size of your hens – bantams require a lot less room than a Jersey Giant, for instance. The best way to go is to provide more space than you think you’ll need, that way you’ll avoid the nasty side effects of overcrowding, including “pecking issues, illness, and disease”.
17. How Many Hens Per Rooster?
Roosters are very dedicated to their reproductive role and over-facing them a large number of hens will lead to some being ignored, “resulting in uneven fertility”. Having too many roosters has even more dire consequences as they will spend more time fighting amongst themselves rather than procreating.
The perfect rooster to hen ratio varies from breed to breed but around 10 hens to one rooster are considered the benchmark. Having said that, the “Italian stallion” of chickens, the leghorn, can handle 12 hens per one rooster, while the chilled-out Silkie is content with just six.
18. What Do Chickens Like to Eat?
I’ve recently started my chickens on a more organic diet, consisting of fermented seeds, yogurt, and mixed grain and they seem to like it! They tell me their favorite foods are snails and sunflower seeds but they seem content with comfrey leaves and lettuce when those favored morsels aren’t available.
Chickens are omnivores so they’ll eat pretty much anything – animal, vegetable, or mineral. An unbalanced diet, however, can lead to poor egg production and ill health.
While many owners buy specialized chicken grains or layer pellets, this isn’t essential, although they are a good way of ensuring your hens get a nutritious and balanced diet. You can also supplement your flock’s diet by giving them kitchen scraps and treats.
19. When Do Chickens Molt?
My chickens molt whenever they feel like it, it seems, and I always have at least one running around half-naked. It seems my chickens didn’t get the memo that says they’re supposed to do it in either spring or at the beginning of autumn. To be fair, we only have winter and summer here in South Africa anyway, so it’s hardly their fault!
One thing I perhaps overlooked, however, was the molting that takes place as the chicken matures. Apparently, “chicks go through four stages of molts before they reach adulthood. These typically happen at 1 to 6 weeks, 7 to 9 weeks, 12 to 13 weeks, and 20 to 22 weeks.”
In other words, they molt whenever they damn well feel like it, unless you meticulously keep track of their ages, and then it makes complete sense!
20. How Much Does a Chicken Weigh?
If you’re accustomed to picking up chickens, no doubt you’ll agree that they’re complete featherweights – unless you have a flock of Orpingtons, in which case, they’re more welterweight!
The average common-or-garden backyard hen weighs between 5 and 10 pounds – that’s around 2.5 to 4.5 kg. Admittedly, they often look a lot bigger and heavier, so you may well be surprised by how light they are when you finally get your hands on one!
Roosters usually weigh more than hens. A Rhode Island Red rooster, for instance, weighs around 3.9kg, or 86 pounds, while a hen of the same breed weighs just 3kg or 6.6 pounds.
21. How to Sex a Chicken
A friend of mine spent a fortune buying up a pedigree flock of laying hens, only to find over 50% were roosters! So how do you sex a chicken – other than with extreme difficulty? There is no other way!
The most reliable way of figuring out if your little yellow balls of fluff are male and female is through a process known as venting. Simply (!!) squeeze each one’s vent “until the feces are expelled and their inner parts can be seen. Once the inner parts are visible, a small bulb will be visible within the cloaca if the chick is a male.”
Certainly not for the faint-hearted or the large-handed!
Other methods include:
- Feathering – a hen is born with wing weathers while a rooster only develops his “a few days after hatching”.
- Combs – a rooster’s comb is larger and tends to appear “more full than a hen’s comb”.
- Behavior – If you’re prepared to wait a few days and observe your chicks’ behavior, the males will distinguish themselves by showing off “their ability to be dominant and protect their hens by puffing up”.
So now we know how to sex a chicken – with great difficulty! Best of luck and let us know how you get on!
22. How Do Chickens Make Eggs?
I’ll give you a clue – it doesn’t involve double-sided sticky tape or papier-mâché! There are few vital ingredients, however, including calcium which is essential for shell production.
Each egg starts as a yolk which is released from the ovary into the oviduct. It takes four hours to pass through this “tube-like structure” to the magnum, where the “egg white protein is added to it”.
From there, it moves to the isthmus and starts acquiring its shell membrane fibers. For its last 20 hours, the egg-to-be hangs out in the shell gland where the process of calcification results in the formation of the shell.
The piece de resistance takes place in the last two hours when “the bulk of the pigment (white or brown) is produced and deposited into the outer layers of the shell”.
23. Can You Eat Roosters?
You can eat roosters, although if like me, you’ve only got one, chances are you’re going to let him carry on into his dotage and give him a formal burial rather than turn him into a stew!
Although many of us like to believe we eat only hens and never rooster meat, this is highly unlikely especially as “around half of any chicken meat you can buy in Australia is from roosters”.
Plenty of people eat roosters – in fact, the traditional French dish of coq au vin probably wouldn’t exist without them – but it’s better to go for a younger rooster rather than an older one who’s probably a bit tougher and has a stronger, more gamey flavor.
24. Why Are Chicken Eggs Different Colours?
When I got my first chickens, I was told, by an unreliable source, that only white hens can lay white eggs. I’ve since discovered that it’s got nothing to do with the color of their feathers and everything to do with breed.
Apparently, “egg color is determined by the genetics of the hens” so a Leghorn chicken will produce white eggs, an Orpington, brown, and an Ameraucana, blue.
Some say the color of the chicken’s earlobes dictates the color of its eggs so “chickens with white earlobes lay white eggs exclusively while birds with dark lobes lay brown eggs”. This isn’t always the case, however, as the blue-eared Silkie lays white eggs and the white-earlobe-sporting Penedesenca lays chocolate-colored eggs.
25. Why Aren’t My Chickens Laying Eggs?
My flock’s egg production goes from the sublime to the ridiculous with no optimal point in between. I’m either making quiches like a madwoman to consume the excess or hovering around the coop trying to persuade a stubborn hen into squeezing out enough for breakfast.
There are several reasons why your chickens might stop laying. When the season changes, the temperature drops, and the daylight hours diminish, your chickens will naturally become less productive.
When molting, chickens will take a holiday from egg-laying for “eight to 16 weeks” but, should their reluctance carry on longer than that, you should start checking for other causes.
Poor nutrition, an overcrowded or stressful environment, or even a parasite infestation can result in reduced egg production.
Of course, broody hens are too busy caring for their future offspring to worry about making yet more and older hens struggle to maintain a high production rate. Rhode Island Reds, for instance, lay around 200 eggs in their first year but only 40 a year by the time they turn 10.
26. How Did the Chicken Conquer the World?
Admittedly, this may take a little stretch of the imagination but, according to history, in the fifth century BC, while on his way to “confront the invading Persian forces” the Athenian general Themistocles was inspired by two fighting cockerels.
“Behold,” he said, “these do not fight for their household gods, for the monuments of their ancestors, for glory, for liberty or the safety of their children, but only because one will not give way to the other”.
The Greeks were heartened by “this display of instinctive aggression” and “went on to repel the invaders, preserving the civilization that today honors those same creatures by breading, frying and dipping them into one’s choice of sauce”.
The chicken subsequently traveled the world, conquering international tastebuds with its “mild taste and uniform texture”, “crossing multiple cultural boundaries with ease” and becoming “the ubiquitous food of our era”.
So, Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road?
Ok, so we still don’t know why the chicken crossed the road, but we do know a lot more about how they make eggs, why they come out different colors, and how to work out the gender of our feathered friends.
These intelligent, sociable birds are a natural addition to any homestead and, just as they have proved capable of conquering the world, they’ll win over your hearts too. Not only do they give us eggs, but they also provide a regular supply of organic fertilizer and hours of entertainment.