Beeley Pippin hen at Farm Sanctuary
The Species

Chickens

Beeley Pippin hen at Farm Sanctuary

Thinking, Feeling Chickens

Gertrude Hen at Farm Sanctuary

When people tour Farm Sanctuary, they are often most intrigued by the traits and behaviors of chickens (Gallus gallus). Perhaps because the word “chicken” so commonly refers to a processed food commodity rather than a living being, people can be surprised by chickens’ strong personalities, their ability to form friendships, and their capacity for curiosity—including a deep fascination with many of the humans who visit our farms.

Descendants of birds who survived the cataclysm that extinguished the dinosaurs, domestic chickens now outnumber any other bird on Earth. Over the past century, in particular, humans have overbred and overfed commercial chickens, twisting the bird’s natural evolution.

Still, a few moments in the farmyard dust with a hen usually reveal the bird’s predisposition for nurturing and vigilance, as well as her distinctive brand of dignity.

A Brief History of Chickens

66 million years ago

Ancestors Endured Dinosaur Extinction

An asteroid collided with Earth, releasing energy and airborne debris that led to the extinction of dinosaurs—and roughly 75% of all living species. However, the ancestors of modern galliforms (an order of terrestrial birds), along with those of ostriches and ducks, were one of a handful of bird groups that survived the cataclysm. North American fossils of galliform predecessors have been dated to about 85 million years ago.

~5,400 BCE to ~1400 CE

Beginnings of Domestication

While remains of junglefowl—birds essentially identical to chickens—have been dated to 5,400 BCE, the dating of hard evidence of the presence of domesticated Gallus gallus ranges from 3,600 BCE (China) to 2,000 BCE (Indus Valley of India and Pakistan) to 1350 CE (Chile). Genetic testing of bones from various sites leaves room for debate about whether pre-Columbian chickens were present in the Americas and Polynesia.

2,000 BCE

Ancient Egyptian Egg Ovens

Humans in ancient Egypt not only collected eggs to be incubated in fire-warmed caves, they also built large incubators of clay brick that could hold thousands of chicks. Some of these facilities are still in use today.

~500 BCE

Metaphysics Across Cultures

Many cultures have imbued chickens with metaphysical powers, from Cuban Santeria to the Azande of Sudan. The tradition of splitting a dried wishbone dates to the Romans’ predecessors, the Etruscans. When they killed a sacred fowl, the bird’s furcula (Latin for “little fork”) was dried in the sun, and passersby simply needed to pick up the bone, stroke (rather than break) it, and make a wish.

~400 BCE

Early Documentation of Bird Agriculture

Aristotle described the burying of birds’ eggs in dung heaps to artificially incubate them. Two-hundred years later, in De Agri Cultura, Cato the Elder—a Roman senator, historian, and agricultural enthusiast—describes the force-feeding of birds, advising farmers to, “cram chickens and geese…cakes of moistened fine wheat flour or barley flour. One crams twice a day and gives water at midday. Water should not be allowed for more than an hour.”

~400 CE

Alectryomancy

Alectryon, a soldier in Greek mythology, was told by Ares to warn of the arrival of the sun god, as Ares wished to be alone with Aphrodite. Because Alectryon fell asleep and the sun god saw the lovers, Ares turned Alectryon into a rooster, cursed to forever foretell the sun’s arrival. Alectryomancy—spreading seed across written letters and divining a message from a chicken’s pecking—was used to predict the succession of emperors in ancient Rome.

~1185 CE

Medieval Poultry Practices

Ibn al-‘Awwam, a Muslim Arab farmer living in Spain, wrote The Book of Andalusian Agriculture—35 chapters describing agronomy practices, including cattle and poultry raising, gathered from across Babylonia, Greece, Syria, Rome, and Iberia. Translations into French and Spanish range over 1,000 pages.

1570 CE

Novel Words from Conquistadors’ Birds

One linguistic study reported that after the arrival of the Spanish, the Inca called the chicken “wallpa,” and the word developed multiple meanings: “god who creates,” “being a nuisance,” and “lavishly dressed men,” among others. Thereafter, “wallpa” as a Quechua root word appears in names of prominent Inca places, warriors, and royals—a linguistic transformation of the bird’s New World presence.

1809

On the Origin of Chickens

Sir John Sebright, a member of British Parliament and a livestock breeder, wrote “The Art of Improving the Breeds of Domestic Animals.” Sebright is best known for the bantam chicken that now bears his name, the first poultry breed to have its own specialist club. Sebright’s writings on insights gained from intentional breeding influenced Charles Darwin’s formulation of the theory of natural selection, as Darwin cited Sebright’s work in On the Origin of Species.

1873

American Poultry Association Established

Through the 19th century, most domestic chickens were tended in small flocks on local farms or in backyards. As commercial interest grew, so did the desire for standardization. In 1873, the APA was founded to promote standards for the breeding of chickens and other domesticated birds. Eventually the APA became the home of purebred and exhibition hobbyists, while the expanding commercial industry focused on breeding hybrids for maximum production.

1920s

Vitamin D: Who Needs Sunlight?

Through the 19th century, most chickens had been raised outdoors, on small farms or in backyards. The largest farms were limited by the need to allow birds sunlight access, since chickens raised without exposure to ultraviolet light would develop “leg weakness.” In the early 1920s, researchers found that adding the recently discovered Vitamin D to their diets prevented the ailment, allowing chickens to be confined to a life indoors.

1946

Industry Seeks “Chicken of Tomorrow”

In an effort to breed a chicken that yielded maximum breast meat while consuming a minimal amount of feed, the USDA worked with the A&P grocery company and industry partners to promote a nationwide breeding contest. Contestants were allowed one year to “create” a most desirable bird, then prove its viability over a two-year period, eventually shipping 60-dozen eggs each in incubators on freight cars to be hatched and judged.

1951

FDA Approves Antibiotic Use in Poultry

Concerned about future food shortages after enduring two World Wars, US leaders sought production improvements from the nation’s scientists. In 1950, American Cyanamid researchers, testing the results of feeding chickens vitamin B12, inadvertently used a batch containing an antibiotic, Aureomycin, from which the B12 had been produced. Those birds grew 50% faster, and the following year the antibiotic was approved as a growth enabler.

1954

US Lobbyists and Advertisers Emerge

In 1954, the National Chicken Council (initially the National Broiler Council) was founded to influence policy and promote commercial “broiler” production. In 1976, the American Egg Board was created to market chicken eggs as a “healthy” protein and a national grocery category. Between 1960 and 2019, per capita chicken consumption more than tripled in the United States.

1960s and 1970s

Five Freedoms: European Legal Protections

In 1964, Ruth Harrison wrote Animal Machines, raising public awareness of intensive livestock practices and prompting the British government to release its first report on livestock welfare in 1965. “The Brambell Report” enumerated five freedoms that should be allowed to farm animals: “to stand up, lie down, turn around, groom themselves and stretch their limbs.” Codified in 1979, these bolstered animal-welfare standards adopted throughout Europe.

2000

The Power of Pop Culture

As part of a tradition of confined animals benefiting from sympathetic stories in children’s literature and film (Charlotte’s Web, Free Willy, Madagascar), at the turn of the 21st century, a purely pro-chicken story enjoyed broad commercial success. Chicken Run, the claymation feature from the makers of Wallace & Gromit, shared a barnyard flock’s perspective on life-and-death issues with an audience that might not have otherwise considered it.

2003

US Regulation of Cockfighting

Fighting birds for entertainment may have impelled domestication of Gallus gallus, with evidence of its practice found in ancient India, China, and Greece. In the US, the Animal Welfare Act of 1966 explicitly exempted birds and farm animals from cruelty protection, but subsequent amendments and farm-bill language expanded regulation of animal fighting (2003), effectively prohibited it (2007) and made attending such events a federal crime (2014).

2015

California’s Proposition 2 Takes Effect

Initially passed in 2008, Prop 2 requires egg-producing hens to be provided with enough space to engage in natural behaviors: turning around, standing upright, and spreading their wings. Later these requirements were legally extended to apply to any eggs sold (not just to those produced) within the state. Indicative of the public’s support for these improvements, the initiative received more votes than any other in California history.

2019

Incomprehensible Numbers Killed

In 2019, over 9.1 billion—billion with a ‘b’—chickens were slaughtered for meat in the United States. Nine billion is approximately the number of seconds that have passed since America’s second President, John Adams, was born in 1735. It is a number greater than all the fingers and toes on every American, and far greater than Earth’s entire human population. And 9 billion is still 100 million fewer than the number of chickens killed for meat in 2019.

Illustration of a ground-dwelling bird surviving the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs.

Image: Phillip M. Krzeminski

66 million years ago

Ancestors Endured Dinosaur Extinction

An asteroid collided with Earth, releasing energy and airborne debris that led to the extinction of dinosaurs—and roughly 75% of all living species. However, the ancestors of modern galliforms (an order of terrestrial birds), along with those of ostriches and ducks, were one of a handful of bird groups that survived the cataclysm. North American fossils of galliform predecessors have been dated to about 85 million years ago.

The Someone Project: Chickens

Mirda hen at Farm Sanctuary

The Someone Project is a Farm Sanctuary-sponsored research-based initiative documenting farm animal sentience through science. Download our white paper on chickens titled Thinking Chickens: A Review of Cognition, Emotion, and Behavior in the Domestic Chicken at the link below.

Download

Chicken Facts

  • Retina hen at Farm Sanctuary
  • Chickens

    are empathetic. When a mother chicken sees and hears her babies in distress, she shares their emotional state and becomes depressed.

  • Chickens touch, taste, and determine temperature through their beaks.

  • The Red Jungle Fowl is the domesticated chicken's ancestor and was domesticated 6,000-8,000 years ago.

  • Chickens are able to understand numerical concepts up to the number ten, even when they are only a few days old.

Norm Rooster at Farm Sanctuary
“Chickens ... can anticipate the future and demonstrate self-control ... something previously attributed only to humans and primates.”
- Discovery Magazine

One of the Most Abused Animals on Earth

From hatching to slaughter, chickens on factory farms are subjected to mutilation, confinement, and deprivation of the ability to live their lives as the active, social beings they are.

  • United States

    9,160,910,000 chickens were slaughtered in the United States in 2018.

  • Global

    68,785,218,000 chickens were slaughtered worldwide in 2018.

factory farming

Chickens Used for Eggs

Five to a cage. Taiwan, 2019.

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

Debeaked hen named Tilly at Farm Sanctuary.

Photo: Farm Sanctuary

Man Holding Two Young Chicks At A Broiler Hatchery In Mexico.

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / Animal Equality

Hens in battery cages on a factory farm

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / Animal Equality

A curious hen in a cage at a factory farm.

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

Suffering to Meet Enormous Demand

In 2018, to meet the American demand for eggs, over 330 million hens were kept and expected to lay nearly 95 billion eggs. With roughly one hen per person in the U.S., and taking trade and storage into account, this supplied the equivalent of 279 eggs per person in America.

Battery Cages Compel Debeaking

Often within the first week of life, female chicks commonly have a portion of their beaks removed, either severed with a hot blade or burned off using electrodes and a high-voltage current—a process known as “debeaking.” Farmers debeak chicks to minimize the loss of value that would otherwise result from excessive feather-pecking—itself a result of the stress of intensive confinement. A chicken’s beak is filled with nerves, and debeaking can result in severe and possibly chronic pain.

Male Chicks are Destroyed

Over 200 million male chicks are killed each year by the egg industry—because they can never lay eggs, they have little commercial value in that setting. Such chicks are killed in a variety of grisly industrial practices: sucked through a series of pipes onto an electrified “kill plate,” intentionally asphyxiated, or ground up alive and fully conscious in a “macerator.” This practice is among the most gruesome and willfully harmful actions that have developed as accepted parts of industrial agriculture.

Intensive Confinement at Scale

As they mature, laying hens are commonly housed in battery cages—so called because they are stacked in connected sets or “batteries”—commonly hold 5 to 10 birds, with each chicken having an amount of floor space smaller than a sheet of letter-size paper. In such close confinement and with no access to natural earth or vegetation, hens standing on wire-cage floors are squeezed constantly against one another and wire-cage walls. They suffer severe feather loss, and their bodies will become covered with bruises and abrasions.

Killed When Production Declines

While chickens in natural, open settings will live between 5 and 8 years, commercial egg-laying chickens are sold for slaughter after a couple of years, when their egg production generally declines and they are considered “spent.” Such hens have low commercial value, and producers will sometimes attempt to asphyxiate them with high concentrations of carbon dioxide. Such attempts do not always kill the birds, and live hens have been seen at landfills, crawling out from piles of decomposing chickens. 

Five to a cage. Taiwan, 2019.

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

Suffering to Meet Enormous Demand

In 2018, to meet the American demand for eggs, over 330 million hens were kept and expected to lay nearly 95 billion eggs. With roughly one hen per person in the U.S., and taking trade and storage into account, this supplied the equivalent of 279 eggs per person in America.

Debeaked hen named Tilly at Farm Sanctuary.

Photo: Farm Sanctuary

Battery Cages Compel Debeaking

Often within the first week of life, female chicks commonly have a portion of their beaks removed, either severed with a hot blade or burned off using electrodes and a high-voltage current—a process known as “debeaking.” Farmers debeak chicks to minimize the loss of value that would otherwise result from excessive feather-pecking—itself a result of the stress of intensive confinement. A chicken’s beak is filled with nerves, and debeaking can result in severe and possibly chronic pain.

Man Holding Two Young Chicks At A Broiler Hatchery In Mexico.

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / Animal Equality

Male Chicks are Destroyed

Over 200 million male chicks are killed each year by the egg industry—because they can never lay eggs, they have little commercial value in that setting. Such chicks are killed in a variety of grisly industrial practices: sucked through a series of pipes onto an electrified “kill plate,” intentionally asphyxiated, or ground up alive and fully conscious in a “macerator.” This practice is among the most gruesome and willfully harmful actions that have developed as accepted parts of industrial agriculture.

Hens in battery cages on a factory farm

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / Animal Equality

Intensive Confinement at Scale

As they mature, laying hens are commonly housed in battery cages—so called because they are stacked in connected sets or “batteries”—commonly hold 5 to 10 birds, with each chicken having an amount of floor space smaller than a sheet of letter-size paper. In such close confinement and with no access to natural earth or vegetation, hens standing on wire-cage floors are squeezed constantly against one another and wire-cage walls. They suffer severe feather loss, and their bodies will become covered with bruises and abrasions.

A curious hen in a cage at a factory farm.

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

Killed When Production Declines

While chickens in natural, open settings will live between 5 and 8 years, commercial egg-laying chickens are sold for slaughter after a couple of years, when their egg production generally declines and they are considered “spent.” Such hens have low commercial value, and producers will sometimes attempt to asphyxiate them with high concentrations of carbon dioxide. Such attempts do not always kill the birds, and live hens have been seen at landfills, crawling out from piles of decomposing chickens. 

Factory Farming

Chickens Used for Meat

Most Commonly Killed Animal in America

Every year, over 9 billion chickens are slaughtered for meat in the United States, making chickens far and away the most commonly killed domestic animal—95% of commercially slaughtered animals in America are chickens. These curious, social birds are treated simply as production units, bred and fed for abnormally fast growth without consideration for their well-being. The resulting large size contributes significantly to their suffering, disease, and early deaths.

Unnatural Growth, No Protection

Called “broilers” by the industry, chickens raised for meat continue to be selectively bred and intensively fed to gain weight at an astonishing pace. In 1925, the average commercially grown chicken took 112 days to reach a then-average market weight of 2.5 pounds; in 2019, such chickens took 47 days to reach a market weight of 6.3 pounds—more than doubling average body size in less than half the time. Chickens and turkeys are exempt from the Humane Slaughter Act, a federal law requiring animals to be rendered insensible to pain before slaughter.

Unhealthy and Unfit to Survive

Modern studies have consistently shown that approximately 26-30% of “broiler” chickens have skeletons that cannot sufficiently support their rapidly growing bodies, leading to movement difficulties, deformities, and lameness. Such rapid growth has also been associated with acute heart failure, as the birds’ hearts and lungs are incapable of circulating blood effectively throughout such large bodies. Acute heart failure is the leading cause of death in chickens as they reach “market weight.”

Crowded Factories, Not Country Farms

Chickens grown commercially for meat typically spend their lives confined to warehouse-like buildings, each packed with as many as 20,000 chickens. While they are not usually confined to battery cages like egg-laying hens are, the average amount of space they inhabit is basically the same—comparable to a sheet of letter-size paper. This crowding can result in scratches and sores from the birds being forced to walk over each other.

Filthy and Unsettling

Facility floors can be covered in the waste of tens of thousands of chickens. Chickens raised for meat are generally killed before the end of their second month, so multiple flocks may be moved through the same litter before the floor is cleaned. Excessive ammonia levels can result from decomposition of feces and urine, leading to respiratory problems for the birds. To stimulate eating and growth, facility lights are also kept on nearly constantly, disrupting natural daylight cycles and inhibiting the chickens’ ability to rest and sleep normally. This, too, can lead to serious health problems.

Slaughtered Young Without Protection

Most often killed when only 6 to 8 weeks old, “broilers” are still audibly vocalizing the “cheeps” of baby chicks when they are delivered to slaughter – even though their bodies have ballooned as a result of genetic manipulation, intensive feeding, and industrial-scale confinement. No law requires that chickens be rendered unconscious before slaughter. Though chickens are often passed through an electrified water bath to be stunned, the practice has been shown to cause painful shocks before it stuns the birds. Still, its use in commercial slaughter remains widespread.

Broiler chickens in transport to slaughter.

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

A broiler chicken unable to stand. Australia, 2013.

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

Young broiler chickens at a small industrial farm

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

Tens of thousands of young chickens in a multi-level industrial farm.

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

Chicks at a broiler farm.

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals for The Guardian

Birds crammed into transport cages arrive at a slaughterhouse.

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

Broiler chickens in transport to slaughter.

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

Most Commonly Killed Animal in America

Every year, over 9 billion chickens are slaughtered for meat in the United States, making chickens far and away the most commonly killed domestic animal—95% of commercially slaughtered animals in America are chickens. These curious, social birds are treated simply as production units, bred and fed for abnormally fast growth without consideration for their well-being. The resulting large size contributes significantly to their suffering, disease, and early deaths.

A broiler chicken unable to stand. Australia, 2013.

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

Unnatural Growth, No Protection

Called “broilers” by the industry, chickens raised for meat continue to be selectively bred and intensively fed to gain weight at an astonishing pace. In 1925, the average commercially grown chicken took 112 days to reach a then-average market weight of 2.5 pounds; in 2019, such chickens took 47 days to reach a market weight of 6.3 pounds—more than doubling average body size in less than half the time. Chickens and turkeys are exempt from the Humane Slaughter Act, a federal law requiring animals to be rendered insensible to pain before slaughter.

Young broiler chickens at a small industrial farm

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

Unhealthy and Unfit to Survive

Modern studies have consistently shown that approximately 26-30% of “broiler” chickens have skeletons that cannot sufficiently support their rapidly growing bodies, leading to movement difficulties, deformities, and lameness. Such rapid growth has also been associated with acute heart failure, as the birds’ hearts and lungs are incapable of circulating blood effectively throughout such large bodies. Acute heart failure is the leading cause of death in chickens as they reach “market weight.”

Tens of thousands of young chickens in a multi-level industrial farm.

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

Crowded Factories, Not Country Farms

Chickens grown commercially for meat typically spend their lives confined to warehouse-like buildings, each packed with as many as 20,000 chickens. While they are not usually confined to battery cages like egg-laying hens are, the average amount of space they inhabit is basically the same—comparable to a sheet of letter-size paper. This crowding can result in scratches and sores from the birds being forced to walk over each other.

Chicks at a broiler farm.

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals for The Guardian

Filthy and Unsettling

Facility floors can be covered in the waste of tens of thousands of chickens. Chickens raised for meat are generally killed before the end of their second month, so multiple flocks may be moved through the same litter before the floor is cleaned. Excessive ammonia levels can result from decomposition of feces and urine, leading to respiratory problems for the birds. To stimulate eating and growth, facility lights are also kept on nearly constantly, disrupting natural daylight cycles and inhibiting the chickens’ ability to rest and sleep normally. This, too, can lead to serious health problems.

Birds crammed into transport cages arrive at a slaughterhouse.

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

Slaughtered Young Without Protection

Most often killed when only 6 to 8 weeks old, “broilers” are still audibly vocalizing the “cheeps” of baby chicks when they are delivered to slaughter – even though their bodies have ballooned as a result of genetic manipulation, intensive feeding, and industrial-scale confinement. No law requires that chickens be rendered unconscious before slaughter. Though chickens are often passed through an electrified water bath to be stunned, the practice has been shown to cause painful shocks before it stuns the birds. Still, its use in commercial slaughter remains widespread.

A group of curious baby chicks at Farm Sanctuary
“It is now clear that birds have cognitive capacities equivalent to those of mammals, even primates…”
- Dr. Lesley Rogers

Featured Chicken Rescues

Charlotte Chicken's Story

VIDEO 1:08

Charlotte Chicken's Story

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Transcript

It's rare that you find a chicken that's friendly and trusting of people. But Charlotte ever since she came to us from day one she loved attention. She had severe frostbite, which caused her to lose her feet so she stayed in the hospital and her feet were wrapped. And we would wrap them every couple of days. We would take her outside into one of the pens in the back and we tried her out with a lot of different groups of birds.


She needed friends, and she needed a rooster. So she lives with Chappie. Chappie usually treats her pretty well and she loves to be outside. She's a very resilient lady. But I'm glad that she found her chicken friends and she has Chappie and she has this beautiful outside areas that she gets to hang out in every day. She's a very special lady.

VIDEO 1:08

Charlotte Chicken's Story

  • Featured Rescue Stories

    Mesa hen

    Featured Rescue Stories

    Mesa: Friendly Hen Escapes Brutal World of Cockfighting

    For most jungle fowl, as for most other animals exploited for human entertainment or consumption, life is nasty, brutish, and short. But it doesn’t have to be. Mesa is proof that each of these creatures is capable of forming relationships and experiencing joy.

    read more

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