Can Chickens Fly?

By Josie F. Turner, Journalist specialized in Animal Welfare. February 11, 2018
Can Chickens Fly?

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Chickens are often kept in roofless enclosures or even let to roam free in back yards of domestic chicken keepers. This would understandably give the impression chicken's can't fly. Then you see them standing on a high fence and you get the oposite idea. The truth is a little bit of both. Chickens can fly, but they are just not good at it. They can cover short distances and they have different reasons for taking flight, but you won't catch them migrating south for the winter.

Chickens are not considered flightless birds, but their ability to fly is so poor, they sometimes might as well be. As AnimalWised answers whether chickens can fly, we also look into the reasons they have wings in the first place and how they use them for their daily lives.

You may also be interested in: Why Can’t Hens Fly?

Chicken's ability to fly

Chickens can technically fly, but they may not meet everyone's definition. With their heavy bodies and relatively small wing span, chickens cannot fly high or far. If you have ever seen a chicken in flight, it is not as graceful as other birds. Its wing flapping can be erratic and they don't seem to have much control over their trajectory. In many ways, this makes the bird look more like it is jumping than actually flying.

For these reasons, chickens will more commonly be seen walking on the ground rather than flying in the air. The domestic chicken's ancestors, the junglefowl, are also commonly found walking the beds of forests rather than living up high. As these wild cousins of the chicken feed off of insects, seeds and fruit, they usually scavenge for their sustenance on the forest floor. They can feed on worms, low lying plants and fallen fruit.

Domestic chickens are given feed by their owners. They don't need to scavenge for food and will usually be very content living in a free range coop which has all of their basic amenities taken care of. They main problem is in creating a pecking order. If you have heard this phrase, but not known it's origin, look no further than the chicken. Like many animals, chickens will develop a hierarchical social structure with the most dominant bird at the top. While this may not be the chicken with the best flying ability, their ability to use their wings may come in handy.

Why do chickens have wings?

Scientists have found it difficult to determine the exact links between them, but it is generally believed that modern birds descended from dinosaurs[1]. These evolutionary missing pieces make it difficult to determine exactly why chickens have wings.

Domestic chickens and their wildfowl brethren don't fly high, but they do make use of their wings. These uses include:

  • Escape: if you have ever tried to catch a chicken, you will know that they have the ability to dart around quickly. However, their little legs are not great over long distances and they are not enough to cheat faster predators. However, their wings can add that necessary added distance to evade some of these predators. This is why you will often see chickens flying away if you try to approach them too quickly. These chickens see you as a predator and they need to escape.
  • Fighting: as we have said already, chickens have a pecking order. How this hierarchy is determined will often have to do with exerting dominance. Chickens when fighting will fly up so that they can come down on their opponent. It offers a better chance of getting the advantage. Chickens will have little need for fighting other animals, but they may be able to use it if they are cornered and need to defend themselves.
  • Roosting: chickens like most birds have high metabolism and can be very energetic when awake. This means that sleep is particularly important so they are able to renew this energy. Sleeping on the ground, however, can make them sitting targets. This is why chickens will often go up high to roost as they feel safer when in this vulnerable position. Flying to this point also makes it safer to protect from predators who cannot jump this height nor climb up to them.
  • Courting: this may not be a reason to fly, but chickens do have other uses for their wings. When male and female chickens are courting, they have a specific approach. This approach will often involve lowering the wing to instigate mating or even use the wings in a ‘waltzing’ style dance.
  • Raising chicks: wings can be useful in brooding as the mother hen will need to turn the eggs. Also, once the chicks are hatched, hens can use their wings to keep chicks closer and even protect them against the weather or divert them in the right direction.

The actual reason for chickens having wings is a little less clear than their uses. One theory is that current domestic chickens were raised for fighting. They were not bred for flight and keeping the chickens in fighting mode meant it was not preferable for them to fly away. Also, since domesticated chickens have all of their needs met by their human care takers, the ability to fly was not as necessary.

Can Chickens Fly? - Why do chickens have wings?

Can some chicken breeds fly more than others?

As we have said, no chicken will be a good flyer. However, there are some breeds which may be worse at it than others. Mainly, this has to do with body shape and type. Essentially, if the bird is large bodied, heavy and has shorter wings, it will not be able to fly easily, spending most of its time on low ground due to necessity. The same will go for weaker birds as they won't have the strength to levitate their bodies. Here are some birds which are not as good at flying:

  • Silkies: these are incredible looking chickens, but they are unfortunately not very agile beasts. Silkies are smaller chickens, which you may think would make them better flyers. However, their fluffy plumage is made of of down-like feathers which means flying is impossible. Their small wings are so covered in down that you can barely make them out when tucked into the body. One strange fact about silkie chickens is that their flesh is a grayish black color, despite being just as nutritious as any other chicken meat.
  • Orpingtons: these British chickens have to be of a certain weight to register for competition, but their heaviness and broadness makes it almost impossible for them to fly. They may flutter at best. They also have a tufty plumage which can also increase drag.
  • Australorps: one of the best names for any animal, the Australorp chicken is a great breeder, holding the record for the most eggs laid in a year. While fantastic mothers, Australorp body type means they are not great at getting off the ground.

Some chickens which may have a higher than average ability to fly include:

  • Araucanas: these chickens have interesting plumage also, but are much more streamlined. Many of them also don't have a rump, but do have strong wings making them a little better at flying than others.
  • Polish: Polish chickens are not necessarily from Poland, but they are definitely very characterful looking birds. They also have interesting plumage, with a colorful crest residing on their heads. However, this does not get in the way of their ability to fly. They have strong wings and a svelte body which makes them relatively athletic in terms of chickens.
  • Sumatra: Sumatra chickens are another incredible variety of chicken. They have amazing plumage which makes them great for shows. Unfortunately, they have often been bred for cockfighting, but this physical prowess also makes them one of the strongest flyers. They are very high jumpers and will usually require a higher fence than other breeds.

Wing clipping

Whether your chicken will be a good flyer isn't just based on breed. Many breeders and owners will clip the wings of their chickens. This is done by cutting off the primary feathers of, usually, only one wing of the chicken. This doesn't stop them from flying altogether, but puts them off balance and means they can't fly up or straight very well. This practice is somewhat controversial with some vets thinking it is good practice, others seeing it as cruel.

The feathers should be clipped underneath the major covert feathers. These feathers will protect your chicken and hopefully stop them from trying to pick their own feathers out. The chicken will be able to jump a foot or two, but the reason for clipping is so that they won't be able to jump over fences where they will be in danger from getting lost or eaten by predators.

If you want to raise chickens yourself, here is some information on how to look after a pet chicken.

If you want to read similar articles to Can Chickens Fly?, we recommend you visit our Facts about the animal kingdom category.


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