Chickens are Courageous Birds. They are NOT Cowards, or a Trope for Human Cowardice

By Karen Davis, PhD, President,
United Poultry Concerns

hen looking into the camera
Cayman Chickens. Photo by Davida G. Breier

An article coauthored by Carol J. Adams and Marc Bekoff on October 28, 2019 “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi Didn’t Die Like a Dog ,” has inspired me to stress that chickens are not cowards any more than dogs are. Chickens are not “chicken.” Therefore, they cannot be invoked as a metaphor for human cowardice except as a cliché.

Donald Trump asserted on October 27 that the head of ISIS “died like a dog. He died like a coward.” Adams and Bekoff point out that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi did not “die like a dog.” However he may have died, dogs do not generally die, or for that matter live, like cowards. Chickens don’t, either.

Bravery of Chickens

Bantu crowing
Bantu, UPC Sanctuary Rooster (1990‑2000)

The call of the wild is in the chicken’s heart, too. Far from being “chicken,” roosters and hens are legendary for bravery. In classical times, the bearing of the rooster symbolized military valor: his crest stood for the soldier’s helmet and his spurs stood for the sword. A chicken will stand up to an adult human being. Our tiny bantam rooster, Bantu, would flash out of the bushes and repeatedly attack our legs, his body tense, his eyes riveted on our shins, lest we should threaten his beloved hens.

An annoyed hen will confront a pesky young rooster with her hackles raised, and run him off! Though chickens will fight fiercely and successfully with foxes and eagles to protect their family, with humans such bravery usually does not win. A woman employed on a breeder farm in Maryland wrote a letter to the newspaper, berating the defenders of chickens for trying to make her lose her job, threatening her ability to support herself and her daughter.

For her, “breeder” hens were “mean” birds who “peck your arm when you are trying to collect the eggs.” In her defense of her life and her daughter’s life against the champions of chickens, she failed to see the comparison between her motherly protection of her child and the captive hen’s courageous effort to protect her own offspring.

In an outdoor chicken flock, ritual and playful sparring and chasing normally suffice to maintain peace and resolve disputes without actual bloodshed. Even hens occasionally have a go at each other, but in 35 years of keeping chickens, I have never seen a hen-fight, with its ritualized postures and gestures, turn seriously violent or last for more than a few minutes. Chickens have a natural sense of order and learn quickly from each other. An exasperated bird will either move away from the offender or else aim a peck, or a pecking gesture (I’ve seen this many times) that sends a message – “lay off” or “back off!”

Bloody battles, as when a new bird is introduced into an established flock, are rare, short-lived, and usually affect the comb (the crest on top of a chicken’s head), which, being packed with blood vessels, can make an injury look worse than it is. It’s when chickens are crowded, confined, bored, or forced to compete at a feeder that distempered behavior can erupt. However, chickens allowed to grow up in successive generations unconfined do not evince a rigid “pecking order.” Parents oversee their young, and the young contend playfully, among many other activities. A flock of well-acquainted adults is an amiable social group.

Sometimes chickens run away; however, fleeing from a bully or a hereditary predator-species on legs designed for the purpose does not constitute cowardice.

chick, hen and rooster walking side by side
Cayman Chickens. Photo by Davida G. Breier

Scientists Cite Courage in Roosters and Hens, but “No Serious Fights”

In a field study of feral chickens on a coral island northeast of Queensland, Australia in the 1960s, G. McBride and his colleagues recorded the birds’ social and parental behavior over the course of a year. Here is how they describe the birds’ response to a perceived threat to their chicks:

When a hen with very young chicks was disturbed by a man, she gave a full display and the alarm cackle. When pressed closely, she hid her chicks by regularly turning and making a short charge at her pursuer. As she turned, she pushed one or two of her chicks into a hollow, while giving a particularly loud squawk among her clucks.1

Once the chicks were all safely hidden, the hen raised an alarm call that was echoed by the distant roosters who came to her. In the following scene, we see the rooster with his hens and their young:

When the group moves, the rooster gathers the hens together before moving. The hens keep contact with him while moving, and he controls their movement when crossing open ground. When disturbed, he gives the alarm call and walks parallel to the predator or potential predator while the hens quietly hide.

When the flock was disturbed, the roosters were observed to drive the hens away, by rushing toward them with their wings spread. While the hens foraged, the roosters spent the majority of their time on guard in their tail-up, wing-down alert posture. Roosters used the broody hen display when charging: tail fanned, wings down, feathers puffed.

Occasionally, roosters from other territories joined the flock, but according to the investigators, “No serious fights were observed during any of these intrusions, though the males made several rushes at each other.” Typically, the “trespassing territorial males left after a contest involving crowing, display and territorial tidbitting.”2 In the non-breeding season, the areas became overlapping territories in which all of the birds and their progeny mingled. The only real fight the investigators ever saw among roosters took place in a pen, and this fight, which for one bird was fatal, they attribute to “the restriction of movements in the pen, as well as to the inability of a defeated bird to escape by flying into a tree.”


1 Despite our no chick-hatching policy at United Poultry Concerns, in May 2019, a rooster and a hen we adopted from a cockfighting raid in 2018 sneaked a family into our sanctuary consisting of five baby chicks. Being so tiny at first, these chicks were able to squeeze through the wire fence and get stuck on the other side. They would peep frantically to their mother hen, and she responded frantically to their cries, unable to reach them. (We quickly fixed the problem.) When this first happened, I rushed over to the mother hen in the wooded area of our sanctuary where the chicks had been born and she was panicking, and quick as could be, she leaped into the air and struck my face with her claws, seeing me as a threat to her endangered family.

2 A mother hen will pick up a tasty seed or bug and drop it at her chicks’ feet to show them it is good to eat. A rooster will do the same for his favorite hen, often including a courtly dance around her. Some roosters will tidbit in a pretense of eating, when what they are really doing is fixing their eye intently on someone they seek to intimidate or mislead, to control and perhaps attack if provoked. Occasionally I and visitors to our sanctuary have been the objects of this riveting tidbitting performance in a rooster set on protecting his turf.