Ask A Scientist

Why can’t chickens fly like birds?

Asked by: Laurel Neira
School: Owego Elementary School
Grade: 5
Teacher: Trevor McCloe
Hobbies/Interests: Soccer and softball.
Career Interest: Pet groomer

Answer from George Catalano

Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Director of t

So what’s up with Gallus gallus, the animal we commonly refer to as the chicken? Can it or can’t it fly? In fact, the chicken can and often does fly through the air but with hardly the greatest of ease. These in-flight difficulties, which chickens face, are actually a result of both the dynamic processes found in Mother Nature and the deliberate actions of humankind. Let’s explore this and other issues concerning this species, the most common of all birds on the planet, numbering over 25 billion and growing.

Chickens, at least in the wild, are omnivores, that is, they will eat small seeds, herbs, leaves, grubs and even insects and mice. On the other hand, domesticated chickens are forced to eat feed typically loaded with proteins, grains and along with many other artificial supplements meant to alleviate or prevent diseases. During your next visit to the poultry department at your neighborhood store, you will probably encounter the term “free range” chickens. A free-range chicken has a much more enjoyable life with ample room to run about the farmer’s barnyard. Chickens left on their own are gregarious birds that have a communal approach to the incubation of eggs and the raising of young. Many are not so fortunate in commercial chicken production, which often involves raising birds in large crowded rearing sheds that prevent chickens from engaging in many of their natural behaviors. In addition, the commercial production of chickens typically uses genetic selection to create large-breasted birds, which can lead to crippling leg disorders and heart failure. The extra weight alone makes flight nearly impossible.

Both domestic and wild chickens are capable of flying but the domestic version typically can only fly for short distances such as over fences are other obstacles. Chickens fly to explore their surroundings and to flee from any perceived threats. Free-range chickens often have the tips of the longest feathers on one of the wings cut, resulting in an unbalance and preventing the bird from flying much father than a few feet at a time. In fact, it almost looks like a hopping motion rather than an aborted flight trajectory. Wild chickens without clipped wings can fly much greater and higher distances. Perhaps you have seen a gaggle of wild turkeys fly up to high perches in nearby maple trees to spend a restful and safe night? Wild chickens could match that feat and even more!

I bet you didn’t know that chickens were used as oracles in Ancient Rome. Oracles are prophets who are called upon to provide predictions of important upcoming events. In Ancient Rome, chickens were kept in cages and fed scrumptious soft cakes. A Roman citizen in need of such a prediction would call upon a caretaker or pullaris who would open the cage and offer the chicken a piece of cake. If the chicken stayed in the cage and ate, the omen was thought to be good. If the chicken ignored the cake, and flew away, the omen was bad.

As with all things in the natural world, there is much more to the chicken then we often consider. We have used them in countless ways throughout history from fast food to prophecy. Perhaps the next generation of fast food restaurants will offer a bucket of wings, breast with an omen all for one low price!

Last Updated: 9/18/13