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The Mystery Of Flightless Birds: Can Chickens Fly?

Chickens are so familiar, we almost forget they are birds! Yes, they have feathers, and we know they are members of the avian kingdom, but they just act differently. They also can’t really fly.

Or can they? Can chickens fly? If so, why can’t they fly like other birds?

 

Can Chickens Fly?

Yes, most chickens can fly. However, they can’t fly very well or for very long, and some chickens can’t fly at all.

How well a chicken can fly or not depends on the chicken breed. There are actually many varieties of chickens and they can differ quite a bit!

In general, the heavy chicken breeds can hardly fly, while lighter, more agile ones can fly for a little bit. Overall, the reason why no chicken can fly very well is because they have been domesticated for more than 8,000 years.

As with other domesticated animals, people bred chickens to have certain characteristics. Flight was not at the top of the list of desired trails.

Instead, farmers have always wanted birds that could either produce lots of eggs and/or provide lots of meat. Not to mention, early domesticated chickens that could fly well probably just flew away from their owners!

On the other hand, chickens that couldn’t fly so well weren’t able to escape and were much easier to deal with. The chickens of today are descendants of those birds.

Their wings aren’t as developed as other birds, and they weigh too much to fly very well. One breed, the Silkie, also has odd feathers that make it absolutely flightless.

 

Have chickens ever been capable of flying?

Chickens haven’t always been so incapable of flight. All we have to do is look at some of the wild chicken species to see the differences between modern-day chickens and their wild ancestors.

Related: How similar are turkeys and chickens?

The two main species that domesticated chickens came from are the Red Junglefowl and the Gray Junglefowl. Both of these southern Asian birds look pretty much like chickens and they should because barnyard chickens are basically one or a blend of these species.

Chickens are often associated with being grounded, we often see them foraging

However, the wild birds are lighter and slenderer than most modern breeds. They aren’t the best fliers but can certainly fly better than most domesticated birds. A lot like grouse, when threatened, junglefowl burst into the air on rapidly beating wings.

To escape, they can fly and glide for a short distance. They also fly up and into trees, especially to roost for the night. However, these birds certainly prefer to escape from predators by using their fast legs.

They can quickly run away, even through dense underbrush. While running, junglefowl species can also flap their wings to move faster. We still see chickens do some of these same behaviors. Like junglefowl, many can flutter to higher perches and also flap their wings while they run.

 

How Far Can Chicken Fly?

Chickens can’t fly very far. Even the best flying chicken breeds can fly for 500 or 600 feet at most. These “far flying” chickens include game breeds like the Old English, Japanese Bantam, Hamburg Hen, and the Sumatran Chicken.

These “flying chickens” can also flutter up and into trees. They fly up by rapidly beating their wings and then either perching or gliding back down.

The Sumatran, in particular, is a good flier and might be the best of all the chicken breeds. It’s very similar to its junglefowl relatives and is known for flying between islands in Indonesia. With that in mind, this chicken can probably fly further than 600 feet.

However, that breed is the exception. Most chickens fly far less, and a lot don’t even fly at all. Heavy breeds like the Plymouth Rock, Leghorns, and Orpington can’t really fly, and barely rise a few feet off the ground.

Instead, these chickens prefer to run and may use their wings to help move them along. Some other chickens from breeds that can fly don’t fly that much, either. In captivity, they become either too heavy to fly, or just don’t use their wings enough to learn how.

 

Can Younger Birds Fly?

Young chickens can fly better than older birds, but once again, it depends on the chicken breed. Silkies, for example, are completely incapable of flight because their soft feathers don’t allow it.

Chickens are not usually able to fly for long

Even if their wings are strong enough, chickens are not able to fly long distances.

However, younger chickens of the heavy chicken breeds can indeed fly a bit better than older birds. Their muscles are not as developed and tight, and they might be able to carry them better. As long as they are still light enough to fly, these young chickens can stay in the air a little bit longer.

Even then, they can’t fly all that well, and as they gain weight, their flight ability won’t last for long.

 

Fun Facts About Flying Chickens

  • Chickens can fly as fast as 7 to 10 miles per hour. They can also run as fast as 10 miles per hour!
  • Most chickens can only fly for 13 seconds at most although a few wilder breeds can stay in the air for longer.
  • Although many chicken breeders clip the wings of their birds, most of those chickens wouldn’t fly anyways. Domesticated chickens living the good life don’t seem to be too concerned about flying away.
  • Baby chickens tend to fly more than adult birds. The young birds love trying out their wings and since they don’t weigh much, can fly better than the adults.
  • In the wild, chickens fly to escape predators and roost in trees. Domesticated chickens usually fly to get over a fence and check out a neighbor’s yard or flowerbed!
  • Young chickens get their flight feathers around five to ten weeks of age.
  • There are four species of wild “Gallus” chickens. They are the Gray, Red, Green, and Sri-Lankan Junglefowls.
  • There are more domesticated chickens than people. The domesticated chicken population is estimated at 20 billion!
  • Chickens can’t sweat. To stay cool, they pant, bathe, and flap their wings.
  • Contrary to what some people say, chickens are not colorblind. They have very good vision and can even recognize people!

About the Author

Patrick O'Donnell

Patrick O'Donnell has been focused on all things avian since the age of 7. Since then, he has helped with ornithological field work in the USA and Peru, and has guided many birding tours, especially in Costa Rica. He develops birding apps for BirdingFieldGuides and loves to write about birds, especially in his adopted country of Costa Rica.

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