Can Chickens Fly?


Chickens leaving the coop

As someone who cares for a flock of birds it’s remarkable how little I know about the dynamics of flight. Sure, I’ve read about the whole lift, drag, thrust thing. And I’ve made my fair share of paper airplanes. But for as much time as I’ve spent around my winged associates, you’d think I’d be an expert. Sadly, my feathered friends are not very forthcoming on the aspects of flight. They are so stingy, in fact, regarding this concept that one can wonder if chickens can fly at all.

For the record, a chicken’s wings are fully capable of flight, however, I can tell you it is NOT a majestic thing to witness. You will never hear a song titled, ‘On Chicken’s Wings’. Just how bad is it? Imagine a sumo wrestler on a unicycle. Yes, it can be done, but it’s uncomfortable to watch.

Will My Chickens Fly Away?

So now that we’ve established that chickens are capable of flying, it is reasonable to worry about them flying away. However, there are a few things you need to know about chickens.

  • Once a chicken associates an area with safety (think chicken coop) they will return to there as the sun starts to go down. Chickens have very poor night vision and this makes them very vulnerable in the dark. Consequently, the need to be in a safe place is innate and this will urge them home regardless of how far their daily adventures have taken them.
  • While chickens are capable of flight, they are not migrating birds. They will not go south for the winter, despite their dislike of snow.
  • Also, chickens are not very good at soaring. It’s probably the whole weight to wing ratio, but generally if one of my girls is airborne, her wings are beating like crazy! Once in a while, I will see them do a sort of glide when they are very close to the ground (I’m assuming this is the whole ‘ground effect’ of aerodynamics). But understand, it’s a lot of work for those wings to lift a fat chicken.
  • It’s also worth mentioning that chickens are, by in large, domesticated animals. The wildness that pushes, say the mallard duck, to fly thousands of miles has been bred out of your typical backyard chicken.

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It is more realistic to worry about your chickens flying off somewhere and not being able to get back to the coop. The coop is their place of safety and they should really want to get back to it. So if it’s getting close to dark and you find yourself one bird short, this is definitely cause for concern.

Can Chickens Fly Over A 6ft Fence?

It can be difficult to contain chickens. While our birds definitely have a routine, they’re always surprising me by trying something new. These random acts are frustrating as they often put the flock at risk – something I, as their caretaker, am working very hard to avoid.

When predators are about, we keep our birds in a 100 by 100 foot fenced in area. The fence is 6 foot tall and for the vast majority of the time, it keeps the birds where we want them; in easy view from the house. Unfortunately, it’s been our experience that a 6 foot fence is not guaranteed to keep a chicken in. For that, you must go even higher, preferably installing some sort of roof.

If properly motivated, a chicken can fly high enough to clear a 6 foot fence. And that isn’t the only method of escape they’ll employ. I once watched one of our Australorps climb over the fence. She did this by hooking her feet on the fence and with a wild flapping of her wings, basically stair-stepped her way up to the top of the fence, where she perched, turned and looked at me as if to say, ‘I sure hope you didn’t put a lot of time and money into this, cause it ain’t working!’

How Far Can Chickens Fly?

Morning flight

Your common egg-laying breed of chicken isn’t really capable of long flights. Some of the skinnier breed of birds will fly a little farther. And I once saw one of our bantams fly a good 40+ feet. But I have to say, that kind of distance is unusual.

The average chicken will have a powerful burst of flapping for 1 to 2 seconds. This is where they gain most of their height. After this, the bird is looking to make a landing; albeit, a flapping landing. From start to finish, this distance is usually less than 20 feet.

This might seem pretty pathetic, but you have to understand a chicken’s anatomy – specifically their weight.

Through selective breeding, chickens have gotten much fatter than they originally were. People want meat and egg production and domestic breeds offer just that. But the trade off is a bird that is basically too fat to fly very far.

To put this in perspective, a large red tailed hawk will have a wingspan of around 52 inches while weighing around 3.5 lbs. A Barred Rock rooster will have a wingspan in the neighborhood of 30 inches while weighing 7.5 lbs.

And chickens aren’t exactly sleek either. I’m guessing they have about the same aerodynamic efficiency as say a polished bowling ball. This isn’t any fault of their own, it’s just the result of selective breeding.

At What Age Can Chickens Fly?

Asking when chickens can fly is sort of like asking when toddlers can walk. A lot of the development depends on individual personality. But, for the record, a chick will start attempting to fly almost immediately.

The walls of our ‘Perfect Brooder’ are 2 feet tall. It is not uncommon for us to find 3 week old chicks sitting on top of the brooder walls. I didn’t show them how to do that and despite how many times I ‘shoo’ them back down, they still come back up – meaning it’s not an accident. So it’s safe to assume that your 3 week old chick can fly at least 2 feet high and perch.

And this ‘see how high I can go’ behavior only gets more intense as the chickens get into their ‘teenage’ angst. It’s not unusual to see one of my girls standing on top of the chicken coop at 7 weeks old. It, however, unusual to see an adult bird – say 16 weeks – in the same spot. I’m guessing this is because the adults heavier weight negates the novelty of exploring higher places; in other words, it’s not worth the effort.

How Do Chickens Fly?

Nothing gets your heart going faster than an unexpected explosion of flapping from a startled chicken. It doesn’t help that the birds are usually quite vocal when this happens. Suffice to say, that despite the short length of flight time, if you are anywhere around a chicken when it takes flight, you won’t miss it. Stealthy, they are not!

Yet despite a chicken’s unique flight performance, a chicken’s wing operates just like most other birds – even the graceful hawk that seems capable of soaring for hours. Unfortunately for the chicken, it’s wings are just too small. This causes them to sustain the intensive powerful wing strokes that every bird does on take off.

Types Of Chicken Feathers

Semiplume & Contour Chicken Feathers

All around the our coop is a sporadic assortment of chicken feathers. This is because chickens loose their feathers much like we loose hair. For those people blessed with a good head of hair, you don’t notice the loss so much. For others, well…

But unlike people, chickens have a range of feather types. The three most common types of feathers on a chicken are the contour feather, the semiplume feather and the down feather.

  • Contour feather – With its long, sleek and shiny appearance, the contour feather is easily the most recognizable. They are generally the outer layer of feathers on your chicken (think weather proofing). Also, a brand new contour feather will be seamless on its edges. Contour feathers are the primary feathers responsible for flight.
  • Semiplume feather – While having roughly the same shape as a contour feather, the semiplume feather is much more fuzzy. Originally, I thought these feathers were just beat up contour feathers, but it turns out, they’re grown that way. These feathers are usually closer to the body (think insulation).
  • Down feather – If you’ve ever held a baby chick, then you know just how soft and cuddly they are. This fuzzy substance could easily pass for fur. But it is, in fact, down feathers that is covering your uber adorable chick (think warm blanket).

Should I Clip My Chickens Wings?

Now that you know the 3 primary types of feathers on your chicken, it’s time to focus on the contour feathers. The contour feathers are the feathers responsible for lift – which is why you find the biggest ones on your birds wings.

Some people elect to clip their chicken’s wings (contour feathers) as a means to keep the birds from flying. There are various reasons for doing this. However, the choice to do so is entirely up to you. But for sake of argument, here are some pro’s and con’s of clipping your chicken’s wings.

Pros

  • Clipping the contour feathers on your chicken’s wings will definitely reduce their ability to take flight. If you have a flighty bird that is refusing to stay where you want them to, for example an over aggressive rooster that is intent on getting to the hens, clipping his wings is certain to reduce his options. (FYI, your rooster will keep trying to get to the hens, but keeping him on the ground gives you a little bit of an advantage.)
  • If you have a bird with an injured leg, then you certainly don’t want them to come crashing in on a hard landing. Clipping their wings will help keep them on the ground.

Cons

  • Reduced mobility – Our flock is primarily free-range. These means they are free to come and go as they please. Unfortunately, this puts them at risk from predators. I want our birds to have every advantage they can get against the countless things that are trying to eat them. For this reason, we do not clip our chicken’s wings.

Does Clipping Chicken Wings Hurt Them?

Flight feathers for a chicken are much like our fingernails. If trimmed properly, there is very little chance of pain. However, if cut too deep then it can be quite painful for the bird.

Your goal in clipping your bird’s wing feathers is to limit their ability to fly. And as chickens have very poor flight abilities to begin with, then you really don’t need to cut a lot off to make a difference.

Should you choose to go this route, then it’s a good idea to consult someone who has experience clipping wings. If possible, watch them do it once. This way you will ensure the chicken’s health and well-being instead of making them a ‘guinea pig’ for your first attempt. The learning curve doesn’t hurt you, but it can cause them significant discomfort for an extended period of time.

Is Clipping Wings Cruel?

This is one of those questions that people tend to be very passionate about. And as mentioned before, we don’t clip our flock’s wings so I may be a little biased in that direction. But given the limited amount of time your chickens actually leave the ground, I do not feel that clipping their wings is inherently cruel.

However, except in rare occasions where the health of the flock is a factor, I do not see clipping your chicken’s wings as being necessary or, quite frankly, even helpful to the bird.

Too many times throughout history, people have done things to animals simply to suit the whims of their human caretaker. I do not agree with this. It is my opinion that the recipe nature has perfected through time, is the best one. Consequently, I will always look for other alternatives.

Do Clipped Wings Grow Back?

For those who have felt it necessary to clip your chicken’s wings and feel bad about it, take heart as the damage done to the bird should not be permanent. Using the analogy of chicken feathers and human hair, anything clipped today will eventually be replaced.

Make no mistake, the feathers that were cut, are cut forever – they will not grow back. But those cut feathers will eventually give way for new ones, providing your chicken’s wings the lift they would normally have. This will take time as the wing feathers are the biggest, hence they take the longest to grow.

Time till recovery will vary from bird to bird. It will also depend on how aggressive the clipping was and how close to ‘molt’ your chicken is.

Conclusion

The Morning Rush

So to answer the question, yes, chickens do in fact fly…just not in the same way most other birds do. And for the record, seeing a chicken fly through the air is probably not going to fill you with a sense of awe. But it might just make you chuckle.


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