Chickens do have brains, yes. Interestingly, most of a chicken’s brain is located at the back of their skull, particularly the stem and parts that keep a chicken alive. Hence, why a chicken can run around with its head cut off, and even survive for a short time.
Can a Chicken Live Without a Head?
The answer to this question is typically a “no”. I'm sure you've probably heard stories about headless chickens running around, and this does happen.
But usually for no more than a few minutes. This happens because when a chicken's head is cut off, the brain is disconnected from the rest of the body but there may still be some residual oxygen circulating.
Without the brain controlling their body, it usually results in a chicken's legs moving. It's not conscious or deliberate actions on the chicken’s part.
There is one legendary story, however. A chicken called Mike was able to live for around 18 months without his head.
It was back in 1945, and farmer Lloyd Olsen was butchering some of his chickens. He noticed, however, that one was still walking around calmly without its head.
He left the chicken overnight, only to find it still walking around the following day. Fast forward a little, and Mike became a tourist attraction as a “living headless chicken”.
Lloyd and Mike traveled the country together and he became quite the attraction. Even less was understood about how a chicken could survive without a head back then, so I can only imagine what some people must have thought.
I know what you’re thinking; how did he eat without having a head, or even a mouth? Lloyd carefully fed him with a liquid diet via a syringe.
More importantly, how was Mike able to live so long without having a head?
Well, despite being chopped off at the top of the neck, Lloyd missed some of the vital parts of his brain. Chickens’ brains are right at the back of their heads, and this was just a “lucky” cut I guess you could say.
Enough of Mike’s brain survived for him to be able to function and stay alive. There’s nothing more magical to it than that, although it’s obviously incredibly rare and bizarre.
If you're interested, you can learn more about this story in this video:
Are Chickens Brains in Their Body?
The story of Mike the headless chicken and other tales of headless chickens running around raises the question of where exactly their brains are.
The brains are definitely not situated in their bodies. They're in their heads, just not at the top of the head like ours, but more so pushed further to the back.
This is why Mike was able to survive. Parts of his brain were basically in the top of his neck, and the axe missed them.
In addition to this, chickens have fibers called “nerves” running through their body just like we do. These can continue to send signals for minutes after a chicken has been butchered.
Related - This is how chickens imprint on humans.
Chicken Brain Size: Do They Have Small or Big Brains?
Looking at a chicken’s tiny head you would be right to assume but they have small brains.
The brains are about the size of a couple of peanuts side by side. Interestingly, their brains are actually small in comparison to the size of their bodies.
According to ScienceDaily, this is largely due to selective breeding over thousands of years. The more we’ve domesticated chickens away from the original red jungle fowl, the smaller their brains have become and the larger their bodies are.
It's thought their brains have become smaller as they’ve adapted to be more suited to living among humans.
In short, it’s because they are less frightened by things around them and quicker to adapt to living in the conditions we give them. Combined with the fact that we’ve bred them to be fatter so we get more meat, and their brain to body mass ratio has changed dramatically.
This hasn’t made them any less smart though, as I can explain.
Are Chickens Smart?
The “are chickens smart” debate goes back as far as I can remember. Ask anyone who has raised chickens, and I’m sure they’ll tell you they are smart.
Ask anyone who eats chicken and has never interacted with one, and they’ll likely tell you they assume they’re dumb.
Intelligence is always hard to measure, especially when we are naturally going to compare chickens to us or maybe even ever household pets. However, there is a good amount of evidence to suggest chickens are actually quite smart.
Looking at a chicken's brain scientifically, ScienceDaily explains that although mammal and bird brains have been evolving separately for millions of years, there are a number of similarities.
Chickens have demonstrated a range of skills, such as social reasoning, problem-solving, and even the ability to make adjustments based on previous experiences.
Also, anecdotally if you speak with anyone who owns chickens they’ll tell you how they each have individual personalities, recognize people, pick-up on routines, and interact socially.
They are far from dumb. (but we already knew that, didn’t we?)
Related - Here's more on how chickens show us love!
In Summary - Do Chickens Have Brains?
There you go, from stories about the miracle chicken that lived for 18 months without a head, to how chickens have brains the size of peanuts but are still super smart.
Brains are wonderfully complex organs, as is the rest of the body. Whether we’re talking about chickens or humans, don’t underestimate what’s going on inside a chicken’s head - or should I say neck!