Chickens do not have thumbs, no. At least, certainly not in the sense that we do. Obviously, chickens do not have hands or digits they can use to hold things. They have wings, although interestingly they do have three ‘prongs’ that somewhat resemble digits.
They also have opposable digits on their feet, as do most birds that use their feet to hold on to things like a roosting perch.
This is the toe that sticks out pointing backward and helps provide a stable base. It’s not the same as an opposing thumb, however, and is not used in the same way.
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Why Do Chickens Not Have Thumbs?
The reason why chickens - and other birds - do not have thumbs is essentially due to how they’ve evolved over millions of years.
Like most animals, the traits and physical characteristics that helped them survive over millions of years are what also shaped them into the animals they are.
It’s believed that chickens descended from a group of meat-eating dinosaurs called maniraptors. Fossils and bones collected suggest these dinosaurs started out with large claws with three strong digits.
Chickens still have three digits pointing out at the end of their wings very similar to a maniraptor, somewhat like a thumb and two fingers.
These digits aren’t referred to as fingers and thumbs though. Mainly as they aren’t able to use them in any way similar to how fingers and thumbs function and because they aren’t attached to hands.
It’s easy to see why chickens have wings and not hands. They need their wings to survive in the wild and they’ve played an important role in their survival.
Wings enable them to flee from predators, find a nice roost high up in trees, and of course, keep them warm as they are covered in feathers.
But, Chickens Aren't Good at Flying Either!
I know what you’re thinking, chickens have feathers and wings, yet they’re not great at flying!
This wasn’t always the case. It’s through selective breeding that man has changed chickens to be less flighty, and better for meat and egg production.
Admittedly, even the Wild Jungle Fowl, which is the closest immediate ancestor to the modern domestic chicken isn’t great at flying.
They tend to fly in short bursts, known as ‘burst flying’ to escape predators. But if you look at the picture below, it’s quite clear that the Jungle Fowl is a lot lighter, has a bigger wing-to-body ratio, and is clearly more adept in the wild.
I think it’s safe to say that a nice plump Sussex or Orpington wouldn’t last too long in the wild. They’ve been created to be commercial or backyard chickens, and you can see why!
Do Chickens (Or Any Birds) Need Thumbs?
Well, if they’ve evolved over millions of years without having thumbs, the answer is pretty obvious - no, chickens do not need thumbs.
Thumbs played a pivotal role in our evolution, as they did for other mammals and animals they have them.
But we’re designed very differently. We use our hands to grab things, use objects, and so on. On the flip side, we don’t have wings and can’t fly (it would be pretty cool if we could).
Instead of using hands to grab and use tools, chickens and other birds simply use their beaks and the claws on their feet to get stuff done.
There are few food sources they can’t smash open, rip, grab, and successfully eat without using their tough beak and claws.
Do Any Birds Have Opposable Thumbs?
Some birds do have opposable digits on their feet, but not their wings. Still, they can’t use their opposable digits as we do, and they’re not looked at as being thumbs or similar.
This digit is called the hallux. Chickens have it, it’s the toe that sticks out backward and helps provide the stability they need to balance.
As for species that do have opposable thumbs; pandas, koala bears, opossums, and even frogs are some examples. I think you can tell what they all have in common - they have hands, not wings.
There you have it, in simple terms chickens have wings not hands, fingers, and thumbs because they survived over the years by being able to fly and keep themselves warm and safe from predators.
The longer explanation is how they’ve evolved from dinosaurs. While evolution is fascinating to me, I’ve read a number of studies on the topic and there is still some debate amongst the scientists around exactly how and why birds evolved with wings instead of hands.
I recommend exploring it more if you’re really interested in chicken anatomy and evolution. There are some great theories out there and some compelling fossil evidence.
So, if you’re looking for reasons as to why chickens can’t pick things up, or maybe as to why you don’t see digits when eating chicken wings - it’s ‘simply because they don’t have thumbs.
Want to Know More About Chicken Anatomy?
If you’re as interested as I am in Chicken anatomy, I’ve looked into some other anatomy-related questions in detail that might be of interest.
Please feel free to check out:
- Do chickens have fingers? After all, you see them for sale in the supermarket, don’t you?
- Do chickens have toes? Here’s a look at breeds with different numbers of toes.
- Do chickens have noses? This isn’t as crazy as it sounds, as you’ll discover.
- Do chickens have knees? Did you know you can’t see their knees tucked up under their feathers?
- Do chickens have ankles? Chickens have very different leg bones and structures from us.
Image credits - Header photo by Fiqih Alfarish, rooster photo by Livia Widjaja on Unsplash
How Dinosaurs Handed Down Their Fingers to Birds - LiveScience