Chickens have wings because they are birds, although due to thousands of years of selective breeding to make them fatter so they produce more meat, they are far too heavy to fly.
That said, even the wild Junglefowl, which is the closest living wild relative to the domestic chicken is not great at flying.
They’re visibly a lot smaller, leaner, and better at flying though.
A lot of game birds, like pheasants, peafowl, and quails are better equipped to make short ‘burst flights’ to escape predators than they are for traveling long distances.
This really comes down to evolution. Chickens are closely related to dinosaurs and have evolved over millions of years to be great at surviving.
This means foraging for food and escaping predators. To escape predators, chickens are capable of a quick burst of flight to take to the trees so they can’t be snatched by ground predators.
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How Selective Breeding Has Made Chickens Heavier
It’s a fact that chickens today grow faster, are bigger, and healthier - all for the sole reason that chicken farmers want to produce more meat at the least possible expense.
For the most part, this has been achieved by scientists identifying the best breeds to cross to achieve a larger bird.
This isn’t anything new, and it’s certainly not limited to chickens. For centuries, farmers have been improving the genetic lines of their animals to produce ‘better’ herds, flocks, and livestock.
The most dramatic changes with chickens have happened in the last 70 years or so. It’s estimated that the average weight of a domestic chicken in the 1950s was around 900 grams.
Today, the average weight of a broiler chicken which is reared for its meat is 2,200 grams when it’s slaughtered at just 35 days old.
When a broiler is around 20 weeks of age and considered a ‘roaster’ it can weigh as much as 4,500 grams (or 10 lbs).
That means chickens are around 4 times the weight they were just 70 years ago! So, it should come as no surprise that they aren’t able to get far off the ground carrying all that weight.
Is a Chicken a Flightless Bird?
I often see chickens referred to as a ‘flightless bird’. This isn’t technically true, chickens can fly short distances and will use their wings to furiously flap and try to cover some distance.
True flightless birds are ostriches, penguins, and some other birds that have wings, but can’t even get off the ground.
How Far Can Chickens Fly?
I did some research and was able to find that the longest recorded flight for a hen is almost 92 meters (300 feet).
The hen was in the air for 13 seconds, which I’m sure must have felt like a lifetime for her!
Something else to keep in mind is that because chickens are so heavy, they can injure themselves when landing if they do indeed, fly a little or try jumping out of a tree.
Chickens still like to roost up high at night, so you should provide a roosting bar in their coop. It doesn’t have to be more than a few feet off the ground though, it’s more for a sense of security than anything else.
Can Chickens Fly Over Fences?
This is a question that gets asked all the time, and my first answer is always - “that depends on how high your fence is!”
Seriously though, it’s a tough one to answer.
Some breeds are more ‘flighty’ than others, such as the California White for example which is known as a bit of an escape artist.
Chickens are also crafty and will also use objects to hop up a little higher and make their way over a fence so you also have to make sure you’re not making it easy for them.
But, if we’re talking generally here about chickens, on average I’d say that a 6-foot fence ‘should’ be enough to keep them in your yard.
As with most animals, however, and the film Chicken Run springs to mind here, some chickens will just be very determined to escape and may surprise you.
On the flip side, I know a lot of backyard chicken owners that have small picket fences, and their chickens have never shown any interest in jumping them.
If you provide plenty of space and they have everything they need without scaling a fence, there’s a good chance they will not feel the need to leave.
Clipping Chickens' Wings to Stop Them Flying
I know, this article has been about how chickens can’t fly, but I did explain that chickens are capable of short bursts of flight and can scale fences.
For this reason, a lot of owners still get their wings clipped to stop them from escaping. This is almost necessary in most urban settings if you want to keep on the good side of your neighbors.
This is something you can either do yourself or you can get an avian vet to do for you if you’re not comfortable doing it.
All it involves is cutting the primary feathers they use to get airborne, it’s completely painless and only takes a moment.
Now you know, the answer as to why chickens have wings if they can’t fly is two-fold;
The first reason is that they’ve evolved primarily as ground birds, able to do short bursts of flight to take to the trees to escape predators and roost safely.
The second reason is that scientists and farmers have selectively bred most breeds to be bigger, fatter, and better for meat and egg production.
This has made it more difficult for chickens to get - and stay - airborne. They are too heavy, with inadequate flight muscles to sustain flight for anything more than a few seconds on average.
Image credits - Photo by tom Parandyk on Unsplash