Wondering “can chickens fly?” Well, like most things with chickens: it depends. Some chicken breeds can fly and some can’t. And even within a specific breed, some individual chickens can fly, and some cannot. In this article, we’ll take a deeper look at the question “can chickens fly!”
What Is A Flightless Bird, Really?
Flightless birds are comparatively rare – there are only about 60 species of flightless birds on Earth. One of the most iconic of flightless birds, the ostrich, is the largest bird and can run at speeds upwards of 40 mph (64.37 kph). These massive runners live in Africa, and use their 2-inch diameter eyes to spy out threats like lions, leopards, and packs of hyenas. While it might not be clear when these incredible birds lost their ability to fly, there is evolutionary precedent for this: ostriches are ratite, which is “any bird whose sternum (breastbone) is smooth, or raftlike, because it lacks a keel to which flight muscles could be anchored. All species of ratites are thus unable to fly.” Other ratites are the emu, cassowary, rhea, and kiwi.
Right up there with the ostrich as the most iconic of flightless birds is the tuxedo-sporting critter: the penguin. Unlike ostriches, penguins are not ratites. They possess the keel on their sternum to which their wings attach. Whereas volant birds use their wings for flight, penguins have adapted to underwater explorations, and instead use their wings as fins that allow them to effectively navigate in the waters where their food lives. In a way, because of this adaptation, penguins might be considered volant birds that just happen to fly through a vastly different environment than most other volant birds. So where does this leave us with pet chickens?
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Are Chickens Actually Flightless?
So, what does all this say about chickens? Your chickens have all of the right tools for flight. They (generally) have the feathers and the keel on their sternum which their wings attach to, and they certainly have the muscles for it. With all of these details, the question remains: Can chickens fly?
Yes, kind of. And it depends on the breed. All chickens have strong muscles, and flight is one of the few ways this species can keep safe from predators. Most breeds are capable of “burst flights”, which are quick and can carry chickens to safety within moments. At night, as you probably know, they like to fly up to their roosts, which gives them a good vantage point to see if any raccoons, dogs, etc are coming their way.
Since they’ve been domesticated, they’ve largely lost this ability. Why is that? Chickens are most commonly bred for two things: eggs and meat. White meat is muscle, and it’s white meat that our ancestors favored. Selective breeding for meat has maximized the size of our chickens’ chest muscles. In theory, this should make chickens fantastic fliers. In reality, however, this is counterproductive. In order to fly, birds need light bodies with muscles strong enough to carry their own weight.
The ideal flier will have a lean – almost sinewy – body: one that is strong enough to propel itself off the ground and light enough to stay aloft. Sustained flight also requires endurance. Human-bred chickens seldom are bred for strength, leanness, and endurance.
Unlike ostriches and penguins, modern flightless chickens are not tied to the Earth because they don’t have the muscles to fly, but because it’s been bred out of them. In other words: We have bred our birds to be too large to support much of a flying ability. The average chicken can fly for about 10 feet, and about as high off the ground. Being similar in flight skills to game birds, chickens were never the greatest fliers, and lack the skills for sustained flight, but they have been known to fly for as long as 13 seconds and a distance of 301.5 feet. It might be a short flight, but it likely is plenty enough to do its job: to get the chickens away from danger.
Which Chickens Can Fly?
Larger chicken breeds are far less likely to even hover, as the energy required for even minimal flight can be preventative, but there are a number of breeds that are more inclined to flight:
are the most commonly known fliers. They have leaner bodies, and this is better suited for the short flights attainable by chickens. Our own Leghorns love flying into trees.
At night, Araucanas occasionally roost up in the trees. Originally from Switzerland, the Spitzhaubens are a flighty bird that sometimes takes that adjective literally. Thanks to their smaller size, some bantam hens can achieve high heights for roosting purposes or when spooked.
Which Chickens Can’t Fly?
There are some breeds that, no matter what, simply won’t get liftoff. Either they lack the feathers, or are just too dang heavy. Some breeds, such as Silkies, can’t fly at all – they simply don’t have flight feathers on their wings. To keep them safe, you have to give them a place to climb up to. Ours can get lift off of maybe 12 inches, and that’s pretty much a big jump for a silkie. Our Mille Fleur bantams and Cochin bantams can’t fly either – although they have wing feathers, their wings are too small. Other chickens, such as Orpingtons or Brahmas, have been bred to be so large, they simply are too heavy to fly.
How Can I Stop My Chickens from Flying?
A few times a week, a person in my Facebook group asks how they can stop their flock from pooping all over the neighbor’s yard. There’s some easy ways to keep your chickens from making unwanted visits.
Build a Fence
The easiest way to prevent your chickens from flying away is to build a sizable fence around your chicken coop. This will stop most birds from flying out of their homes. For the heaviest breeds, you will not need anything taller than a 4-foot fence. For the slightly less heavy – the Mediterranean breeds, for example – you might need to build a 12-foot fence.
Clip Their Wings
If you want to stop a bird from flying, one more adage comes to mind: “clip their wings,” which really means to trim their feathers. When done correctly, trimming feathers is painless. Once clipped, your chicken’s feathers can’t provide the lift needed for flight.
Do you still wonder “can chickens fly?” How far have your own chickens flown? Leave a comment below!
Maat van Uitert is a backyard chicken and sustainable living expert. She is also the author of Chickens: Naturally Raising A Sustainable Flock, which was a best seller in it’s Amazon category. Maat has been featured on NBC, CBS, AOL Finance, Community Chickens, the Huffington Post, Chickens magazine, Backyard Poultry, and Countryside Magazine. She lives on her farm in Southeast Missouri with her husband, two children, and about a million chickens and ducks. You can follow Maat on Facebook here and Instagram here.