5 Things You Never Knew About Chickens

We still don’t know why they cross roads, but there's a lot we do know about the most populous, most eaten, and most studied birds on the planet. →

No livestock is reared in greater numbers than chickens, and none has been studied in greater detailed. In 2004, chickens became the first bird to have their full genome sequenced, uncorking a deluge of scientific inquiry into their physiology, as well as their social behaviors and even their psychological dimensions. Scientists have determined that they are smarter than toddlers and exhibit learning and communication behaviors on par with primates.

Needless to say, there is more going on in a coop than meets the eye -- chickens aren't just egg-laying robots with tender breast meat; they are sentient beings with lives of their own. So if you've never thought about what chickens might be thinking, here is some food for thought.

How Do They Communicate?

All that clucking is not random -- chickens have a language of their own. Experts say that in addition to saying "cluck," chickens "pok," "brawk," and "squawk." And from these basic syllables, chickens are capable of at least 30 different calls, ranging from "hey, I found a bunch of grasshoppers" to "see you later, I'm going to lay an egg" to "come over here, you sexy rooster!"

Hobbled Chicken To Receive A Prosthetic Leg

Other calls are a response to stress, which vary between those that warn of a raptor circling above and predators that attack from the ground, like foxes. Hens start talking to their chicks in soft tones while they are still in the egg -- if you listen close you can hear them peeping back from inside the shell.

Do Chickens Have Feelings?

Yes, says British researcher Jo Edgar, who determined that hens, at least, experience empathy. He designed an experiment that simulated chick stress and found that the mother hens behaved as if they themselves were experiencing the pain -- a classic sign of empathy. Chickens are also known to display mourning behavior when another chicken in the flock dies, and they will show signs of depression if they are removed from the flock and placed in solitary quarters.

What Do Chickens Dream About?

We don't know exactly, but we do know they dream. Along with humans and other mammals, chickens (all birds, really) have an REM phase of sleep, a period of "rapid eye movement" that signifies dreaming. We'd like to presume that most of their dreams are filled with imagery and emotions from their daily lives, just as ours are, perhaps punctuated by occasional dreams that stem from chick-hood trauma or aspirations of flying like an eagle (chickens can only fly for a few seconds at a time).

Chickens Reveal Evolution Much Faster Than Thought

Chickens have another phase of sleep that humans lack, however, called USWS (unihemispheric slow-wave sleep), in which one half of the brain is resting, while the other half is awake. This is why chickens can be seen sleeping with one eye open and one eye closed, an evolutionary adaptation that allows them to keep watch for predators while they doze.

What Makes a Rooster Sexy?

There are a few criteria, as it turns out. Size and strength are important, as the more powerful roosters have a higher rank in the pecking order, and are thus able to provide more food for their harem of hens. The size and color of a cock's comb -- the fleshy red appendage on a male chicken's head -- is also a factor, as are the wattles, the dangling red flesh beneath their chins. Bigger and redder is better in both instances.

KFC Sues Over Rumors Of Eight-Legged Chickens

Food, wattles, and a cock's comb all come into play during the mating dance, which is called "tidbitting," where the rooster repeatedly picks up and drops morsels of food on the ground in a dramatic way, while bouncing those fleshy protuberances around as much as possible. Still, hens are notoriously promiscuous, typically mating with several roosters at a time. They have the unique ability to eject the sperm of inferior roosters after copulation, however, ensuring that their genes will be coupled only with the most studly cock around.

How Smart Are Chickens (and should we be afraid of them taking over the planet)?

A surprising number of people suffer from fear of chickens, a condition known as alektorophobia, which may not be as unreasonable as it sounds given what scientists have been discovering about them. Recent research has shown that chickens can distinguish between more than 100 faces of their own species and of humans, so they know who you are and will remember you if you treat them badly. They've demonstrated complex problem-solving skills and have super-sensory powers, such as telescopic eyesight (like birds of prey) and nearly 360-degree vision (like owls).

Chickens are the closest living relatives of the Tyrannosaurus rex (researchers determined this in 2007 by testing proteins from a particularly well-preserved T-rex leg bone), and they outnumber human beings on the planet 3 to 1. There hasn't yet been an Orwellian uprising of chickens revolting against farmers due to poor coop conditions, but to all those that use tiny "battery" cages, cut off beaks, and engage in other atrocities common to industrial chicken farming -- watch out, your birds may be plotting against you.

More From Modern Farmer:

The Modern Farmer Guide to Grocery Store Eggs Alektorophobia: Fear of Chickens is Surprisingly Common The Cornish Game Hen is a Tiny Liar This article originally appeared on Modern Farmer, all rights reserved.

"A characteristic of the American dietary that has persisted throughout years has been its abundance." This sentence is no less true today than when it was

published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 1959

. That abundance, however, comes with a cost: Americans eat too much. That excess consumption and often poor nutrition has brought with it a multitude of life-changing and often life-threatening diseases and conditions, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer and more. Although the number of Americans who are overweight or obese has been on a steady climb since the middle of the 20th century,

a recent report by the New York Times suggests

that efforts to abate this health crisis might be gaining ground thanks to a shift in public attitudes. For the first time since the federal government began tracking dietary intake over more than four decades of data collecting, the daily calorie intake of the average American showed a sustained decline. Read on to see how the American diet has changed since the middle of the 20th century.

Americans Falsely Believe Their Diet Is Healthy

While calorie counts have been on the downswing, calorie intake is still far above where it once stood. Americans' daily average caloric intake is over 500 calories higher than it was in 1970, when the average hovered around 2,169 calories per day. What does a more than 20 percent increase in caloric intake mean for the average American? Consider that a pound a fat contains 3,500 calories. Assuming that even a quarter of those calories represent excess energy beyond what's needed for daily maintenance levels, that translates into a pound of stored fat gained every month, or 12 additional pounds per year. Portion sizes have seen a similar increase over time.

According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services

, in the last two decades alone, food portions in American restaurants have doubled or in some cases tripled. Portion sizes began increasing in the 1970s and rose sharply in the 1980s. Many food portions greatly exceed USDA and FDA standard servings,

according to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health

. "The largest excess over USDA standards (700 percent) occurred in the cookie category, but cooked pasta, muffins, steaks and bagels exceeded USDA standards by 480 percent, 333 percent, 224 percent and 195 percent, respectively," the study found.

VIDEO: 4 Common Diet Myths Debunked

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (PDF)

, between the 1950s and 2000, Americans consumed on average 39 percent more refined sugars. Consumption of corn sweeteners, with high-fructose corn syrup leading the charge, octupled. On average, Americans consume an estimated 156 pounds -- yes, pounds -- of added sugar per capita every year. Excessive sugar intake can lead to all kinds of negative health outcomes, including but not limited to dental problems, obesity, diabetes, liver failure and more. These concerns are what led the

Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently to propose

a change in food labeling that would recommend the daily intake of calories from added sugars not exceed 10 percent of total consumption. More than 70 percent of U.S. adults get over 10 percent of their daily calories from sugar.

7 Facts About Sugar That May Surprise You

Americans aren't just eating more sugars than they used to; we're also drinking more.

According to the Harvard School of Public Health

, before the 1950s, the standard soft drink size was 6.5 ounces. That decade, manufacturers started selling larger sizes, and by 1960 the 12-ounce can was everywhere. Fast forward 30 years, and 20-ounce bottles are ubiquitous. Today, single-use soft drinks can reach up to 64 ounces and have up to 700 calories. Since the 1970s, sugary drinks have grown from 4 percent of Americans' daily calorie intake to 9 percent. A quarter of Americans get at least 200 calories a day from soft drinks. Teens and children are particularly high consumers, too. Sugar drinks are the top calorie source for teenagers, and are consumed daily by an estimated 91 percent of children.

Does Soda Cause Violence?

Beginning in 1980, when USDA issued the first federal dietary guidelines implicating fats and cholesterol as a major source of Americans' health woes, particularly heart disease, the food industry began shifting formulas in their products that moved away from saturated fat and toward vegetable oils and carbohydrates. Low-fat diets became all the rage, with a bevy of product lines offering low-fat alternatives. What happened after Americans got turned on to low-fat foods? They got even fatter and less healthy. Foods may not have had as much saturated fat, but they made that up with an increase in sugar and refined grains, which kept calorie counts the same. The switch to hydrogenated vegetable oils and margarines also only increased health risks. Heart disease is still the number one killer in the United States, and we also have rising numbers of diabetes and obesity to contend with. In fact, despite numerous studies since the 1990s showing that low fat diets are ineffective at best and harmful at worst, the government continues to recommend a low fat diet.

FDA Bans Trans Fats - More Chemicals to Consider?

Go to the snack aisle of any supermarket or convenience store in the United States, and you'll find a wide array of potential options to satisfy any junk food craving. What do all of these foods have in common? They're all made of refined grains, in addition to other nutritionally deficient ingredients. Refined grains do not offer the same nutritional benefits as whole grains. The process by which refined grains are produced removes fiber, iron, vitamins and other nutrients,

according to the American Heart Association

. Examples of refined grains include white flour, corn flour and white rice. Not only have Americans turned to unhealthier grains for a greater share of their calories; modern wheat is also less nutritious than heritage grain varieties.

Why You Should Probably Stop Eating Wheat

As Americans increasingly eat out at restaurants more and consume more processed foods, salt intake has steadily increased across all age groups. The average American between ages 20 and 74 consumed close to 1,500 mg more sodium per day in 2006 than in 1971,

according to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies

. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends everyone ages 2 and up consume less than 2,300 mg per day, which is about a teaspoon a day. Some people with certain health risks, such as diabetes or high blood pressure, should limit that further to 1,500 mg per day. Eating too much salt increases water intake in the body, which leads to high blood pressure. Kidneys work overtime to deal with the excess sodium, and the increased blood volume puts a strain on the heart and blood vessels. At worst, a lifetime of a sodium surplus could lead to heart failure or stroke,

according to the Harvard School of Public Health

.

Fast Food Is Less Salty Abroad

In 1929, presidential candidate Herbert Hoover ran under the slogan "a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage." These items might seem common enough today, but Hoover was basically promising what were then considered luxuries to every American household. At the time of Hoover's campaign, "the few chickens raised for meat were sold directly to high-end restaurants, first-class dining cars, and luxury caterers,"

according to the Smithsonian Museum of American History

. Chickens were instead kept for their eggs, which are a valuable source of protein and other nutrients. Egg consumption peaked mid-century, and has been in decline ever since. The overblown connection between cholesterol in eggs and heart disease certainly contributed to Americans turning their back on eggs. But a decline in prices of another protein source, specifically chicken, also contributed to eggs falling out of favor. In the last half of the 20th century, poultry consumption went up more than three-fold, according to USDA data. Red-meat consumption saw a steady decline over the same period, with Americans eating roughly 10 percent fewer pounds per capita every year.

VIDEO: Stop Eating Food: The Soylent Experiment