Chickens actually can fly, but there are several surprising reasons why they don’t. Because modern domesticated chickens have large bodies and small wings, they are too heavy to get very high off the ground. Smaller chickens can and do fly short distances.
The modern domesticated chicken is the result of 10,000 years of selective breeding. The chicken’s wild ancestor, the jungle fowl, is not a very strong flyer either. Native to Asia, the jungle fowl roosts in low-lying tree branches and forages for food on the ground. Because their lifestyle consists primarily of foraging and flying from one tree branch to the next — in a densely packed jungle forest — these wild chicken ancestors don’t need to fly long distances.
Domestic chickens have a similar build to the jungle fowl but have features that are even more exaggerated. Chickens, especially meat-producing breeds, have been selectively bred for larger and larger breasts. This amount of muscle on a chicken weighs it down and prevents it from flying very far if at all.
A 6.6 pound (or 3 kilograms) jungle fowl might have a wingspan of 29.5 inches (or 75 centimeters). A similarly sized broiler chicken might have a wingspan of just 45 centimeters. The smaller wings and larger body mass make flying difficult, if not impossible. Small wings will not generate enough lift to keep a chicken in the air over long distances.
For this reason, chickens in flight tend to take off and then glide to their destination. For an animal designed to live in a dense jungle where trees are close together, this arrangement makes a lot of sense.
How High Can Chickens Fly?
Just because chickens are not frequent flyers does not mean that they can’t fly. The breeds commonly found in backyards are usually chosen for egg production rather than meat, and they’re often more lightweight as a result. These layers are more similar to wild jungle fowl in body type and habits.
Araucana, Yokohama, Leghorn and La Fleche breeds are all especially well-known for being good flyers. Bantams, being smaller than regular chickens, can also fly surprisingly well.
So How Far Can a Chicken Fly?
Chickens are burst flyers. They are not designed to travel long distances like migratory ducks and geese. A small-breed chicken can reach heights of about 10 feet and distances of up to 50 feet. In practice, this means that your chickens may be able to fly over your fence and escape your yard. But don’t worry, they’re unlikely to get very far before finding a tree or bush to settle in.
A heavier breed like a Wyandotte or Orpington may only get a foot or so off the ground and glide for a few horizontal feet before landing again. Silkies and Polish chickens will almost never fly.
You can keep your chickens contained by providing a covered chicken run rather than letting them forage in an uncovered backyard. You can also clip a hen’s wings to keep her from flying very far. If you plan to let your chickens free-range without supervision, clipping their wings might be a good idea to prevent your neighbors from getting surprised feathery visitors.
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If you haven’t seen a chicken fly before, watch this video. I think you’ll find it amusing to say the least.