Broiler chickens


The domestic chicken (Gallus gallusdomesticus) is a subspecies of the red junglefowl of the In-dian subcontinent. The male red junglefowl is a magnificent bird with a plumage of gold, red, brown, dark maroon and orange, with flecks of metallic green and grey. They have impressive tail feathers which can be up to 28cm long. You can still see wild red junglefowl today, where chickens originated, in the forests of Southeast Asia, and parts of South Asia. ‘Broiler’ chickens are domesticated birds bred and raised for meat production.

Fascinating facts

Chickens are the closest living ancestors to Tyrannosaurus rex

You might not associate the humble chicken with the most feared and famous of all of the dinosaurs, but based on molecular research scientists have discovered that chickens are closest living relative to the T-rex!1Schweitzer, MH, Asara JM, Freimark LM, Phillips M, Cantley L. 2007.Protein Sequences from Mastodon and Tyrannosaurus Rex Revealed by Mass Spectrometry. Science. Issue 5822, pp. 280-28.

Full-time foragers

junglefowl foraging

Junglefowl are active early in the morning, sleep during the day and wake again from late after-noon until dusk. Much of their day is spent foraging for insects, small snakes or lizards, and scratching at the ground looking for seeds and berries.

Chickens are sophisticated talkers

rooster crowing

Chickens communicate with 24 to 30 vocalisations, each can be nuanced and with a distinct meaning. These calls include everything from roosters saying “I’ve found food” with an excited, rapid “tuck-tuck-tuck” to a soft, vibrating warning “errrr” that spurs little chicks to run to their mums or to flatten to the ground.2Smith CL, Zielinski SL. 2014. Brainy Bird. Sci Am; 310(2):60-65.

Chickens have their own distinctive voices

chickens talking

Every rooster’s crow call is unique and correlates with his comb length (the feathered crest on the top of his head) – an indicator of male dominance.3Appleby MC, Mench JA, and Hughes BO. 2004. Poultry Behaviour and Welfare. CABI Publishing p.72. Males will listen to each other’s calls to assess the dominance status of other males.4Leonard ML and Horn AG. 1995. Crowing in relation to status in roosters. Animal Behaviour 49:1283-90.

Chickens recognise each other’s faces

chickens looking at each other

Chickens recognise a large number of other chickens, not only from within their group but out-siders, too.5D’Eath RB, Stone RJ.1999.Chickens use visual cues in social discrimination: an experiment with coloured lighting. Appl Anim Behav Sci. 62:233–242. Research has shown that they can do this even when they are shown colour slides of chickens in their flock!6Bradshaw RH, Dawkins MS. Slides of conspecifics as representatives of real animals in laying hens (Gallus domesticus) Behav Process. 1993;28:165–172.

A natural hierarchy

small flock of chickens in garden

Chickens are naturally social birds who, in the wild, live together long-term as a flock in groups of four to 13 individuals of varying ages. A flock will always have a distinct hierarchy or ‘pecking order’, giving dominant individuals priority over food access and nesting locations.7Smith CL, Zielinski SL. 2014.The Startling Intelligence of the Common Chicken. Scientific American.

A dedicated mum

hen and chicks

Wild chickens lay between 10 to 15 eggs a year during breeding season. To make sure that her eggs are safe, hens will leave the group and find a secluded nest site ready to lay.8Weeks CA and Nicol CJ. 2006. Behavioural needs, priorities and preferences of laying hens. World’s Poultry Science Journal. 62:296-307. After laying her eggs the hen will sit on them day and night for three weeks. She will leave the nest only once a day to get food and water and dust bathe. The average size of each brood is 4-6 chicks.

Chicks talk to their mums before they have even hatched

Chicks make calls from inside their egg to let their mum know if they’re distressed from being cold or when they’re happy. Chick brothers and sisters communicate with each other whilst still in their eggs to plan hatching at the same time.9Rogers LJ. 1995. The Development of Brain and Behaviour in the Chicken CAB International 51-2.

Hens are very protective of their young

hen sitting with her chicks

A mother hen will risk her own life to save her chicks. In the wild, if a predator detects the hen’s nest she will become raucous and draw potential predators to herself in an attempt to divert attention away from her chicks.10Collias NE and Collias EC. 1967. A field study of the Red Jungle Fowl in north-central India. The Condor 69(4):360-86.

Chickens have highly sensitive beaks

Chickens’ beaks are very important in the way that they experience the world – they use them to pick up objects, preen, nest and defend against attackers. Just like our fingertips, the tip of the beak is highly sensitive. They are filled with nerve endings for touch, pain, taste and temperature.11Gentle, MJ. J Breward J. 1986. The bill tip organ of the chicken. Agricultural and Food Research Council’s Poultry Research Centre. 79-85 12Freire R, Eastwood MA, Joyce M. 2011. Minor beak trimming in chickens leads to loss of mechanoreception and magnetoreception. J Anim Sci. 89(4): 1201-6.

Chickens feel empathy

two white chickens looking at each other

The ability to empathise has been associated mainly with highly intelligent species such as dol-phins, great apes, elephants, pigs and dogs, but chickens can be added to that list too. Studies have shown hens displaying signs of anxiety when witnessing her chicks being distressed by a puff of air – a clear sign of a basic form of empathy.13Edgar JL, Lowe JC, Paul ES, Nicol CJ. 2011 Avian maternal response to chick distress, Royal Society, 3129-34.

Chickens have better eyesight than us – and see more colours!

closeup of chicken eye

Chickens have excellent eyesight, allowing them to focus close-up and far away at the same time!14Dawkins MS. 1995 How do hens view other hens—the use of lateral and binocular visual-fields in social recognition. Behaviour.132:591. They have tetrachromatic vision, which means that chickens can see more colours than humans can, including ultraviolet light.15Ham AD, Osorio D. 2007 Colour preferences and colour vision in poultry chicks. Proc R Soc B.;274.

Chickens are as clever as monkeys!

chicken eating from human hand

An increasing number of studies have shown that chickens’ intelligence rivals that of dogs, pri-mates and in some tasks, human toddlers! Chickens can count to 1016Rugani R, Fontanari L, Simoni E, Regolin L, and Vallortigara G. 2009 Arithmetic in newborn chicks, Proc. R. Soc. B.2762451–2460., display a high level of self-control17Abeyesinghe SM, Nicol CJ, Hartnell SJ, Wathes CM. 2011. Can domestic fowl, Gallus gallus domesticus, show self-control? Anim Behav. 2005;70:1–11., are capable of social learning18Johnston ANB, Burne THJ, and Rose SPR. 1998. Observational learning in day-old chicks using a one-trial passive avoidance learning paradigm. Animal Behaviour56:1347-53., have great memory19Cozzutti C, Vallortigara G. Hemispheric memories for the content and position of food caches in the domestic chick. BehavNeurosci. 2001;115:305–313., and have the ability to deceive others to benefit themselves – a sign of ‘Machiavellian intelligence’.20Gyger M, Marler P. Food calling in the domestic fowl, Gallus gallus: the role of external referents and deception. Anim Behav. 1988;36(2):358–365.

Chickens outnumber humans three to one!

broiler chickens in factory farm

There are over 23 billion chickens in the world at any one time – outnumbering humans by more than three to one. Obviously, the overwhelming majority of these are bred to produce meat or eggs for humans.21

Young and old

chicks following hen chicken

A chicken’s natural lifespan is usually 5-8 years and in some cases they can live 10-12 years. Fe-males over a year old are referred to as hens and younger females as pullets. Males over a year old are called roosters whilst younger males are referred to as cockerels.

Broiler chickens in Uganda

There are over 37 million farmed chickens in Uganda, the majority being indigenous breeds, but with an increasing number of fast-growing exotic breeds being used.22 In 2020, Uganda produced nearly 70,000 tonnes of chicken meat, which has been increasing at an annual rate of 3.6 per cent.23 In 2022, Uganda slaughtered over 52 million chickens.24 The highest concentration of farmed chickens can be found in eastern Uganda, around lakes Kyoga and Victoria.22

Chickens in Ugandan culture

Chickens have been a big part of Ugandan culture for centuries, with many myths enveloping them over hundreds of years. These vary in different parts of Uganda and in different cultures but can involve anything from the belief that if a woman dreams of a chicken, she will soon be-come pregnant to chickens bringing good luck to chickens. Chickens are also used in certain rituals to appease gods in some parts of Ugandan culture. For example, in Buganda, chickens are ritually sacrificed. They are slaughtered and their blood ‘served to the gods’. Roosters are used for cockfighting for entertainment (banned in many countries because of the cruelty) and for divination in many cultures. Some people believe that roosters can help predict the future in a practice called Alectryomancy.

How broiler chickens are farmed

Incubation and growth

chicks in hatchery

The incubation period for broiler chickens is approximately 21 days. In Uganda, there are hatcheries that specialise in hatching eggs for poultry. However, local breeders let chickens mate naturally.

Most commercial broiler chickens bred for meat reach slaughter weight at just 5 to 7 weeks of age, although slower-growing strains reach slaughter weight at approximately 14 weeks of age. Some smallholder farms slaughter the birds at any age, when there is demand.

Broiler chickens in commercial farms are selectively bred to gain an average of more than 500 grams every week, which is good business for many farmers but terrible news for the wellbeing of the bird. This abnormally fast growth puts huge pressure on their young bones, muscles and organs. This causes immense pain due to the bones in the legs collapsing, making it difficult for the chickens to walk, and other serious problems such as organ failures and even death.


Broiler chickens are farmed in three ways in Uganda: free-range, intensive, and semi-intensive.22


Free-range chickens account for about 55 per cent of the chicken population.22 Chickens are kept in free-range systems across the country, mainly on household and small-holder farms. Over 40 per cent of Uganda’s population live in a household that keeps chickens, and 80 per cent of these allow the chickens free range.22 Flocks of between two or three to a dozen birds are usually made up of indigenous breeds.

Most free-range chickens are kept for subsistence farming, and not usually for the meat or egg market.

Intensive and semi-intensive

broiler chickens in a factory farm

Intensively and semi-intensively farmed chickens account for about 45 per cent – and rising – of the chicken population.22 The only real difference between the two is that, in semi-intensive systems, the flocks are smaller (hundreds rather than thousands of birds), and the birds are sometimes allowed out to a fenced area.

In both systems, the main objective of semi-intensive farmers is to sell meat and eggs on the market, although some will be used for subsistence.

Unlike free-range chickens, they are fed a compound feed and not allowed to search for their own food, and are deprived of any opportunity to engage in natural behaviour.

In intensive systems, farmers will confine thousands of exotic birds (usually Cobb 500, Hubbard, and Ross breeds25 in a giant unit, in which they are imprisoned for their entire, but short life, until the day they are slaughtered.26 The largest intensive broiler farm in Uganda – which also has its own abattoir – contains 740,000 and can kill 2,500 birds an hour.27

For broiler chickens, one of two systems is used: either a “deep litter” system or a slatted floor system.26

In a deep litter system, the floor is covered in a litter of straw, wood shavings and any other available material. The litter is designed to soak up the chickens’ waste, but it means that birds living on deep litter are always in contact with their faeces. With thousands of birds sharing the same space, the litter can become wet very quickly. By sitting in their own waste, broilers are prone to suffer from contact dermatitis, where the skin is chemically burned and eventually turns black.

In the slatted floor system, the chickens spend their entire lives having to walk on wooden slats. The idea is that their waste drops through the gaps in the slats. However, scientists have shown that a slatted floor does nothing to reduce the bacteria present in the chicken unit.28 Slatted floors also prevent the chickens from engaging in many natural behaviours, such as for-aging for food and dustbathing. It is also difficult for the chickens to walk naturally on the slats, causing discomfort and deformed feet, and injuries occur when the birds’ legs slip between the slats.

Injury and mutilation

Lameness is a common occurrence on broiler farms because of selective breeding. The birds’ rapid weight gain leads to developmental abnormalities in their bones and joints, which are exacerbated by stress and infections caused by bacteria. Many intensively reared broiler chick-ens develop heart and lung problems and more than half of the birds in flocks with fast-growing breeds have severe walking problems and chronic pain.

Other injuries broiler chickens suffer are a result of feather-pecking and cannibalism. These behavioural issues often develop when the chicks are just a few weeks old and can become a habit that spreads through the flock. Once stressed, young broilers begin picking the feathers, combs, toes or vents of other birds. Once a wound has opened, the blood drives cannibalistic behaviour.

chicken with feathers pecked out

To prevent aggressive feather pecking, chickens are ‘debeaked’. The debeaking procedure (known as beak trimming in the poultry industry) involves the partial removal of the tip of a hen’s beak, a process which is performed without any anaesthesia or postoperative treatment. In Uganda, it is common for debeaking to be done with a hand debeaker – a pair of blades operated like scissors – or a debeaker machine, which slices the tip of the beak off with a heated blade.

The main reason for stereotypical and aggressive behaviour in chickens is squarely down to the unnatural way they are kept, which – even in higher welfare cases – does not truly reflect their natural state nor allow them to express all natural behaviours. Sanctuaries which offer chickens a genuinely free-range life in small flocks find that birds do not feather pick and have healthy, shining feathers.

How broiler chickens are killed


The transportation of broiler chickens to slaughterhouses in Uganda poses serious welfare concerns. Broiler chickens are often transported long distances in vehicles not designed for animal transportation, leading to stress, injuries, and even death. During transportation, may die, suffer haemorrhages and other critical physical trauma being squeezed in cages and transported for miles.

Even chickens from smallholder farms travelling to local markets face a terrifying journey, often being hung upside down from the handlebars of a motorbike, instead of being properly transported in baskets.29


Broiler chickens in Uganda are typically slaughtered at just 5 to 7 weeks of age. Although still babies, they are the size of obese adults due to being made to grow much too fast.

Chickens kept in smallholder and household free range systems are killed without any kind of stunning. The slaughterer will usually pin the chicken down by standing or kneeling on the chicken’s wings. They will then take a knife to the throat of the chicken and saw through their flesh. Blood spurts from the wound as the bird is left to bleed to death for several minutes. The bird is supposed to be killed with a single slice, but inadequately sharp instruments mean that several repeated cuts have to be made to tear through the bird’s skin. This results in unthinkable pain and suffering.

In the few modern slaughterhouses in Uganda, chickens are suspended by their feet on a moving line. They are then stunned by either an electrical current or by being smashed on the head with a metal rod. Then, as described above, their throat is cut and they are bled to death.25 As around 15 per cent of Ugandans are Muslim, chickens are also killed without stunning so that the meat can be certified halal.30

Their carcasses are then scalded in hot water and their feathers are usually plucked out by hand, or sometimes by a machine. After they have had their feathers pulled out, the bird is “eviscerated”, which means all their organs and feet are removed.25

This should all be done in a sterile environment, but that is rarely the case. On small farms, the chickens are often just killed outside on the ground, or even in the family kitchen.

Zoonotic diseases and superbugs

A zoonotic disease is a disease that can spread between animals and humans. Poultry farming provides the perfect conditions for zoonotic diseases to spread.

One of the most common zoonotic diseases is salmonella. Symptoms of human salmonellosis include fever, diarrhoea and stomach cramps. If it infects the bloodstream it can even become life-threatening. Salmonella is commonly detected in eggs and raw chicken meat. It is particularly prevalent amongst the chickens on intensive farms in Uganda.22

Another concerning zoonotic disease is bird flu (H5N1). Bird flu is becoming more common on free range and intensive farms in Uganda (and throughout the world). According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, “almost all human infections have been related to close contact with infected or sick birds or their faecal products in domestic settings, eg in ‘wet markets’ in Asia or in backyard farming,”31 which is common in Uganda.

Bird flu is a global concern because the virus that causes it, has jumped to humans hundreds of times and has a high death rate in young and old alike. Scientists are worried that the virus will mutate (change) and become able to spread from person to person, then we would have an-other pandemic. This is why intensive commercial farming is potentially dangerous – cramming birds together in sheds enables the viruses to spread and change very easily.

In an effort to control other bacterial diseases on farms, farmed animals are often given antibiotics. However, the overuse of antibiotics is leading to the bacteria becoming resistant to drugs in humans,” which means antibiotics we have long-trusted to treat illnesses may no longer work. This will “likely create new public health threats. Some, such as emerging zoonotic diseases, may have pandemic potential, add to existing food safety hazards and proliferation of antimicrobial resistance pathogens.”22

Intensively farmed broiler chickens face many challenges in Uganda. From being slaughtered at such a young age, to poor housing, inadequate nutrition and an increased risk of disease and injury. Even when chickens are lucky enough to be raised on a free-range farm, they still meet a horrendous end. There is no humane way to raise chickens for food – the only solution is to adopt a plant-based diet.