Chickens have a distinctive way of moving, don’t you think? I mean, there’s a reason countless people make fools of themselves doing the Chicken Dance at wedding receptions across the country—but simply do a web search for “chicken bobbing neck” and you’ll find numerous videos and even commercials emphasizing one of chickens’ most fascinating anatomical features that I like to call “slinky neck.”
You’ve probably noticed slinky neck in your own chickens. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, reference the Instagram video above. Note that this beautiful Blue-Laced Red Wyandotte’s body moves on the swing, but its head remains in place. This movement isn’t unique to this particular breed or a special way that chickens adapt to swinging behaviors. No, all chickens’ necks (except Silkies’) will do this when their bodies move. It’s also the reason their heads bob while they walk. The slinky action in the neck is all about helping the chicken see better.
Wait. How does a chicken’s neck help it see better? There’s a simple explanation.
In general, birds have larger eyes than mammals. While this physical attribute benefits them with superb eyesight, in turn making them great hunters, it prevents them from moving their eyeballs the way we and other fur-bearing creatures do. When mammals move their heads, their eyes can move to stay fixed on an object, but birds can’t do this. In order to compensate, chickens and other birds must keep their head still so that they can focus on the world around them.
Slinky neck—more formally known as “head tracking”—is a phenomenon that happens as an “optokinetic response to stabilize the retinal image” perceived by the chicken. In other words, the neck moves so the rest of the world doesn’t. It keeps what the chicken sees stable, helping them do things such as notice incoming predators, including hawks, or pounce on a tasty dinner of grubs and mice.
For chickens, the slinky neck feature is crucial for its survival. For us, it provides a reason to poke a little fun at the differences between human and bird.