Back when I was growing up on our family’s ranch, we had three generations living there. Our grandmother, who tended the chickens, goats, and horses, liked to draw in her spare time.
She drew a lot of animals, and there was one recurring character she called the Mugwump. It was a silly bird who would sit on the fence and make humorous observations. It had an over-sized head, and rear end and would smile with a beak full of big chunky teeth that only seemed to appear when the Mugwump was very pleased with himself.
Naturally, living on a ranch, most of us knew that birds do not have teeth. But it was something that the littlest of us would ask. Even the neighbor’s children would sometimes wonder aloud about whether or not chickens and other birds have teeth. As mammals, our teeth are extremely important to us, and the idea of an animal not having teeth does seem a bit strange the first time you think about it.
Because most people do not grow up around animals on ranches, many people never have a reason to consider how a chicken would get its food down its throat. Inevitably, the question will arise, “Do chickens have teeth?”
It’s an inherently funny idea. In fact, we had one cousin who would come around occasionally. Her baby teeth didn’t fall out until she was almost a teenager. So she had a mouthful of oddly small looking teeth, and she acquired the name “Chicken Teeth.”
Thinking back on it, it wasn’t a very nice thing to call a little girl. But her adult teeth came in before she went on to Junior High School, and that was the end of her chicken teeth problem.
Still, with the exception of some rare reports of mutant strains of chicken, we can say with a great deal of certainty that chickens, and birds in general, do not have teeth. This leaves us with the question of what they have instead of teeth.
How Chickens Eat Without Teeth
It might be helpful to eliminate a point of confusion right from the start. Baby chicks do have something called an “egg tooth” when they first hatch. This is a small bone that appears on the outside of the beak on the top side.
Baby chickens use these to break through the eggshell as they are first coming into the world. Baby chicks are very tiny and weak, and the shell of an egg is made of strong calcium. So it makes sense that they would need to be equipped with a sturdy tool with which to make their escape.
The egg tooth will detach and fall off within a few days of hatching. It will leave a small white spot which the chick will have for a while.
Oddly enough, older chickens will sometimes eat the egg tooth after it falls off, and this brings us to our subject of how chickens eat without teeth.
When you were growing up, you probably heard adults say, “chew your food at least 20 times with every bite,” or to “take smaller bites.” This was fairly common out on the ranch, where the young ones were always in a hurry to get back outside to play some more.
Being toothy mammals, we think nothing of putting something into our mouth that we could never swallow. We bite, chew, and only swallow small pieces of the bites we take. This has to do with the structure of our bodies, the relative size of our heads, mouths, stomachs, and esophagus.
Because of our proportions and the shape of our skeletons, we have developed a digestive system and eating habits that fit well with our bodies. Chickens have done the same thing. Hence their digestive system is quite a bit different from ours.
Since a chicken cannot chew, not in the same way we do, at least, they have come up with a number of alternative solutions to dealing with food that is too big to swallow.
The first part of a chicken’s food processing system is behavioral. They use pecking and bashing to get their food into small enough pieces to get down their throat. When pecking, the chicken simply pokes the food with her beak in an attempt to knock small bite-sized pieces off. It’s worth mentioning that this is more than just a silly alternative to chewing.
When a bird pecks at its food, it is really testing it for density and consistency. Also, perhaps most importantly, the chicken could be checking to see whether or not the food is safe to eat, whether or not it is alive, is concealing a predator, and so on. If you watch a bird peck at its food, you’ll notice that at first, the animal is quite tenuous about it. It will extend its neck and peck from as far away as possible while quickly withdrawing its head after each peck. When the bird gains more confidence, she will move in closer and begin to give more confident pecks.
Then, once the chicken is more than fairly certain that she wants to eat the thing she has been pecking at, you will see a different behavior known as bashing.
At this point, the bird will pick up a fairly large piece of food and begin hitting it against the ground or other objects. This will break off other pieces that could be eaten. But most importantly, it will detach whatever is in the chicken’s mount, inside the beak, from the rest of the food. This is a pretty good way to produce a piece of food small enough to be swallowed.
If you give a chicken a slice of bread, first off, she will love you forever. But what you are almost certain to see is pecking and bashing. If the animal is very familiar with bread, knows she likes it, and trusts you or the source of the food- then the chicken might sometimes go straight to bashing.
Now, before you grimace and think chickens are silly, just remember that humans are not so different. We peck and bash at our food with tools. In fact, it might be interesting to consider the fact that cultures that use chopsticks consider using forks, spoons, and knives to be similar to treating our food with violence. They consider metal utensils as being similar to weapons with which we abuse our food before eating it. So before we go judging chickens, it might be wise to reflect on ourselves for a moment.
What About Swallowing and Digestion?
There was an interesting and rather horrifying video making the rounds on the Internet a few years ago, of birds in a seaside park. There were pigeons, ducks, pelicans, and seagulls, and people were feeding bread to the eclectic masses of birds.
There was a pelican who could not get his large head under the masses of birds to get to the bread crumbs. In one startling moment, the pelican scooped up a pigeon in its beak and swallowed it. It was not just a startling moment for YouTube subscribers and the people filming, but for scientists as well. This behavior was considered to be rare, possibly even unique. That would mean we had witnessed an evolutionary moment.
It was supposed that this particular pelican might go on to eat more large birds and would have a chance of producing offspring that would do the same thing. In time, this would give us a subspecies pelican that cannibalized fairly large birds.
Anyway, the purpose of this story is to make the point that birds can swallow things that seem too large. Their esophagus is much more elastic than ours and can stretch to accommodate larger bits of food. It’s a bit similar to how snakes are able to eat things that are much larger than their mouths.
It’s also interesting to consider the fact that many scientists believe birds and reptiles have an ancient ancestor in common. Perhaps this small similarity between the digestive process of birds and that of snakes can be explained this way.
Finally, this leads us to what happens in the chicken’s gut. Most people are aware that chickens and some other birds will swallow small stones. This is because the animal’s gut has special muscles and structures in the stomach that can “grasp” these stones and use them to grind up food inside the stomach.
They do this because chickens produce very little to no digestive fluid in their stomachs and guts. Many people believe they have no liquid digestion, but it is hard to imagine digestion being completed in a completely dry gut. Nevertheless, they produce so little digestive fluid that their stomachs have developed a way to “chew” food by using stones as a kind of internal teeth.
The stones are eventually ground to dust and pass out of the chicken’s digestive tract. So in a way, it could be said that chickens do have teeth, but that they keep them in their guts and that they are more like dentures.
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