Well, I don’t know for sure they can count but I have seen some very interesting behavior from the hens with chicks who have taken over our front yard. There are three chicken hens with six, five, and four chicks respectively. And one peahen with two peachicks. They have all decided that the front yard is the place to raise their chicks – there is shade and the “chicken spa” (our constantly overflowing swamp cooler that makes a little pool of cool water for their feet). They also get first dibs on the treats that come from the kitchen. While some hens will raise their chicks together this group has not and they compete for resources even chasing each other’s chicks away.
One of the mother hens is a tame hen named Blue. I discovered her setting on eggs in the big barn in a very dangerous place so I took the risk of moving her into my office to keep her safe. She took to the routine very well and was not distubed by the human activity around her. Once a day I would take her off the nest and put her outside and she did her duty, ate, and drank. (Once a day is typical for broody hens – they hold their “business” and only go in one big “broody pile” away from their nest.) When her chicks hatched I started letting them go outside but being the nervous grandma I have been bringing them in at night to sleep in a box in my office. The other hens and peahen were choosing good places for spending the night but Blue kept making bad choices so I worried about her.
Our routine is that first thing in the morning I open their box and Blue jumps up to be taken outside. Her chicks have started jumping up too so I can take Blue and two or three chicks in one trip. When the first group is outside I get the remainder – and here is where I think “counting” or something even more interesting is going on. Blue will wait by the door until I bring her last chick outside even if all the similar looking chicks from the other hens are right next to her. When her exact number of chicks have been put outside she starts to take them on their daily routine. Either she is counting and knows when one is missing or,even more interestingly, she recognizes each as an individual and knows when a specific one is missing. If she recognizes individuals (and I tend to think this is more of what is going on here) then we are talking a level of familiarity, recognition, and memory that humans don’t normally attribute to chickens.
I have also noticed that all the hens know the calls of their chicks and respond to them exclusively. If Blue’s chick is being chased Blue will respond and the other hens don’t. If the Buff Orpington’s chick is being chased she will respond and the others don’t. Very interesting that they know their own chick’s calls as well.