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The hidden lives of chickens

by Animal Voice

FILED IN: Ethical Consumerism · Issue 10

Several research teams have recently published findings on chicken intelligence that have challenged old notions about avian cognitive abilities.


For instance, scientists have found that chickens clearly understand cause-and-effect relationships, an advanced comprehension skill that puts their intellect beyond that of dogs. In the book The Development of Brain and Behaviour in the Chicken, Dr. Lesley Rogers, a professor of neuroscience and animal behavior, concludes, ”[I]t is now clear that birds have cognitive capacities equivalent to those of mammals, even primates.”

Chickens can grasp complex mental concepts
For example, chickens are able to understand that objects still exist even after they are hidden or removed from view. This level of cognition is actually beyond the capacity of small human children.

Researchers also recently reported that chickens “can anticipate the future and demonstrate self-control, something previously attributed only to humans and other primates.”

Scientists made this discovery after they observed that when given the option between pecking a button and receiving a small food reward instantly or holding out for 22 seconds in order to receive a larger food reward, chickens in the study demonstrated self-control by holding out for the larger reward over 90 percent of the time.

Chickens are social animals with complex social hierarchies
They interact in complex ways that are indicative of what anthropologists call “culture.” For example, researchers have shown that chickens learn from observing the success and failure of others in their community. One experiment that demonstrated this finding involved teaching one group of chickens to peck red and green buttons a certain number of times to obtain a food reward.

Researchers were surprised to find that when a new group of chickens watched those who had learned how to push the buttons for food, the new chickens quickly caught on by watching the others.


At a scientific conference, Dr. Christine Nicol, who worked on the on the study, told her colleagues, “They may be ‘bird brains,’ but we need to redefine what we mean by ‘bird brains.’ Chickens have shown us they can do things people didn’t think they could do. There are hidden depths to chickens, definitely.”

Chickens have a cultural knowledge which they pass on
Researchers have also found that chickens have a cultural knowledge that they pass down from generation to generation. John Webster, a professor at Bristol University, set up a study in which he gave chickens a mixture of yellow and blue kernels of corn. The blue kernels were tainted with chemicals that made the birds feel sick, and they quickly learned to avoid the blue corn entirely (this is also another example of their understanding of cause and effect).

When the chickens in Webster’s study had their young, he spread yellow and blue corn around the farm, and even though he made it so that both types were harmless, the mother hens remembered that the blue corn had previously made them sick, and they steered their young away from it.

In an article in the London Times, Webster explains, “What this tells us is that the mother hen has learnt what food is good and what is bad for her, that she cares so much for her chicks she will not let them eat the bad food, and she is passing on to her young what she has learnt. To me, that is pretty close to culture—and an advanced one at that. Chickens are sentient creatures and have feelings of their own.”

Scientists have been so impressed with the cognitive capabilities of birds that a group of international experts recently called for a new naming system to reflect the advanced nature of birds’ brains.

According to an article that appeared in The Washington Post, “The new system, which draws upon many of the words used to describe the human brain and has broad support among scientists, acknowledges the now overwhelming evidence that avian and mammalian brains are remarkably similar—a fact that explains why many kinds of bird are not just twitchily resourceful but able to design and manufacture tools, solve mathematical problems and, in many cases, use language in ways that even chimpanzees and other primates cannot.”

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