Thinking Like A Chicken: Domestic Chicken Ethology
Despite the fact that some birds are known to be on par with many mammals in terms of intelligence, emotional sophistication, and social interaction, the general societal view of chickens has essentially remained unchallenged by this new evidence. One would think that with over 19 billion chickens worldwide – the most abundant of all domesticated animals – some effort would be made to understand these beings. Yet, unlike many other birds, chickens are “categorized as a commodity, devoid of authenticity as a real animal with an evolutionary history and phylogenetic context.” Driven by a lack of knowledge, chickens are often mislabelled as lacking many advanced psychological characteristics and hence are typically thought of as animals of low intelligence compared to others.
Lori Marino, a neuroscientist and scholar in the fields of animal intelligence and behavior, set out to examine the available peer-reviewed scientific data on the cognition, emotions, personality and sociality in chickens. Through comparison with other birds and vertebrates, the researcher intended to bring our knowledge on chickens up to speed and highlight areas in need of future research.
Underestimation of chicken capabilities among researchers reflects and contributes to the ongoing public-wide disconnect between chickens as commodities and their individuality. What makes studying chickens particularly special is that, despite their long time domestication, the behavior of chickens is observed to be hardly any different from their wild counterparts. The researchers argues that this is due to the fact that, unlike dogs – the descendants of wolves chosen on their suitability as companions – chickens instead were selected on the basis of physical characteristics such as growth rate and fertility amongst others. Arguably, their brains remained the same as they were not challenged selectively.
Chickens are equipped with an impressive array of tools with which to interact with the world, including temperature, pressure, and pain sensing skin, and very sensitive beaks – complex sensory organs with numerous nerve endings. Moreover, as chickens depend highly on well-developed visual abilities, their eyes can focus close-up and far away at the same time in different parts of their visual field and see a broader range of colors compared to humans. Meanwhile, adeptness with low-frequency sound may include capabilities to detect infrasounds that we cannot hear. Curiously, some breeds of chickens possess the ability to detect and orient themselves according to magnetic fields (think geese and their in-built GPS).
Chickens also exhibit numerous cognitive capacities. Object permanence, for one, is the ability to understand that something exists even when it is out of sight. Human babies typically master this skill at around two years old. Baby chicks also showed a sense of ordinality – they can tell what is more and what is less. The birds can also perceive time: in one experiment, five 30-week old hens were able to approximately predict an event within a 6min interval after having been given a reliable predictive visual signal. Same goes for memory – chicks and adult chickens were shown to be able to remember the “where” and “what” components of information about food. Domestic chickens also show the capacity for self-control. This was shown in experiments where the birds could get a better item if they had discarded a good one. This indicates self-awareness.
Pecking order is a hierarchical system among chickens. Seemingly, sophisticated logical reasoning may underlie the process that is commonly perceived to be rather simple behavior. This was shown in an experimental setup where some chickens had observed their alpha member being beaten or victorious in a battle with an unknown chicken, and acted accordingly (e.g. decided not to meddle with the strong newcomer). We develop similar abilities at an age of around 7 years. Similar to humans, chickens also exhibit Machiavellian Intelligence – they can manipulate others. For example, males were shown to be more likely to sound an alarm if a subordinate is nearby, thereby giving the predator more than one target to hone in on. Other studies have added to the fact that chickens are aware of their audience – their communicative behavior is mediated by who can receive the call. Needless to say, years of experimental work on chicken communication show that it is much more complex than originally thought.
The social and emotional lives of chickens are no less impressive than their plumage. Domestic chickens have demonstrated the capacity to visually discriminate and recognize a large number of conspecifics presented live and even in color slides. The ability to tell your kin is very important if your not the alpha male, for instance. Males will sometimes make a food call in the absence of any food which attracts females who, once near them, can be engaged and defended against the other males. Females are obviously aware of this and quickly learn to ignore the lying roosters. Chickens often learn via social learning as opposed to the trial-and-error method. This, however, is a complex process as in other animals. The role models, for instance, are not necessarily better at performing the widely mimicked actions, but instead get to become the teachers due to their status in the flock.
Recent developments in animal behavior show that animals experience genuine positive emotions, not simply the absence of negative emotions as it was believed previously. This is critical to welfare efforts on behalf of other animals and it shows just how rich and similar the psychology between humans and other animals is. Chickens show anticipatory emotions such as anxiety when expecting negative outcomes and relaxation before expected positives outcomes. Hens are capable of a cognitively mediated empathic response – scientists observed emotional distress exhibited by mother hens after seeing their chicks exposed to unpleasant stimuli. However, it was also shown that there are different ‘‘maternal styles’’ in mother hens which may be based upon differences in personality traits. All in all, it is not at all surprising that chickens consistently choose and seek to be in environments which offer better welfare as measured by several physiological welfare indicators.
The research suggests that instead of viewing other animals as one-dimensional, interchangeable units within an amorphous species, we should recognize their personalities and in turn see them as complex individuals with multi-dimensional personalities. This review, though based on a great deal of animal research that may make advocates uncomfortable, will benefit animal advocates arguing the case of chicken intelligence, sentience and individuality.