Think chicken—think intelligent, caring and complex

January 3, 2017, Springer
Credit: Farm Sanctuary

Chickens are not as clueless or "bird-brained" as people believe them to be. They have distinct personalities and can outmaneuver one another. They know their place in the pecking order, and can reason by deduction, which is an ability that humans develop by the age of seven. Chicken intelligence is therefore unnecessarily underestimated and overshadowed by other avian groups. So says Lori Marino, senior scientist for The Someone Project, a joint venture of Farm Sanctuary and the Kimmela Center in the USA, who reviewed the latest research about the psychology, behavior and emotions of the world's most abundant domestic animal. Her review is published in Springer's journal Animal Cognition.

"They are perceived as lacking most of the psychological characteristics we recognize in other intelligent animals and are typically thought of as possessing a low level of intelligence compared with other animals," Marino says. "The very idea of chicken psychology is strange to most people."

Research has shown that chickens have some sense of numbers. Experiments with newly hatched domestic chicks showed they can discriminate between quantities. They also have an idea about ordinality, which refers to the ability to place quantities in a series. Five-day-old domestic chicks presented with two sets of objects of different quantities disappearing behind two screens were able to successfully track which one hid the larger number by apparently performing simple arithmetic in the form of addition and subtraction.

Chickens are also able to remember the trajectory of a hidden ball for up to 180 seconds if they see the ball moving and up to one minute if the displacement of the ball is invisible to them. Their performance is similar to that of most primates under similar conditions.

The birds possess self-control when it comes to holding out for a better food reward. They are able to self-assess their position in the pecking order. These two characteristics are indicative of self-awareness.

Chicken communication is also quite complex, and consists of a large repertoire of different visual displays and at least 24 distinct vocalizations. The birds possess the complex ability of referential communication, which involves signals such as calls, displays and whistles to convey information. They may use this to sound the alarm when there is danger, for instance. This ability requires some level of self-awareness and being able to take the perspective of another animal, and is also possessed by highly intelligent and social species, including primates.

Chickens perceive time intervals and can anticipate future events. Like many other animals, they demonstrate their cognitive complexity when placed in social situations requiring them to solve problems.

The birds are able to experience a range of complex negative and positive emotions, including fear, anticipation and anxiety. They make decisions based on what is best for them. They also possess a simple form of empathy called emotional contagion. Not only do individual have distinct personalities, but mother hens also show a range of individual maternal personality traits which appear to affect the behavior of their chicks. The birds can deceive one another, and they watch and learn from each other.

"A shift in how we ask questions about chicken psychology and behavior will, undoubtedly, lead to even more accurate and richer data and a more authentic understanding of who they really are," says Marino.

Explore further: Feral chickens spread light on evolution

More information: Lori Marino, Thinking chickens: a review of cognition, emotion, and behavior in the domestic chicken, Animal Cognition (2017). DOI: 10.1007/s10071-016-1064-4

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6 comments

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dan42day
5 / 5 (2) Jan 03, 2017
Perhaps someday with extensive research into ways to communicate with and understand them, they will be able to finally give us the answer to that timeless question, which came first, the chicken or the egg.
ab3a
5 / 5 (3) Jan 03, 2017
I have chickens, and though I can't confirm all of these observations, they do have a personality and they do exhibit some level of awareness, though not what I would call intelligent.

In particular, roosters can be downright nasty for no good reason. We have Wellsummer hens and had one rooster, mostly for protection of the flock. The rooster was gorgeous. He looked like he should be pictured on a box of corn flakes. But after he started growing spurs on his legs, he got real mean. I couldn't even fill the feeder without that bird attacking me and punching holes through my jeans. We keep their feed in a steel trash can to keep mice out. That bird came after me a second time and I had to beat it over the head with the trash can lid to keep him at bay.

Finally one day, after he'd attacked my daughter and drew blood, we'd had enough of his antics. One blast from the shotgun and he was dinner.

It takes an incredibly stupid bird to not know the hand that feeds him.
soaprules
5 / 5 (3) Jan 04, 2017
To ab3a, has to do with the breed. Roosters from what I know are like dogs in the sense that some breeds are prone to having various aggression levels. Doesn't detract from their level of sentience, consciousness, or intelligence so much as it shows the varying degrees by which breeds are owned by their crudest program so to speak. The general role of the Rooster is an enforcer/guardsmen, the aggression(On some level) is unavoidable so long as you have one.

"Some level of awareness". I think they exhibit more level of awareness than most AI. A lot more. They have a neural network of substantial quality essentially.
ab3a
5 / 5 (1) Jan 04, 2017
@soaprules It would be wise not to confuse survival instinct with actual intelligence.

Chickens strike me as not being particularly domesticated. In other words, they keep a lot of their survival instinct even though they're quite captive. We allow our chickens to wander around our gardens and field when we're outside. We keep an eye open for predators, such as hawks, skunk, raccoon, and the like. But the birds look out for themselves quite well too.

In contrast, my neighbors tell me that their turkey in captivity get stupid in comparison to their wild cousins. In other words, their instincts seem to be learned behavior instead of something innate like it is with a chicken.

As such I would be hesitant to refer to a chicken as "aware" in comparison to a turkey.
24volts
5 / 5 (1) Jan 05, 2017
We used to raise some chickens and my description of the breed is a miniature T-Rex with feathers that thinks it's part goat. I will say one thing about them. if you keep them as pets for eggs, they will learn their names and come to you when called more reliably that any other pets we've ever had and I do think they are a lot smarter then most people think they are.

Want a real laugh? Take some cooked spaghetti noodles and feed them to chickens. They love the stuff and I believe they think it's a worm.. They will pick up a piece and beat the heck out of it on the ground before they try to eat it. It's hilarious...
barakn
1 / 5 (1) Jan 05, 2017
Chicken flocks notice infirmities, disease, and injuries amongst their members and the afflicted are attacked mercilessly. Kind of like how health care will work under Trump.

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