Bird Brained? You Must be Pretty Damn Smart!

In everything from the motions of her head, to the tone of her calls, the common chicken is expressing intelligence, sophistication, and emotion in ways that we are just beginning to understand. 

In everything from the motions of her head, to the tone of her calls, the common chicken is expressing intelligence, sophistication, and emotion in ways that we are just beginning to understand. 

Bird Brained? You Must be Pretty Damn Smart!
by Wayne Hsiung

Scientific American recently had a wonderful piece about the astonishing discoveries in chicken intelligence over the past few years. An excerpt:

Few people think about the chicken as intelligent, however. In recent years, though, scientists have learned that this bird can be deceptive and cunning, that it possesses communication skills on par with those of some primates and that it uses sophisticated signals to convey its intentions. When making decisions, the chicken takes into account its own prior experience and knowledge surrounding the situation. It can solve complex problems and empathizes with individuals that are in danger.

These new insights into the chicken mind hint that certain complex cognitive abilities traditionally attributed to primates alone may be more widespread in the animal kingdom than previously thought. The findings also have ethical implications for how society treats farmed chickens: recognizing that chickens have these cognitive traits compels moral consideration of the conditions they endure as a result of production systems designed to make chicken meat and eggs as widely available and cheap as possible.

Among the incredible abilities discussed by the article: 

  • Deception: Roosters will trick rivals by selectively using vocal or visual mating calls, depending on whether the rival is present.
  • Language: Chickens have highly varied and context dependent calls in response to prey, using specific vocalizations to match the particular threat faced by the flock. 
  • Empathy: Mother hens who see their chicks in duress or pain will exhibit the same signs of stress, even if they themselves are not suffering. 

Read the full piece here

But there's something missing, even, from all of these studies: personhood. I cared for two broiler chickens for a few months many years ago. They were rescued from a live slaughterhouse in Chicago. And the thing that struck me most about interacting with them was their unique personalities... the way they each defied conventional stereotypes of species and gender. 

Roosters are known for being loud, domineering, and violent. Yet Phillip was a meek soul who hardly made any noise at all. 

Marta was a hen, and significantly smaller than Phillip. Yet she would not hesitate to chase him around, to peck and scare him, when a delicious treat was presented. 

They had personal tastes -- Phillip likes greens, Marta liked fruit. They had different communication styles -- Marta was a loud clucker while Phillip would use his body and head. And they had vastly differing reactions to human contact. Phillip positively sought it out and, if Marta was not screening him, would run up and wait for a scratch, even when food was not presented. Marta, in contrast, was strong and independent, and while extremely appreciative of the treats I brought, would otherwise do her own thing in the corner of the room.

When behavior is so complex, so strategic, so emotionally expressive, and so individually varied across members of the species, I don't know how one can fail to conclude the existence of not just sentience (which I believe, following Singer, should be the criterion for moral consideration) but even a form of wisdom. The problem, however, is that people do not recognize this wisdom because it's communicated in a form that human beings do not grasp. (For example, the slight bobs of a rooster's head might seem robot-like to a human... but to a chicken, they are a way to flirt!) 

So the next time calls you a bird brain, just smile and nod you head. Even if birds were dumb, they are beautiful creatures who do not deserve to be tormented or killed, as is the fate of so many billions today. But, as with so many other instances of species prejudice, when we start seeing through their eyes, and understanding them on their terms, it turns out they're not so dumb after all.