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‘Bird Brained’ – Insult or Compliment? Why Chickens are Smarter Than You Imagine

'Bird Brained' - Insult or Compliment? Why Chickens are Smarter Than You Imagine

Many humans like to pick out one trait of an animal, show how humans are better at that one particular thing, and use this as a reason for eating or mistreating animals. For example, a cow can’t speak so therefore it’s not as smart as I am. Or, that chicken is worthless because its brain is so small.

If we take this route of who’s the “best,” we might not be so quick to hold judgement against non-human animals since a number of them have abilities we could only dream of. For instance, tarantulas can live for two years without eating a thing, and according to Adventure Journal, rhinoceros beetles can lift 285 times their bodyweight, cockroaches can live for weeks without a head, and cheetahs can run up to 70 mph. But I digress.

Earlier this summer, Christine Nicol, a professor of animal welfare from Bristol University, reviewed 20 years of research on chicken behavior and came up with some surprising conclusions. Here are a few highlights:

  • Hens can count — at least to six. They can be taught that food is in the sixth hole from the left and they will go to it. Even chicks can do basic arithmetic, so that if you shuffle five items in a shell game, they mentally keep track of additions and subtractions and choose the area with the higher number of items. In a number of such tests, chicks do better than toddlers.
  • Researchers in one study gave hens the option of two keys, one of which would wait two seconds and then give the hen three seconds of food, and the other would force a wait of six seconds but offer 22 seconds of food. After learning that trade-off, 93 percent of hens preferred the delay with more food.
  • Chickens communicate with different calls to warn about ground predators and birds of prey, while other calls signal food.
  • Hens are social animals, preferring the companionship of those they know to strangers. They recover more quickly from stress when they are with an acquaintance.
  • It takes a chick just a few hours to develop its representational and numerical abilities in comparison to the months and years it takes a human child to do anything comparable.

Nicholas Christof, in a recent NY Times Op-Ed, cited the study as a call to end cruel mistreatment in factory farms. He admits, “I eat meat, so this entire column may be braised in hypocrisy. But just as we try to protect dogs and cats from undue suffering, without necessarily considering them our equals, it makes sense to minimize animal suffering more broadly when we can. So even when there are no salmonella outbreaks, there are good reasons to keep away from wretched birds raised in factory farms.”

Christof makes a good point, and I applaud him for taking a step toward a more humane world. However, compassion for animals shouldn’t turn into a “who’s better than who” contest. Animals deserve our respect, just because we may be able to control them, doesn’t mean we should.

Image Source: Daniel Hall/Flickr

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