For too long, the chicken has languished at the bottom of the avian intelligence pecking order. No longer!
According to researchers, the hen, far from being a bird brain, is actually an egghead with a capacity for mathematical reasoning, an ability to empathize and a sophisticated theory of mind.
“The domesticated chicken is something of a phenomenon,” said Christine Nicol, professor of animal welfare at Bristol University, and the head of a study sponsored by the Happy Egg Company. “Studies over the past 20 years have revealed their finely honed sensory capacities, their ability to think, draw inferences, apply logic and plan ahead.”
She cites, among other evidence, the animal’s ability to distinguish between numbers up to five and a familiarity with transitive inference — the idea in logic that, if A is greater than B, and B is greater than C, then A is greater than C.
In the chicken’s case, this has been shown to manifest itself in the time-saving skill of determining that if Henrietta the chicken has already beaten you up, and Henrietta has herself lost a fight to Barbara, then there is no point in challenging Barbara for access to the grain bowl.
Actually, in the area of mathematical reasoning at least, science is only now catching up with what Las Vegas has known for years. Ginger the chicken, who roamed The Strip in the early part of this century, has been described as a “chicken extraordinaire” (as opposed to chicken supreme). Certainly for casinos the title was merited by her revenue-earning abilities alone, because Ginger could play tic tac toe and, when allowed to go first, consistently won — as much as $10,000 a pop. Admittedly, going first is a significant advantage in the game but, then again, so is not being a chicken.
Why has it taken so long to discover the chicken’s rich internal life? The American philosopher Thomas Nagel — most chickens will doubtless already be familiar with his work — once posed the question: “What is it like to be a bat?” He argued that it is impossible for a human to know the mind of a bat. As with flying mammals, so with less competently flying birds. Because, argues Nicol, we need “to ensure that all tests take full account of the differing sensory worlds of humans and chickens.”
And what a different world it is. Wittgenstein, another philosopher favoured by the more recherche chickens, said: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”
So it is that chickens’ surprisingly sophisticated language gives a clue to their understanding of the world. They can give alarm calls when predators are nearby, and moderate those calls based on the size of their chicks. They can display distressed vocalizations when their chick is attacked by puffs of air (one of the more esoteric experiments cited). Cockerels, meanwhile, offer up more courtship vocalizations when presented with a hen, rather than another cockerel. The report was welcomed within the chicken cognition community.
Siobhan Abeyesinghe this year published a seminal study Do Hens Have Friends? (Its conclusion: no).
“Chickens certainly have more capabilities than people are aware of,” she said. “I do think they are unjustly maligned. It suits us to do so because we have something invested in farming them in large numbers. We have this psychological shielding to devalue animals we use for meat so we feel less concern about them.
“Work like this is great to make us stop and think: yes, chickens are smarter than we thought, but also we should use that information to enrich their environment in a biologically relevant way and think about welfare implications.”
It is a measure of the effect that Nicol believes her study on chicken cognition will have that she feels the need to start it with a caveat. “Chickens,” she laments, “may not be about to make a significant mathematical, scientific or literary contribution to the world.”
But a minor contribution? She does not rule it out. “On the other hand,” she concedes, “we shouldn’t go too far. No chicken,” she points out, “has yet written a review of human intelligence.”