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  • Writer's pictureHarmony Farm Sanctuary

Are Chickens Actually Smarter Than You Think?.....YEP!

Last year sometime, I really started paying attention to how much I enjoyed the chickens at the farm and how much they seemed to like me.

I grew up in a typical suburban family eating meat and dairy and never thinking about where my food came from. I grew up thinking chickens and turkeys were rather stupid, not because I ever spent time with them just what I overheard I suppose. Funny that we are often taught social constructs that we never question. In this case, that construct was completely wrong. Chickens are smart and dynamic and emotional!

Recently on a tour of the farm, someone saw all the chickens run over to me and said “obviously, they know who feeds them.” This is something we think brainless, emotionless animals do, only respond to food. But the chickens run to me when I pull up in the car or come up to me food or not. They just like me … and many others who volunteer. In fact, they can recognize up to 100 individual faces. But the idea that they have no emotions or capacity to enjoy friends was a reminder of how most people see chickens. Sadly, I think that makes it easier to eat them with no thought and treat them so poorly in farming.

When I read the article below, I was so excited to learn more about chickens and their true capacity as cool and loving beings and I wanted to share parts of this with you!

Here is the link to the full article by Jennifer Mishler:

Scientific American calls the intelligence of chickens “startling” because “chickens are smart, and they understand their world, which raises troubling questions about how they are treated on factory farms.”

They Are Curious

Chickens are inquisitive, and they notice—and relay to others—what is going on around them. Dr. Chris Evans of Macquarie University has studied communications in chickens and says, “They can signal with remarkable precision about critical events in their world, such as the appearance of a particular type of predator, or the discovery of food.”

They Can Be Manipulative

Chickens are capable of many positive social behaviors, but much like other animals and humans, they can be manipulative and deceive each other. Dr. Marino writes, “Males will sometimes make a food call in the absence of any food. This serves to attract females who, once near them, can be engaged and defended against other males (Gyger and Marler, 1988). Of course, females develop counter-strategies and eventually stop responding to males who call too often in the absence of food (Evans, 2002). These kinds of social strategies—deception and counter-strategies—are striking similar to the same kinds of complex behaviors identified in mammals, including primates.”

They Can Learn Quickly

Chickens learn very quickly, even in comparison to humans. Author of the study “The Intelligent Hen,” Dr. Christine Nicol writes that “chickens have the capacity to master skills and develop abilities that a human child can take months and years to accomplish,” including keeping track of numbers up to five, displaying object permanence similar to that in apes, and understanding concepts such as basic structural engineering.

They Can Perform Basic Arithmetic

Like some other birds and chimps among other animals, chickens can do simple arithmetic. Dr. Marino writes, “Chickens possess some understanding of numerosity and share some very basic arithmetic capacities with other animals.”

A study published in 2009 even found arithmetic abilities in newborn chicks, concluding that “in the absence of any specific training, chicks spontaneously discriminated between two and three, in both cases preferring the larger stimulus set.”

They Have Self-Control

A 2005 study showed that chickens anticipate and worry about the future. They can also show self-control. The study found that when offered a small reward, chickens would wait for a larger one.

The author of the study, Dr. Siobhan Abeyesinghe noted, “An animal that can anticipate an event might benefit from cues to aid prediction but may also be capable of expectations rendering it vulnerable to thwarting, frustration and pre-emptive anxiety. The types of mental ability the animal possesses, therefore, dictate how they should best be managed and what we might be able to do to minimize psychological stress.”

They Can Show Self-Awareness

Chickens can also anticipate and worry about the future, which may be related to their self-control. Marino writes, “Self-control may also be associated with the development of self-awareness (Genty et al. 2004) and autonomy—the ability to think about and choose future outcomes.”

Do Chickens Recognize Their Owners?

Chickens can recognize up to 100 faces—and have been found to associate the faces they remember with the positive or negative experiences. Chickens can also show love and affection for the humans who care for them, and they certainly remember the humans they know and how those humans may have treated them.

Do Chickens Like Being Petted?

Chickens, like humans and other animals, are unique and may have different preferences. But many chickens do like being petted once they are accustomed to interacting with humans. They will sometimes even purr contentedly like cats. Even in an environment such as factory farming, where chickens likely have not experienced kindness, the curious birds may enjoy interacting with someone.

In a short film, We Animals Media Founder Jo-Anne McArthur documents a chicken farm. She narrates, “I wonder how these chickens will react once they realize I mean no harm. I stop shooting, sit down, and put my camera on the ground. At first, they’re still cautious. But soon the bolder birds start to get closer. They’re curious. Soon I find myself surrounded by a sea of chickens.”

The small birds soon begin climbing onto her lap. McArthur, who has photographed chickens in both industrial farms and the safety of sanctuaries, says of one bird who sits in her hands, “This bird has never been a pet before, and she loves it, I mean chickens just love this. She’s settling down onto my hand. She’s starting to preen herself now because she likes what I’m doing so much.”

They Are Individuals

Not just members of a faceless flock, chickens are unique individuals with personalities. Dr. Marino writes, “There is an abundance of anecdotal evidence for individual personalities in chickens from sanctuaries, small farmers, and people who keep backyard chickens. And… mother hens show a range of individual maternal personality traits which appear to affect the behavior of their chicks.”

Chickens also see each other as individuals. Dr. Marino finds that chickens have “notable abilities to recognize individuals in their social group, as well as the ability to keep track of the group’s social hierarchy and the individuals within it (as discussed previously).” She adds, “Not only do chickens recognize who is and is not a member of their social group, but they differentiate individuals within their own group.”

They Are Overprotective

Like mothers of other species, hens are extremely protective of their young. A 2013 study found that mother hens act protectively if they feel their chicks are threatened—not only when the chicks are showing distress, but based on the mothers’ knowledge of potential threats.

The authors write, “Hens increased maternal vocalizations and walking, and decreased preening, when they perceived their chicks to be threatened, regardless of the chicks’ reactions to the situation. Hens exhibited signs of stress-induced hyperthermia only when their perception of threat was in accordance with that of their chicks. Chick behavior was influenced by the hens’ expectations, with all chick groups spending more time distress vocalizing and less time preening when in the environment that the hen associated with a threat.”

They Can Dream

Chickens experience REM (rapid eye movement) sleep—and like in the case of any other animal, we cannot know what they’re dreaming about, but researchers believe that they do dream.

They Feel Empathy

Chickens show empathy for one another, meaning that they can understand what another is feeling or experiencing. Researchers concluded that mother hens show signs of distress when their chicks are distressed.

Do Chickens Have Memory?

When it comes to not forgetting, we likely think of elephants, but chickens also have a remarkable memory. Researchers have found that chicks can recall objects after they are hidden from view.

- Kelly

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