Chickens vastly exceed our expectations in almost every cognitive domain, according to a recent survey of cognitive studies by Lori Marino. For example, Marino describes the Machiavellian tendencies of males aiming to score with the ladies: males give deceptive food calls, pretending there is tasty food around to lure females toward them. Further, if a subordinate male wants to advertise to females when a dominant male is around, he will choose quiet display calls and focus on visual displays. I will write more about the remarkable diversity of chicken vocalizations below.
Marino explains that chickens have passed just as many cognitive tests as supposedly "intelligent" animals such as monkeys and other birds. Chickens demonstrate emotional contagion and some empathy. Mother hens get extremely distressed if their chicks are exposed to air puffs (a mildly bothersome stimulus), but don't really mind if they themselves are. They have distinct, measurable personalities, demonstrate impressive self-control, can add up to five, and use transitive inference (correct predictions about a new chicken's social status relative to their own).
Chickens also have a broad repertoire of calls, including at least 24 different vocalizations and multiple visual displays. Indeed, they use specific alarm calls to alert their friends about an aerial versus terrestrial predator-- and give the most distinctive alarm call for a large and fast-moving hawk. This is remarkable! Even more remarkably, this finding is essentially unknown compared to to similar, and wildly popular, research on vervet monkey communication. Could this be because monkeys look like us, while chickens look like dinner?
People simply do not think of chickens as clever animals, and this shapes our perception of their abilities. In fact, a survey showed that people do not even really think of chickens as birds at all. Marino writes "unlike many other birds, chickens are categorized as a commodity, devoid of authenticity as a real animal with an evolutionary history and phylogenetic context. Thus, arguably, perceptions of chickens shape their use as commodities which, in turn, then reinforces those original perceptions." College students who spent some time training and interacting with chickens emerged from the experiment with measurably higher assessments of these birdies; they came to see their chickens as "intelligent and emotional animals with individual personalities."
There is a clear conclusion here. When we think of an animal as "food," we underestimate its abilities. In fact, when we treat an animal as "food," we probably are not giving it the best stage to display its empathy, its personality, and its social desires. Obviously, eating is an intensely personal and cultural part of life, but small lifestyle changes can go a long way. Perhaps it is worth cutting out meat from one meal a day, or choosing the free-range chicken next time. There is a lot more going on in that chicken brain than we tend to think!
Thanks to Rock Winchester for sending along this study
In this paper, I examine the peer-reviewed scientific data on the leading edge of cognition, emotions, personality, and sociality in chickens, exploring such areas as self-awareness, cognitive bias, social learning and self-control, and comparing their abilities in these areas with other birds and other vertebrates, particularly mammals. My overall conclusion is that chickens are just as cognitively, emotionally and socially complex as most other birds and mammals in many areas, and that there is a need for further noninvasive comparative behavioral research with chickens as well as a re-framing of current views about their intelligence.