Chicken intelligence is underestimated, according to a paper published in the journal Animal Cognition on January 2, 2017. The authors reviewed the latest research about the psychology, behavior and emotions of the world’s most abundant domestic animal. Author Lori Marino is a senior scientist for The Someone Project, which studies the behavior and intelligence of farm animals. She said in a statement:
[Chickens] are perceived as lacking most of the psychological characteristics we recognize in other intelligent animals and are typically thought of as possessing a low level of intelligence compared with other animals. The very idea of chicken psychology is strange to most people.
Although their intelligence is overshadowed by other avian groups, chickens know their place in the pecking order, said Marino, and can reason by deduction- an ability that humans develop by the age of seven.
The review described examples of chicken intelligence, including:
– Chickens have some sense of numbers. According to a PhysOrg statement:
Experiments with newly hatched domestic chicks showed they can discriminate between quantities. They also have an idea about ordinality, which refers to the ability to place quantities in a series. Five-day-old domestic chicks presented with two sets of objects of different quantities disappearing behind two screens were able to successfully track which one hid the larger number by apparently performing simple arithmetic in the form of addition and subtraction.
– The birds possess self-control when it comes to holding out for a better food reward and are able to assess their position in the pecking order. These two characteristics are indicative of self-awareness, said Marino.
– Chicken communication is quite complex, and consists of a large repertoire of different visual displays and at least 24 distinct vocalizations. According to the study:
The birds possess the complex ability of referential communication, which involves signals such as calls, displays and whistles to convey information. They may use this to sound the alarm when there is danger, for instance. This ability requires some level of self-awareness and being able to take the perspective of another animal, and is also possessed by highly intelligent and social species, including primates.
Chickens perceive time intervals and can anticipate future events. Like many other animals, they demonstrate their cognitive complexity when placed in social situations requiring them to solve problems.
Chickens are able to make decisions based on what is best for them, says Marion, and they also possess a simple form of empathy called emotional contagion. According to the review, not only do individual chickens have distinct personalities, but mother hens also show a range of individual maternal personality traits which appear to affect the behavior of their chicks. The birds can deceive one another, and they watch and learn from each other.
Bottom line: A new study says that chicken intelligence is underestimated.
Eleanor Imster has helped write and edit EarthSky since 1995. She was an integral part of the award-winning EarthSky radio series almost since it began until it ended in 2013. Today, as Lead Editor at EarthSky.org, she helps present the science and nature stories and photos you enjoy. She also serves as one of the voices of EarthSky on social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and G+. She and her husband live in Tennessee and have two grown sons.