Meet the Animals: Chickens
Chicken Behavior, Emotion, and Intelligence
- “It is now clear that birds have cognitive capacities equivalent to those of mammals, even primates…” — Dr. Lesley Rogers
- “Chickens do not just live in the present but can anticipate the future and demonstrate self-control…something previously attributed only to humans and other primates…” — Discovery Magazine
- “Chickens are . . . complex behaviorally, do quite well in learning, show a rich social organization, and have a diverse repertoire of calls. Anyone who has kept barnyard chickens also recognizes their significant differences in personality.” - Dr. Bernard Rollin, Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University
When people tour Farm Sanctuary, they are often most intrigued by the chickens and turkeys. Most are not surprised to look into the eyes of a cow or pig and bond with the animal, but many are surprised to learn that chickens and turkeys possess strong personalities, form friendships, and have a range of interests — which includes a deep fascination with many of the human visitors to our farm. Scientists who study chickens and turkeys are not surprised because, as ethologist Dr. Lesley Rogers explains, they know that “it is now clear that birds have cognitive capacities equivalent to those of mammals, even primates…”¹
Indeed, chickens are intelligent animals, outperforming dogs and cats on many tests of advanced cognition. As just one example, in a study by the Silsoe Research Institute in England, researchers showed that chickens have the ability to make a conscious choice to delay gratification. In this study, the chickens figured out that if they refuse some food now, they will get more food later. Discovery Magazine explained the importance of the study this way: “Chickens do not just live in the present but can anticipate the future…something previously attributed only to humans and other primates…”²
Like humans and other primates, chickens are also socially complex, forming well-ordered communities and learning from one another in sophisticated ways. Scientists from Macquarie University in Australia won the Australian Museum Eureka Prize for research in which they showed that chickens are “social, intelligent creatures complete with Machiavellian tendencies to adjust what they say according to who is listening…chickens can share remarkably precise information about the presence of predators and the discovery of food.”³ As Macquarie scientist Chris Evans explains, “As a trick at conferences, I sometimes list these attributes, without mentioning chickens, and people think I’m talking about monkeys.”4
And, as The New York Times reports, “Perhaps most persuasive is the chicken’s intriguing ability to understand that an object, when taken away and hidden, nevertheless continues to exist.” Explains Amy Hatkoff in The Inner World of Farm Animals, discussing research by Dr. Giorgio Vallortigara and Dr. Lucia Regolin: “[C]hickens have complex cognition and can grasp abstract concepts,” including an ability to recognize “a whole object even when it is partly hidden…a capacity it was thought only humans possessed.”5
Two chickens who would convince anyone who met them of the many and varied capacities of chickens, even without the scientific support, are Symphony and June.
Symphony is very old for a chicken — especially for a hen raised in a factory farm. She has lived a life of contentment at Farm Sanctuary since fall 2000 when she was pulled out of a cramped and mangled battery cage at Buckeye Egg Farm in Central Ohio when tornadoes shredded the warehouses.
Symphony is a quiet girl and a little bit shy. But she’s no longer afraid. She has found a best friend in Amy, a red laying hen, who also found new life outside the horrors of the factory farm system. Symphony moves a little slowly these days. Like your aging aunt with her cane, she needs just a little extra time in the morning to get down from her perch. She makes her way to the yard to find Amy, and then the two of them can be found scratching in the dirt, picking their way through the blackberries, and resting catlike on a summer afternoon. Life is good for this old gal!
June and her brood came from New York City after a cockfighting bust. Hens are notoriously protective of their chicks, but, for June, she was also protective of chicks who were not related to her — an indication of her “fundamental capacity to empathise.”6 When June came to us, she had known only cruelty, and she had been accustomed to the fruitless task of attempting to save her babies and the babies of other hens from the cockfighting ring.
For months after coming to Farm Sanctuary, whenever a caregiver entered the barn where she spent her nights, her chicks were not in sight. But when their heads would pop out from under her wings or tail, she would scurry and tuck them beneath her — even when they were too big to hide — and then puff up her neck feathers and peck at anyone who tried to pick them up. She never forgot the abuse of human beings and the pain of separation. Until she died, after years at Farm Sanctuary, she continued to keep her children close.
¹Rogers, L. The Development of Brain and Behaviour in the Chicken, Oxfordshire, UK: CABI Publishing, 1995.
²Lorenzi, R. (July 14, 2005). Study: Chickens think about future. Animal Planet News.
³For farmyard smarts, chickens move up the pecking order. Australian Museum, accessed January 31, 2012. .
4Grimes, W. (Jan. 12, 2003). If chickens are so smart, why aren’t they eating us? The New York Times.
5Hatkoff, A. The Inner World of Farm Animals, Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2009, p. 33. Research discussed in depth by Dr. Rogers on “A Question of Balance,” an environmental radio program from Sydney, Australia.
6Chickens are capable of feeling empathy, scientists believe. (March 9, 2011). The Telegraph.