Words by Katherine Martinko
There was a time we started paying attention to chickens, one of the most misunderstood and ignored species on Earth. There was a time when chickens were viewed as exotic, fascinating birds. Descendants of exotic Asian jungle fowl, they were revered for their ferocity and intelligence, and domesticated around 8,000 years ago, more for cockfighting than eating. But then, we humans began eating them in ever-larger quantities, until we reached the point where we are now, with 20 billion (mostly white) chickens living in dirty, crowded barns, awaiting slaughter. Chickens have been a part of human lives for millennia, and yet they are one of the most misunderstood, if not ignored, species on Earth. Lori Marino, an American neuroscientist and animal intelligence researcher, wants to change this. She is intrigued by the fact that chickens are so rarely recognized for their cognitive abilities and frustrated that studies about birds almost always focus on other, less-domesticated species, like crows and parrots.
Arguably even the scientific community has been influenced by public perceptions of chickens as cognitively simple… This asymmetry in the literature is likely a reflection of, as well as a contributor to, the disconnect scientists and the public have between chickens as commodities and who they actually are as individuals.
Chickens deserve more attention, and here are some quirky, interesting facts to get you thinking about chickens less as food and more as fascinating co-inhabitants of our world. These come via Marino’s recent paper, "Thinking Chickens", published online in Animal Cognition in January 2017.
1. Chickens are a sub-species of the red jungle fowl that hails from southeast Asia.
The red jungle fowl (galls gallus) inhabit the edges of fields, scrubland, and groves. Domestication was well established 8,000 years ago, but some records suggest it could have started as much as 58,000 years ago.
2. Domestic chickens are similar to their wild counterparts.
Despite the intense breeding and genetic manipulation of recent years, chickens have not been cognitively or behaviorally affected by domestication. This stands in contrast to dogs and wolves, for example, which have diverged significantly due to domestication. Nor have chickens become less aggressive toward predators through domestication, which is a common outcome; in fact, some chickens are more aggressive even than red jungle fowl.
3. A chicken’s beak is highly sensitive to touch.
The beak, with numerous nerve endings, is used to explore, detect, drink, preen, and defend. This also means that when a bird is de-beaked, as often happens in industrial farming, it experiences great pain, sometimes for months, which changes its behavior. Marino writes, “At the end of the beak is a specialized cluster of highly sensitive mechanoreceptors, called the bill tip organ, which allows chickens to make fine tactile discriminations.”
4. Chickens have finely tuned senses.
They can see long distance and close-up at the same time in different parts of their vision. They can see a broader range of colors than humans. They can hear at low and high frequencies at a variety of pressure levels. They possess well-developed senses of taste and smell. They can orient to magnetic fields, like many other birds.
5. Chickens are surprisingly good at math.
Three-day-old chicks are able to perform basic arithmetic and discriminate quantities, always opting to explore a set of balls with the greater number, even when an object was visibly transferred from one set to another. Five-day-old chicks have been found to track up to five objects.
When they were presented with two sets of objects of different quantities disappearing behind two screens, they were able to successfully track which screen hid the larger number by apparently performing simple addition and subtraction.
6. Chickens can exercise self-control.
In an experimental setting, chickens have been given the choice between 2-second delay with 6 seconds of access to food, versus a 6-second delay with 22-seconds of access to food. The hens waited for the longer reward, “demonstrating rational discrimination between different future outcomes while employing self-control to optimize those outcomes.” Self-control usually doesn't appear in humans until four years of age. These are just a few of the remarkable discoveries described in Marino's study, a highly readable, entertaining paper. It's an important reminder that chickens, arguably the most ubiquitous animals in our world, deserve far more respect than they currently receive. Hopefully this will lead to more people questioning the horrific conditions in which most of them are kept.
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