If you haven’t spent much time around chickens, you may be surprised to learn that they are highly intelligent animals capable of sophisticated thought and communication. Their cognitive abilities in many areas are similar to those of bottlenose dolphins or chimpanzees, and yet chickens are forced to suffer in almost unimaginably vast numbers on factory farms around the world. Many of the markers of intelligence in chickens, such as their empathy and how they care for their young, are distinctly familiar to us, because these are experiences that we share with them.
ARE CHICKENS INTELLIGENT?
They are, not that we believe our compassion should be reserved solely for the most intelligent beings. However, despite people readily accepting the intelligence of parrots and corvids, for example, many people still don’t recognise that other birds, including chickens, are smart, too. Perhaps it is easier for those who eat them not to accept this aspect of them. The reality, however, is that chickens are highly capable when it comes to reasoning, communication, and even basic mathematics.
HOW INTELLIGENT ARE CHICKENS?
When it comes to judging intelligence among birds and other species, chickens should be considered right up there with dolphins and other birds, as many of their abilities are shared across these species. Like bottlenose dolphins, chickens demonstrate the ability to differentiate between numbers of items and they display the markers of having an episodic memory — being able to recall specific events.
ARE CHICKENS MORE INTELLIGENT THAN DOGS?
Though their intelligence has not been directly compared, individual analysis suggests that both dogs and chickens are highly intelligent creatures capable of emotion, advanced social interaction, and empathy, among many other traditional and nontraditional markers of intelligence.
ARE CHICKENS THE SMARTEST BIRDS?
The smartest birds on the planet are generally thought to be ravens, crows, and parrots like African greys and cockatoos. But, it is humans who are devising the tests by which we measure smartness in others, so perhaps this is not a fair comparison. We know for certain that chickens have a “startling intelligence” with their abilities including manipulation, counting, and empathy.
TURKEY VERSUS CHICKEN INTELLIGENCE
The intelligence of turkeys has not received the same amount of investigation as that of chickens. Yet even with the little time dedicated to understanding the cognition of turkeys, we know that they are competent learners who are capable of recalling precise locations even months or years after the initial visit. Recent findings have also helped us to learn more about chicken intelligence and cognition. Like turkeys, hens have remarkable memories and can recall events and objects. In addition to this, they also have the ability to reason and perform basic arithmetic.
HOW SMART ARE CHICKENS COMPARED TO HUMANS?
Though human intelligence should not be the standard against which we judge the intelligence of other creatures, we frequently expect animals to display intelligence in the same ways we do. This might indicate some stupidity on our part! However, chickens do demonstrate many characteristics of intelligence that are shared with humans and other apes. One such trait is a type of reasoning called transitive inference. This type of reasoning means that if they are aware that item A is bigger than item B which is bigger than item C, then item A must also be bigger than item C. Human psychologists suggest that human children are at least seven years old before they develop this ability.
13 FACTS ABOUT CHICKEN INTELLIGENCE
For a long time, chickens have been characterised — particularly by those who seek to exploit, harm, and profit from their deaths — as being unintelligent, but the reality is that chickens are intelligent in many different ways. And we are only just beginning to understand just how smart they are.
1. THEY CAN EMPATHISE
One of the most broadly cited studies indicating that chickens are empathetic creatures was conducted at the University of Bristol. This study demonstrated that mother hens show both physiological and behavioural signs of being upset when their chicks are even mildly distressed. They’re so empathetic that we even use the phrase “mother hen” to describe attentive human mothers.
2. THEY DREAM
Though most research aimed at evaluating sleep in birds focuses on non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep instead of rapid eye movement (REM) rest, birds have been shown to experience both. The latter of these strongly suggests that birds, including chickens, dream at least some of the time they are sleeping. We can only wonder what birds stuck inside intensive factory farms dream of.
3. THEY HAVE THEIR OWN PERSONALITIES
Every chicken, like all other animals, has a unique personality. Some are more confident and outgoing; others are quieter and more shy, and we can see something of their personalities in their different mothering styles. Some hens are less emotional than others and better at reducing their chicks’ stress or distress. This along with other caring traits can have a profound impact on the personalities and development of their chicks.
4. THEY’RE HIGHLY INTELLIGENT
Chickens are frequently and deliberately mischaracterised but they are complex beings who are capable of a vast array of behaviours and abilities that regularly demonstrate their intelligence. Despite their complex needs and inquisitive minds, they are denied any enrichment inside farms, and are not even permitted to roam, roost and nest — all basic needs for chickens.
5. THEY’RE CARING
Due to their dedicated and caring natures, mother hens are well known for how they nurture and raise their young. Research has demonstrated what those of us who spend time with chickens already know: that they have deep empathy for their chicks, and show just how much they care, even when the young birds are only very mildly stressed.
6. THEY’RE COMMUNICATING MORE THAN YOU THINK
Chickens are adept communicators with a wide repertoire of different vocalisations and body language. Chickens are capable of referential communication, a type of communication that relies on a mixture of sounds and body language to convey the significance of an event and elicit a specific response. For example, the call to alert others to an aerial predator is distinct from the call that lets them know to look out for a ground predator. None of this should come as a surprise. Animals are smart and very capable.
7. THEY PERCEIVE TIME
Research has demonstrated that chickens are capable of estimating the passage of time. This is an ability that is shared with chimpanzees, pigs, and pigeons, among other animals.
8. THEY WANT THE FREEDOM TO BEHAVE NATURALLY
Chickens, like other species including humans, just want the ability to live their lives to their fullest without having to fear for their safety. However, the vast majority of chickens are raised in close confinement by the industrialised meat production industry where suffering and distress is inevitable. And all in the pursuit of profit.
9. THEY CAN MANIPULATE EACH OTHER
Chickens can manipulate other birds. One example is that when roosters find particularly delicious and plentiful food, they put on a display in order to attract hens. When a subordinate male finds such a stash, he tones down the level of celebration if a dominant male is nearby to reduce the chance that the food (and his glory) will be taken from him. When dominant males are absent, the celebration takes place in full force.
10. THEY CAN DO BASIC MATHEMATICS
Perhaps one of the most surprising facts about chickens’ cognition is that they can understand basic mathematical concepts. Even chicks are able to tell the difference between two amounts of an object and will opt for the larger if it is something they want. They can also add and subtract, as demonstrated in an experiment in which balls were placed behind one screen and then some were removed and placed behind another. The chickens were tasked with identifying which screen housed more balls, something they were reliably able to do.
11. THEY HAVE SELF-CONTROL
Chickens have demonstrated their ability for self-control. In one experiment, they were granted access to food after a two-second delay. However, if the birds waited, they were rewarded with extended access to the food after a 22-second delay. Hens demonstrated that they were consistently willing to wait for the extended period of time in order to have the greater reward.
12. THEY CAN RECOGNISE UP TO 100 PEOPLE
If you’ve ever spent time with chickens you’ll be aware that they are capable of recognising different faces. And it’s not just you they recognise and remember — they are actually able to recognise 100 different people.
13. CHICKENS HAVE EXCELLENT MEMORIES
Chickens have a strong episodic memory as well as the ability to remember specific objects. An episodic memory is the ability to recall specific events that took place in the past.
Chickens are highly intelligent and sensitive creatures who form tight social bonds, can recall events from their past, recognise 100 faces, and do mathematical sums. They have a wide range of cognitive abilities that should put paid to any notion that they are not smart. The only people who continue to deride their abilities are those who profit from the rest of us not caring about them. But we do care. We see their worth, and we know that chickens deserve better.