Bird Brains (a quick overview of chicken intelligence)

I’ve often heard it said that the animals we eat are stupid, and therefore unable to comprehend what is happening to them when they are put through the torturous process we make them endure so that we can eat their flesh.  Truthfully, until I stopped eating them, I assumed the same.   I think we have a tendency to elevate ourselves so high above other animals on the intelligence scale because we are at the top of the food chain, and through this we justify their suffering.  And let’s face it.  Denying their pain is also a good excuse to eat them.  Now don’t get mad and tune me out just yet.  I have thought all of these things at one point or another in my life and am guilty of all of this.  Once I educated myself, I made a decision that was right for me.  It’s not going to feel right to everyone else.  I’m just trying to share some truths with you.

In terms of non-human animal intelligence, of course these animals can’t solve a Rubik’s cube, work an algebraic equation, or build a rocket.  Their intelligences are different from ours (and they don’t need to do the things we do), but their inability to do things we consider a sign of human intelligence doesn’t make them stupid.

Let’s start by defining what intelligence is.  The Webster’s definition is, ” the ability to learn or understand or to deal with new or trying situations [and] the ability to apply knowledge.”  Scientific definitions of intelligence include good reasoning and communication skills, the ability to plan for and anticipate future events based on perceived information, problem solving, and the ability to learn from past experiences.

You may be surprised to find that research has proven that chickens do all of these things! In fact, studies are now showing that the mental capabilities of birds in general are greatly underestimated.  Most of us think horses, dogs, primates, and dolphins are smart.  Most of us also don’t eat them.  But what about the animals we do eat? 

I’d like to spend one blog each on chickens, pigs, and cows (the animals traditionally eaten in the US and many other countries) and their different levels of intelligence.  Today, I’m starting with the chicken:

There really should no longer be any question of whether chickens feel pain and suffer, as they most certainly do, and that has been proven.  First and foremost, they have a central nervous system and pain receptors, so their ability to feel pain is not a question. But what most people are unsure of is whether they are intelligent enough to be “aware” of what is really happening to them when they are mistreated or are being taken through the slaughter process.  To answer these questions, we have only to do a bit of research to see that the results of studies being conducted over the past decade are showing that chickens are not only aware of their own suffering, but they worry about the future, show empathy to other chickens, are intelligent, and can even do basic math!

In 2011, the University of Bristol conducted a study to see how mother hens would react when their chicks were in distress. Researchers separated the hens from their chicks and then blew puffs of air at the chicks repeatedly.  The chicks became frightened and cried out.  The mother hens were close by, watching, and researchers monitored the mother hens as their heart rates increased, eye temperature decreased (a sign of distress), and they became instantly alert and started to call out to their chicks.  This means that the hens were both aware of and concerned for their chicks safety.  I’ve read several stories of how hens and roosters will fight off foxes and other predators to protect their young.  This shows that they are both aware, either from past events or instinct, that these animals are a threat and have learned what they need to do to handle the situation and protect their family.

So if chickens not only feel pain and suffer, but feel a sense of companionship, family, protectiveness, and loyalty, it stands to reason that they are also capable of feeling a sense of dread and worry about what can happen to them.  And if they have all of these abilities, then they certainly comprehend what is happening to them in factory farms at least to some degree.  Turns out there’s a study that investigated just that thought… 

Siobhan Abeyesinghe, a member of the Biophysics Group at Silsoe Research Institute in England, was the lead author in a study on whether chickens can anticipate the future.  In the study, which was published both in Animal Behavior and the Journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, chickens were placed near colored buttons that, when pecked, would result in a food reward.  The amount of the reward depended on how long the chicken waited between pressing buttons.  Chickens seemed to realize this and remember it, because over 90% of the time, chickens would hold out for the “jackpot.”  Abeyesinghe explained that this rules out the idea that chickens have no awareness of the future.  I say it also shows that they have at least some ability to reason and learn from past events.

According to Animal Planet’s website, “prior studies have found that neuron organization in chicken brains is highly structured and suggests that, like humans, chickens evolved an impressive level of intelligence to help improve their survival.” So if a chicken can anticipate “good” things that happen to them, couldn’t they also fear bad things like cruelty and pain?   This study that Abeyesinghe led also shows that chickens have the ability to demonstrate self-control, which as Raf Freire, a lecturer in the Centre for Neuroscience and Animal Behavior at the School of Biological, Biomedical and Molecular Sciences explains, is of course a survival mechanism favored by evolution as it improves an animal’s likelihood of survival. 

Many people would step in here and argue that it is instinct, not intelligence, which causes the results of these studies, but the two are not mutually exclusive.  Our instincts play a large role in our intelligence, and the direct link is our ability to use both to problem solve.  It’s not in a chicken’s instinct to push a colored button for food, or to wait on food if it is readily available, or to run headlong into a fox that could very well tear it to shreds and eat it.  In these actions there is an instinctual need (to eat or to protect/propagate the species perhaps) but there is also an intelligence formed through those instincts.

These studies and many others all show how data is quickly piling up to demonstrate there’s much more to chickens than we thought and I’ve said all this to share with you what I’ve learned and to show that chickens really do have an intelligence,  but really, I must be blunt here….  who cares when it comes to suffering?  Who cares if a chicken can do math or use tools or problem solve?  Are these the qualifications that one must have to justify a good quality of life?  I don’t think we should allow sentient beings suffer simply because we think their IQ isn’t high enough.


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