Jan
11
2017

Chickens have more complex intelligence and behavior than people generally perceive.

This might not mean backyard chickens are going to start receiving the same training as dogs, but in a review of the latest research concerning the psychology, behavior, and emotions of chickens, published in Springer’s journal Animal Cognition, Lori Marino found that chicken intelligence has been largely underestimated.

“They 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,” Marino said in the review. “The very idea of chicken psychology is strange to most people.”

Among the different categories examined in this review:

Visual cognition and spatial orientation

Chicks have a fairly strong ability to retrieve a partially hidden object and some capacities for retrieving a completely hidden object.

In addition, experiments with newly hatched domestic chicks show they are capable of discriminating quantities and simple forms of ordinality—picking objects out in a certain order. The capabilities are in line with the very basic arithmetic capabilities of other animals.

Time perception/anticipation of future events

Chickens are able to remember the trajectory of a hidden ball for up to 180 seconds if they could see the ball moving. In these cases, chickens did as well as most primates under similar conditions.

Chickens have also shown a capacity for self-control. When given a choice between a 2-second delay followed by access to food for 3 second or a 6-second delay followed by access for 22 seconds, hens held out for the larger reward.

Communication

Chicken communication consists of a large repertoire of at least 24 distinct vocalizations, as well as different visual displays. In one display of referential communication, roosters have distinct alarm calls for different kinds of predators (i.e., a raptor flying overhead versus a raccoon). They will also adjust those calls depending on the situation, such as calling longer when it is partially or fully hidden from view.

Marino concluded that chicken communication, “is vastly more complex than originally thought, suggesting the existence of cognitive awareness, flexibility, and even more sophisticated capacities such as perspective-taking and intentional or tactical deception.”

Social cognition and complexity

Chickens, like many other animals, demonstrate their cognitive complexity when placed in social situations requiring them to solve problems. They can recognize who is and is not a member of their social group and are able to differentiate individuals within their own group.

They have also demonstrated social learning. “Naïve hens who watched a trained hen perform a task were able to perform that task correctly more often than those who watched another naïve hen.” Furthermore, they pay more attention to dominant individuals and are more likely to follow their behavior.

Personality

There is an abundance of anecdotal evidence for individual personalities in chickens from sanctuaries, small farmers, and people who keep backyard chickens. In addition, studies have been done examining the relationship between dominance status and personality traits in male chickens.

Ultimately, Marino concluded that “chickens are just as cognitively, emotionally and socially complex as most other birds and mammals in many areas, and that there is a need for further noninvasive comparative behavioral research with chickens as well as a re-framing of current views about their intelligence.”

Photo credit: © iStock/RyanJLane

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