Chickens Are Not Bird-Brained After All

January 4, 2017
Kerry Lengyel

Research has shown that chickens are not as bird-brained as people believe them to be.

If someone calls you a chicken, your first reaction may be to feel insulted, but research has shown that chickens are not quite as feather-brained as people believe them to be.

Historically, chickens have been perceived as unintelligent, clueless animals and have been underestimated compared with other avian groups.

Lori Marino, senior scientist for The Someone Project, a joint project of Farm Sanctuary and the Kimmela Center in the United States, set out to review the latest research on chicken behavior to better understand the intellect of these underrated cluckers. Her review is published in the January online issue of Animal Cognition.

Research shows that chickens have a sense of numbers and can discriminate between different quantities. They can use deductive reasoning to solve problems, which is a quality that humans normally develop by the age of 7. They are also able to track objects and remember their trajectory even if the objects become invisible to them.

Self-control is another quality of chickens. They can hold themselves back if it means a better reward for them in the long run. The birds are so self-aware that they also understand their position in the pecking order.

The communication practices of avian groups are complex, and chickens can communicate like any other highly intelligent and social species, such as primates. The birds use at least 24 different vocalizations and several different visual displays to call other birds, convey information, and sound an alarm when there’s danger.

Chickens also have a sense of time and can anticipate future events. They also experience a wide range of emotions, which leads the birds to make the best decisions based on what is best for them at the time.

Fear, anticipation, anxiety, and a form of empathy are a few of the emotions that chickens can experience. They’re able to deceive one another just like any human can, as well as watch and learn and grow from one another.

Marino says that this shift in understanding chicken behavior and psychology will “lead to even more accurate and richer data and a more authentic understanding of who they really are.” She concludes that “chickens are just as cognitively, emotionally, and socially complex as most other birds and mammals in many areas, and … there is a need for further noninvasive comparative behavioral research with chickens as well as a re-framing of current views about their intelligence.”