July 17, 2007
The Buffalo News - Another Voice
By Karen Davis
A recent article in The Buffalo News cited a reader who said she's a
vegetarian, except for chickens, because chickens are the "least
intelligent" animals of the meat choices available to her ("Animal
admirer wild about avocation," July 1). I would like to challenge this
view with evidence of the intelligence of chickens.
There's been a tradition of treating birds as less intelligent than
mammals, and chickens and other ground-nesting birds were once dismissed
as "unquestionably low on the scale of avian evolution." However, modern
science refutes this assumption, revealing that birds, including
chickens, are intelligent animals on a par with mammals.
Summarizing what we now know, avian specialist Lesley Rogers wrote in
"The Development of Brain and Behaviour in the Chicken," published in
1995, that "it is now clear that birds have cognitive capacities
equivalent to those of mammals, even primates." Moreover, she wrote that
increased knowledge of the behavior and cognitive abilities of the
chicken has brought "the realization that the chicken is not an inferior
species to be treated merely as a food source."
One reason is that chickens have excellent memories. They can recognize
more than 100 other chickens and remember them. Chickens removed from
their flock and then returned weeks or even months later remember, and
are remembered by, their flock mates.
In addition, chickens are able to wait for rewards, demonstrating that
they can anticipate the future and exercise self-control. In laboratory
studies, chickens have learned not to peck at buttons that yield only a
small number of grains in favor of waiting longer to peck at buttons
that produce a large amount of food. According to researchers, such
findings show that "like humans, chickens evolved an impressive level of
intelligence to help improve their survival."
Hens fed grains that made them ill not only avoid such grains in the
future; they push their chicks away from the bad grains (which they
distinguish by color coding) and lead them to the good ones. Researcher
John Webster said this teaches us that "the mother hen has learned what
food is good and what is bad for her, that she cares so much for her
chicks she will not let them eat the bad food and she is passing on to
her young what she has learned."
This claim fits laboratory findings which show that lame chickens, given
a choice between food bowls laced with pain reliever and bowls having
none, choose the medicated food. Here, it may be noted that the
widespread joint diseases in chickens raised for meat, caused by their
being forced to grow too large and too fast for their fragile bones,
support the evidence that these birds spend most or all of their lives
suffering in extreme pain - a good enough reason to stop eating them.
Karen Davis, PhD, is president of United Poultry Concerns
(www.upc-online.org), a nonprofit organization that promotes the
compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl.