Today's NYDN, takes comments and letters
Chickens: smarter than a four-year-old
Friedrich: Chickens come when you call them by their name, do math and more.
Should we really be eating them?
By Bruce Friedrich
NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
August 16, 2013
At Farm Sanctuary, we've been providing lifelong care for chickens for more than
25 years, and we've come to understand them as individuals with interests,
desires, and personalities - just like the cats and dogs most Americans know a
Some are shy, others gregarious. Like dogs, they know their names and they come
We have been sharing our chicken stories for decades, but now, research from the
University of Bristol has proven scientifically what we have known from
experience - that chickens may well be the smartest animals in the barnyard. In
some scientific tests, they outperform human toddlers.
That's right: In multiple tests of cognitive and behavioral sophistication,
chickens outperform not just dogs and cats but four-year-old human children.
Explains the University of Bristol's Dr. Christine Nicol, author of the review
paper titled The Intelligent Hen, "[s]tudies over the past 20 years have...
revealed their finely-honed sensory capacities, their ability to think, draw
inferences, apply logic and plan ahead."
The paper includes dozens of examples of cognitive, behavioral, and emotional
complexity in chickens-all examples of the animals exhibiting capacities that
cannot be explained by simple instinct.
As just a few examples:
Chickens exhibit "behavioral flexibility." For example, hens were given
palatable and unpalatable food in differently colored bowls. Then, researchers
offered food to the hens' chicks, but the colors for the good and bad food were
switched. The hens warned their chicks not to eat what they thought was the bad
Nicol explains, "To assess the chicks' choice of food, relate it to what she
knows, and then encourage the chicks to change their feeding preference requires
great cognitive ability, as the hen must synthesize all of this information and
respond in a scenario that she has not previously encountered."
Chickens also have the capacity to delay gratification, which shows an ability
to "perceive and process time and apply this to its current situation" as well
as to demonstrate "self-control."
In one experiment, chickens were taught that if they refuse a food reward in the
present, they will receive more food later on. Ninety-three percent of the birds
chose to wait-something humans would do well to emulate.
Nicol offers dozens of examples showing that chickens have complex capacities
with regard to empathy, navigation, communication, social interaction,
transitive inference (figuring out that if A is greater than B, and B is greater
than C, then A is greater than C), understanding "object permanence," and even
learning basic arithmetic.
These are tasks that challenge our kindergarteners.
Will our growing knowledge about the diverse personalities and cognitive
sophistication of chickens change how we treat them?
Currently, hundreds of millions of hens in the United States are crammed into
tiny cages where they can't even turn around comfortably or spread their
wings-for their entire lives. Just like dogs or cats would in similar
conditions, the animals' suffer extreme psychological distress, and their
muscles and bones waste away.
There is some hope: Legislation passed in California and Michigan will soon
outlaw these systems, and similar legislation is pending in Massachusetts and
But even more crucially, might Americans make different dining choices once they
realize that chickens are smarter and more behaviorally complex than the family
dog or cat?
When Cameron Diaz learned that pigs are more intelligent than three-year-old
human children, she explained to Jay Leno that she had to stop eating them
because it would "be like eating my niece."
Does the fact that eating chickens involves eating individuals no less unique
and deserving of our compassion than your family dog or cat bother you? If so,
you might want to give vegetarianism a try.
Friedrich works on farm-animal policy for Farm Sanctuary, a national
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