Animal Writes
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From 15 June 2003 Issue

The Hidden Lives of Chickens 

Chickens are inquisitive and interesting animals and are thought to be as intelligent as mammals like cats and dogs and even primates. When in natural surroundings, not on factory farms, they form friendships and social hierarchies, recognize one another, love their young, and enjoy a full life, dust-bathing, making nests, roosting in trees, and more.

Up until a few years ago, few scientists had spent any time learning about chickens’ intelligence, but people who run farmed animal sanctuaries have had plenty to say about the subtleties of the chicken world. It may seem odd, since we don’t know chickens very well, but it’s true that some chickens like classic rock, while others like classical music; some chickens enjoy human company, while others are standoffish, shy, or even a bit aggressive. Just like dogs, cats, and humans, each chicken is an individual with a distinct personality. Now, scientists are beginning to learn a bit more about chickens, and here’s what a few of them have to say:

• Chickens are as smart as small human children, according to animal behaviorist Dr. Chris Evans, who runs the animal behavior lab at Macquarie University in Australia and lectures on his work with chickens. He explains that, for example, chickens are able to understand that recently hidden objects still exist, which is actually beyond the capacity of small children. Discussing chickens’ various capacities, he says, “As a trick at conferences I sometimes list these attributes, without mentioning chickens, and people thing I’m talking about monkeys.”

• Dr. Joy Mench, professor and director of the Center for Animal Welfare at the University of California at Davis explains, “Chickens show sophisticated social behavior. … That’s what a pecking order is all about. They can recognize more than a hundred other chickens and remember them. They have more than thirty types of vocalizations.”

• In her book The Development of Brain and Behaviour in the Chicken, Dr. Lesley Rogers, a professor of neuroscience and animal behavior, concludes that chickens have cognitive capabilities equivalent to mammals.

• Dr. Christine Nicol of the University of Bristol explains, “Chickens have shown us they can do things people didn’t think they could do. There are hidden depths to chickens, definitely.”

A Few Examples of Chicken Capabilities

• The video “Let’s Ask the Animals,” produced by the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour in the United Kingdom, shows chickens learning which bowls contain food by watching television, learning to peck a button three times in order to obtain food, and learning how to navigate a complex obstacle course in order to get to a nesting box.

• In 2002, the PBS documentary The Natural History of the Chicken revealed that “chickens love to watch television and have vision similar to humans. They also seem to enjoy all forms of music, especially classical.”

• Chickens are able to learn by watching the mistakes of others and are very adept at teaching and learning.

• Chickens also can learn to use switches and levers to change the temperature in their surroundings and to open doors to feeding areas.

• Chickens have more than 30 distinct cries to communicate to one another, including separate alarm calls depending on whether a predator is traveling by land or sea.

• A mother hen will turn her eggs as many as five times an hour and cluck to her unborn chicks, who will chirp back to her and to one another from within their shells!

• Chickens navigate by the sun.

• A hen will often go without food and water, if necessary, just to have a private nest in which to lay her eggs.

• Like us, chickens form strong family ties and mourn when they lose a loved one.

• Kim Sturla, who runs Animal Place, a sanctuary for abused and discarded farmed animals, has seen chickens empathize and show affection for one another. She recalls an endearing story about two elderly chickens who had been rescued from a city dump. “Mary” and “Notorious Boy” bonded and would roost on a picnic table together. One stormy night when the rain was really pelting down, Sturla went to put Mary and Notorious Boy in the barn and saw that “the rooster had his wing extended over the hen protecting her.”

Save the Chickens
Chickens raised for food in the U.S. are denied all their natural behaviors and desires. They are crammed by the tens of thousands into sheds that stink of ammonia fumes from accumulated waste; they are given barely enough room even to move (each bird lives in the amount of space equivalent to a standard sheet of paper). They routinely suffer broken bones from being bred to be top heavy, from callous handling (workers roughly grab birds by their legs and stuff them into crates) and from being shackled upside-down at slaughterhouses.

Chickens are often still fully conscious when their throats are slit or when they are dumped into tanks of scalding hot water to remove their feathers. When they’re killed, chickens are still babies, not yet 2 months old, out of a natural life span of 10 to 15 years.

The average American meat-eater is responsible for the abuse and deaths of approximately 2,500 chickens.

Refuse to support cruelty to animals; click here for a free vegetarian starter kit.

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