The secret life of chickens

Assumed to be the lowest in the avian-intelligence pecking order, chickens are, in fact, more like feathered imitators
of Sherlock Holmes, says John Lewis-Stempel.

Why did the cockerel cross the track? To get to the barn, where the chicken feed is now stored.

Chickens? Often assumed to be the lowest in the pecking order of avian intelligence. The reality? The world’s most common farmed animal — there are 19 billion chickens on planet Earth — is not such a dumb-cluck.

Quite apart from possessing the numeracy skills of a human three year old, chickens are able to recognise 90 others in the flock (whether live or in photographs) and even do a passable feathered puzzle-solving imitation of Sherlock Holmes.

If something, such as the metal feed bin, is missing from one location, it has been moved elsewhere. Out of sight does not mean out of mind in chicken conceptualisation.

A study by Bristol University even suggests that chickens have the ability to perform ‘mental time travel’ and self-control. When presented with the option of pecking a key giving brief access to food after two seconds or pecking a second key giving prolonged access to food after six seconds, 93% of chickens tested chose the jackpot. Such self-control is not typically exhibited by human children until they are four.

Neither does chicken eggheadedness end there. In her review paper The Intelligent Hen, Christine Nicol, professor of animal welfare at the University of Bristol, proposes — slightly freakily — that the birds understand structural engineering, by demonstrating an uncommon interest in diagrams of buildable objects over ones that defy physics.

Indeed, the chicken’s grey matter is actually derived from the same neuroanatomical substrate as the mammalian forebrain. Moreover, chicken brains are as lateralised as our own, meaning the right and left hemispheres divide up tasks rather than duplicating the work necessary to accomplish them.

Despite 10,000 years of domestication, farmed chickens remain similar to their wild counterparts. Thus the farmyard hen sees a broader range of colours than humans, kens low-frequency sounds beyond our ear and can simultaneously focus on objects close up and far away. Many breeds even retain the avian ability to orient to magnetic fields.

You can take the hen out of the jungle, but not the jungle out of the hen. (If in doubt, try showing a Light Sussex a silhouette of a hawk.) 

Scientists, on scratching the surface of chicken cognition and psychology, have found that Gallus gallus domesticus experience a range of emotions, from pleasure to boredom to pain.

Chickens can also empathise. In a series of studies at Bristol University, the boffins puffed air, a mildly aversive experience, at chicks. The chicks’ mothers were fitted with heart-rate monitors: their tickers raced in distress at the treatment of their offspring. The mother hens also called out in maternal alarm. However, the same hens showed no significant physiological or behavioural response to air puffs in their own cage.

Hens homeschool, teaching their picture-cute fluffy offspring what to eat and how to identify dangerous areas. ‘Mother hen’, it transpires, is a sage and complimentary saying.

Nature has played a cruel trick on the chicken. Those weird, staring eyes suggest mechanistic remoteness. Experience, however, suggests chickens are characterful, individualistic and as keen as every other farmyard animal on some TLC.

Chickens make great companion animals. They’re as colourful as guppies, but more affectionate, as cute as hamsters, but better tasting, and altogether superior mousers to cats. And they do deductive reasoning like Mr Holmes of Baker Street.

Chickens? There is more to them than McNuggets in the making.