Chickens are not as clueless or “bird-brained” as people believe them to be, suggests a new study which found that they know their place in the pecking order and can reason by deduction, an ability that humans develop by the age of seven.
The research published in the journal Animal Cognition also shows that chickens have distinct personalities and can outmaneuver one another, adding their intelligence is unnecessarily underestimated and overshadowed by other avian groups.
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“They are perceived as lacking most of the psychological characteristics we recognise in other intelligent animals and are typically thought of as possessing a low level of intelligence compared with other animals,” said Lori Marino, senior scientist for The Someone Project, a joint venture of Farm Sanctuary and the Kimmela Centre in the US.
“The very idea of chicken psychology is strange to most people,” said Marino.
Research has shown that chickens have some sense of numbers. Experiments with newly hatched domestic chicks showed they can discriminate between quantities.
They also have an idea about ordinality, which refers to the ability to place quantities in a series.
Five-day-old domestic chicks presented with two sets of objects of different quantities disappearing behind two screens were able to successfully track which one hid the larger number by apparently performing simple arithmetic in the form of addition and subtraction.
Chickens are also able to remember the trajectory of a hidden ball for up to 180 seconds if they see the ball moving and up to one minute if the displacement of the ball is invisible to them.
Their performance is similar to that of most primates under similar conditions.
The birds possess self-control when it comes to holding out for a better food reward. They are able to self-assess their position in the pecking order. These two characteristics are indicative of self-awareness.
Chicken communication is also quite complex, and consists of a large repertoire of different visual displays and at least 24 distinct vocalisations.
The birds possess the complex ability of referential communication, which involves signals such as calls, displays and whistles to convey information. They may use this to sound the alarm when there is danger, for instance.
This ability requires some level of self-awareness and being able to take the perspective of another animal, and is also possessed by highly intelligent and social species, including primates, researchers said.
Chickens perceive time intervals and can anticipate future events. Like many other animals, they demonstrate their cognitive complexity when placed in social situations requiring them to solve problems, they said.