Who are you calling bird-brained? According to a new study, chickens may be as intelligent, in some ways at least, as a human toddler. Able to hold off on gobbling the grub to get a better reward, while communicating in over 24 distinct vocalizations, the fast food favorite may be higher up in the intelligence pecking order than we tend to give them credit for.
“They are perceived as lacking most of the psychological characteristics we recognize in other intelligent animals and are typically thought of as possessing a low level of intelligence compared with other animals,” explains Lori Marino, author of a review paper on the latest in chicken intelligence, published in Animal Cognition. “The very idea of chicken psychology is strange to most people.”
The research found that there is seemingly ample evidence to show that the domesticated fowl has a certain sense of numbers, with newly hatched chicks able to tell the difference between different quantities, as well as apparently display signs of basic arithmetic in the form of addition and subtraction. Earlier studies have also found that ducklings aren’t so empty-headed either, in fact, they are capable of abstract thought fresh from the egg.
Chicks are surprisingly brainy. srisakorn wonglakorn/Shutterstock
Chickens can also warn others of potential danger, which according to Marino displays some level of self-awareness, while also being able to anticipate future events, and can even “reason by deduction” – something that humans don’t achieve until they’re a toddler.
There does seem to be a little conflict of interest involved with the study, though. Marino is chief scientist for The Someone Project, which aims to show how farm animals are intelligent beings with complex emotions and feelings, and the study is partly funded by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
If true, however, don’t let it get you in a flap. Chickens wouldn’t be the first farmyard favorite that has been found to be far cleverer than credited. Pigs, for example, are often compared to dogs in their cognitive ability, and can even be taught to sit or play fetch. They have also been found to quickly understand and use mirrors to scope out their surroundings and even help them find food, though whether they understand that the porcine fellow looking right back at them is themselves or not is still unclear.
And further still, while we tend to think of sheep as unquestioning lackeys that blindly follow the flock, they’ve been found to have brain power that equals rodents and primates, and in some tests even humans. Able to learn where food is in about the same time frame as monkeys and humans, they are also able to recognize up to 50 different sheep faces, as well as quickly map out their environments and understand where boundaries are even if there is no physical fence.