The inner lives of chickens: intelligence, self-control and empathy

May 24 2016

Chickens are the most farmed animal in the world. But what do we know about the way their minds work? What are they capable of and what do they feel?

Despite many misconceptions, chickens are actually clever, emotional beings. Like all other animals, they deserve our respect.

Clever creatures

We are learning more and more about the cognitive abilities of animals, and chickens are no exception. Scientists have shown that during a task when hens expect a big food reward they will resist an immediate smaller food reward. They will have self-control and ‘hold out’ for the larger meal (Abeyesinghe et al.,2005).

This demonstrates that hens can anticipate the future and make decisions based on that. Other research has shown that chickens can discriminate between different people (Davis & Taylor, 2001). Furthermore, chicks that are only five days old have numeracy skills, being able to count up to ten (Rugani et al.,2007).

These findings are truly interesting, and it’s great to have the robust science behind them. But of course many of these abilities would have evolved for survival, so we have to ask ourselves, are they really that surprising after all?

A member of World Animal Protection staff makes friends with a chicken at a farm in Canada

Empathy for their chicks

Scientists are constantly learning new things about farm animals and their complex emotional lives. The extent to which one is affected by another’s pain or distress is referred to as empathy.  Research has shown that mother hens do feel empathy for their chicks when in distress (Edgar et al., 2001). It may not be in exactly the same way as humans experience empathy, but it is still real and affects them.

This is important to know as chickens may often witness members of their group in pain or distress.

In my opinion, level of intelligence should not equate to the level of concern we have for an animal. If animals can suffer, then that’s all we need to know to warrant our protection of them.

But of course it is not as simple as that, research as shown that people are drawn to charismatic animals. The way we think about animals is determined by how attractive we believe they are, how big their eyes are, if they’re furry or not, and how closely they resemble us humans (Herzog, 2010). It’s not logical but it’s the way many human minds work.

The findings outlined in this blog and future research can help us relate to chickens more and realise that their welfare is just as important as all other animals.

We work to protect all farm animals – find out more about how we’re improving the lives of 70 billion farm animals.

Further reading

Abeyesinghe, S. M., Nicol, C. J., Hartnell, S. J., & Wathes, C. M. (2005). Can domestic fowl, Gallus gallus domesticus, show self-control? Animal Behaviour,70 (1), 1-11.

Davis, H. & Taylor, A. (2001). Discrimination between individual humans by domestic fowl (Gallus gallus domesticus). British Poultry Science, 42, 276-279.

Edgar, J. L., Lowe, J. C., Paul, E. S., & Nicol, C. J. (2011). Avian maternal response to chick distress. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

Herzog, H., & Foster, M. (2010). Some we love, some we hate, some we eat. Tantor Audio.

Rugani, R., Regolin, L., & Vallortigara, G. (2007). Rudimental numerical competence in 5-day-old domestic chicks (Gallus gallus): identification of ordinal position. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behavior Processes, 33(1), 21.

If animals can suffer, then that’s all we need to know to warrant our protection of them.

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