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Are Chickens Smart? 

Last Updated: 05.06.20

 

Growing up, most of us were taught that most birds have little brains and they are intellectually and emotionally inferior to other animals that we considered “pets”, such as cats or dogs. Whenever thinking of pets, we seldom consider making birds’ lives easier by buying toys for chickens or investing in outfits. 

On the contrary, we dismiss most birds and their emotions only to feel joy when we teach dogs or cats to do a trick. So, for all purposes intended, we would like to once and for all address one of the most popular yet untrue statements in the world – chickens (and most birds) are stupid. Here is everything you should know about the topic that will change your opinion and make you see birds in the light they truly deserve. 

 

Popular misconception

Chickens are probably the most widespread birds on the planet, counting for over 17 billion individuals. Yet, few people have contact with these birds while they’re alive. As our society evolves, we spend less time thinking about primordial issues like providing food for our families and get caught up in social and personal problems, consuming all our time and energy.

Less than a century ago, more than 40% of the total global population lived in the countryside, enjoying a simpler lifestyle. There weren’t many business opportunities and one of the simplest ways to provide food and a roof over your family’s heads was to grow plants and raise animals. Given that chickens were easy to look after and multiply, most farmers used them as the main source of meat for their families. 

It is probably one of the reasons why chickens seemed to have their lives sealed before they were even born – they didn’t represent more than today’s breakfast and tomorrow’s supper. As people shifted from rural to urban areas and started producing more, they changed their lifestyles completely and gave away the simple “farmer” life that brought them a real connection with the food they were providing to their families. 

Why are chickens the most popular food choice in the world?

In a world of speed where everything is on fast-forward, including food and emotions, most of us serve our food from cans or plastic containers knowing and caring little about how that food was made. We can barely name the ingredients used to cook the meal we’re having, let alone their source or lives before they ended up on our plates. 

And, perhaps, this is one of the main reasons why we can eat meat – we strip the animals off their lives and emotions and we don’t think of them as anything else but a source of proteins for our diets. Given that chickens multiply easily and almost every part of them is good for human consumption, they are raised on an industrial scale to improve benefits and reduce the costs of producers. 

And, since many people don’t get to experience farm life first hand anymore, it’s easier to understand why some barely remember how a chicken looks like alive, let alone know about its behavior or brain. 

Another reason why chickens are extremely popular worldwide is that their meat is considered healthier than that of other animals like cattle, sheep or pigs. Unlike the former and the latter that are redeemed as sacred or “dirty” in other cultures, chicken meat is accepted by all cultures and religions as a healthy choice. 

 

Recent data

How little do we know about these (in)famous birds! Though the expression “bird brain” is mainly used to describe a person who isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, recent studies suggest the exact opposite. 

According to a study published in 2017, chickens are, in fact, much more complex creatures than we would have expected. They have vast and robust abilities comparable to a human toddler and possess some behavioral characteristics that were disregarded by humans before. 

Chickens boast a complex nervous system and are sensitive to temperature, pain, and pressure, similar to humans and other mammals. What’s more interesting is that these creatures outrun humans in terms of visual capacities and can see a broader range of colors. 

Depending on the breed, some chickens can even sense magnetic fields, which leads us to believe that they might be able to sense various changes in the air and certain meteorological phenomena before they occur. 

Another study from the University of Padova, Italy shows that chickens can recognize the difference in values. In other words, they can count! A simple experiment conducted by the researchers there placed three objects behind a screen and only two objects behind the other. Left with a choice, chickens always picked the screen with more objects behind it. 

Chicken behavior and human resemblances 

Although there are still many pieces of the puzzle missing, scientists seem to have cracked at least part of the chickens’ genetic code, managing to decipher some behavioral traits. 

According to them, these birds use at least 24 types of vocalizations to communicate different scenarios, including those of approaching predators. 

Chicken individuals are as unique as cats, dogs, and humans. They are capable of emotions and they use complex ways to express their fears, needs, and feelings. 

One interesting thing scientists discovered is that chickens can dream, similar to humans. They analyzed the electrical activity of their brains during their sleep and concluded that their sleep goes through various phases. Just like humans, chickens transition from slow-wave sleep to rapid eye movement sleep (REM), during which they might even dream. 

These birds also establish emotional connections with peers and know their role in the hierarchy. In crowded farms, you will most likely encounter different “packs” of chickens, with some individuals “calling the shots” while others remain shy and submissive. Inside their packs, chickens know who to befriend and who to stay away from, which makes them closer to mammals. 

Another interesting theory that was proven lately is that chickens are empathetic. They are nurturing animals and can empathize with other individuals in certain conditions. When chicks feel uncomfortable, hens tend to empathize, which leads to an increase in their heart rate, body temperature, and even voice. Therefore, there is much truth behind the idiom “mother hen”. 

 

Can chickens feel pain?

Ethical debates about meat consumption have increased in the past few decades, with more studies showing that animals are capable of real emotions and feelings, similar to humans. What was once considered a mere source of food has now turned into a living, breathing animal, with complex emotions and even dreams. 

In most developed countries, chicken meat consumption has increased in the past years due to the relatively low costs linked to breeding these birds. According to recent statistics, chickens count for 88% of the total number of animals raised for food and around 99.9% of them come from factory farms. 

Unfortunately, chickens have short and mostly miserable lives on these farms. They rarely see the daylight and breathe fresh air and are often left living in their own filth. To prevent disease spread, farmers inject the animals with antibiotics and growth hormones, toxic substances that are later passed on humans through meat consumption. 

In the United States, most chickens raised for food have a lifespan of only 47 days, whereas in the European Union they mainly live for 42 days. By comparison to their natural genetic lifespan of over 7 years, this means that most of these animals only serve one purpose – to become food for humans. 

Studies conducted in the field have shown that chickens are, in fact, capable of feeling pain and fear, which leads us to believe that they live in constant stress on their farms. 

It is up to one’s personal preferences to consume meat or not but those who need animal proteins should consider the harm they are doing to most animals bred for their meat. 

Just like cats, dogs, and rodents that are kept as pets by humans, chickens are entitled to better lives, even if they will still end up on your plate for dinner. Free-range birds are not only happier but also healthier, which will benefit humans in the long run because their meat will be tender and free of chemicals and harmful antibiotics. 

To sum up, chickens are smarter than what we originally thought and are, in many ways, similar to humans. 

 

 

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