Friday, August 16, 2013
Chickens: smarter than a four-year-old
http://www.nydailynews.com/opinion/chickens-smarter-four-year-old-article-1. 1428277 Chickens: smarter than a four-year-old Friedrich: Chickens come when you call them by their name, do math and more. Should we really be eating them? By Bruce Friedrich
/ NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Published: Friday, August 16, 2013
At Farm Sanctuary, we've been providing lifelong care for chickens for more than 25 years, and we've come to understand them as individuals with interests, desires, and personalities - just like the cats and dogs most Americans know a bit better.
Some are shy, others gregarious. Like dogs, they know their names and they come when called.
We have been sharing our chicken stories for decades, but now, research from the University of Bristol has proven scientifically what we have known from experience - that chickens may well be the smartest animals in the barnyard.
In some scientific tests, they outperform human toddlers.
That's right: In multiple tests of cognitive and behavioral sophistication, chickens outperform not just dogs and cats but four-year-old human children.
Explains the University of Bristol's Dr. Christine Nicol, author of the review paper titled The Intelligent Hen, "[s]tudies over the past 20 years have... revealed their finely-honed sensory capacities, their ability to think, draw inferences, apply logic and plan ahead."
The paper includes dozens of examples of cognitive, behavioral, and emotional complexity in chickens-all examples of the animals exhibiting capacities that cannot be explained by simple instinct.
As just a few examples:
Chickens exhibit "behavioral flexibility." For example, hens were given palatable and unpalatable food in differently colored bowls. Then, researchers offered food to the hens' chicks, but the colors for the good and bad food were switched. The hens warned their chicks not to eat what they thought was the bad food.
Nicol explains, "To assess the chicks' choice of food, relate it to what she knows, and then encourage the chicks to change their feeding preference requires great cognitive ability, as the hen must synthesize all of this information and respond in a scenario that she has not previously encountered."
Chickens also have the capacity to delay gratification, which shows an ability to "perceive and process time and apply this to its current situation" as well as to demonstrate "self-control."
In one experiment, chickens were taught that if they refuse a food reward in the present, they will receive more food later on. Ninety-three percent of the birds chose to wait-something humans would do well to emulate.
Nicol offers dozens of examples showing that chickens have complex capacities with regard to empathy, navigation, communication, social interaction, transitive inference (figuring out that if A is greater than B, and B is greater than C, then A is greater than C), understanding "object permanence," and even learning basic arithmetic.
These are tasks that challenge our kindergarteners.
Will our growing knowledge about the diverse personalities and cognitive sophistication of chickens change how we treat them?
Currently, hundreds of millions of hens in the United States are crammed into tiny cages where they can't even turn around comfortably or spread their wings-for their entire lives. Just like dogs or cats would in similar conditions, the animals' suffer extreme psychological distress, and their muscles and bones waste away.
There is some hope: Legislation passed in California and Michigan will soon outlaw these systems, and similar legislation is pending in Massachusetts and New York.
But even more crucially, might Americans make different dining choices once they realize that chickens are smarter and more behaviorally complex than the family dog or cat?
When Cameron Diaz learned that pigs are more intelligent than three-year-old human children, she explained to Jay Leno that she had to stop eating them because it would "be like eating my niece."
Does the fact that eating chickens involves eating individuals no less unique and deserving of our compassion than your family dog or cat bother you? If so, you might want to give vegetarianism a try.
Friedrich works on farm-animal policy for Farm Sanctuary, a national animal-protection organization.
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