Most of us recognize the emotions of certain animals—for instance, dogs and cats. Some also recognize the emotions of mammals like elephants, cows, and pigs. But when it comes to birds—and chickens, in particular—many of us assume that they have small brains and a limited understanding of the world.
Whether we know it or not, we’re ranking animals based on how sentient we think they are. The word sentience means “the capacity to feel, perceive, or experience subjectively.” This word is especially important because while not all animals think the way we do, studies tell us that they can be quite intelligent and capable of experiencing complex emotions, even if their processing mechanisms differ vastly from our own.
It may shock you to ponder this, but chickens not only have complex emotions that resemble those of primates, but they can also imagine each other’s mindsets, help one another with routine tasks, anticipate future events, and even perform mathematical functions! Read on for a fascinating view into the inner lives of chickens, the world’s most commonly domesticated animal.
“The more we learn about the animals we share this planet with, the clearer it becomes that their lives can be as multifaceted as ours. The more we appreciate and admire all life on the planet, the more capable and motivated we will be to protect this planet for future generations.”
Chicken Psychology? Believe It!
As it turns out, we drastically underestimate the emotional lives of chickens. That’s according to Lori Marino, senior scientist at the Someone Project, a partnership between Farm Sanctuary and the Kimmela Center. “The very idea of chicken psychology is strange to most people,” Marino acknowledges. She hopes introduce the public to the idea that chickens experience many of the same feelings we humans do.
According to Marino’s review, which was published by Animal Cognition, chickens have distinct personalities. They know their place in the “pecking order” and communicate with each other using a large repertoire of visual displays and vocalizations. They also demonstrate referential communication, meaning they use signals to convey information to one another. For example, one chicken might use referential communication to alert the rest to the presence of a predator. Referential communication requires self-awareness, and is a skill associated with highly intelligent and social species such as primates.
A Tale of Two Chickens Named Daisy and Lilac
The way chickens interact with each other makes it clear that they can project themselves into another animal’s mindset. Free from Harm, a nonprofit that promotes farmed animal rescue, education, and advocacy, shared the story of two chickens named Lilac and Daisy. Lilac is blind in one eye and has limited vision in the other. Daisy understand this and helps Lilac navigate her environment by leaning into her so she has a “safe zone” as she moves about.
We typically believe that chickens lack the personality traits we recognize in other animals, which the story of Daisy and Lilac illustrates, couldn’t be more wrong. But are chickens intelligent? The answer is yes!
Are Baby Chicks Smarter Than Baby Humans?
Chickens are capable of mathematical reasoning and logic skills human children don’t develop until age four. Even baby chicks can perform basic arithmetic. They also know that an object moved out of sight still exists—unlike human babies, hence why the game “peek-a-boo” is so exciting for young ones.
Chickens also perform similarly to primates on a standard memory test, can perceive time intervals, and can anticipate future events. They experience emotions: fear, anticipation, and even a simple form of empathy called emotional contagion.
Changing the Way We See Chickens
Marino hopes that we can shift “how we ask questions about chicken psychology and behavior,” which will facilitate “more accurate and richer data and a more authentic understanding of who they really are.” We look forward to future studies carried out by Marino and other open-minded scientists.