I have lived around chickens all my life. My grandparents had a small egg farm, and when they retired, they always had a couple dozen chickens and ducks around for no other reason than that they liked their character. I live in the suburbs now, but we are allowed three hens, and their vicissitudes form a steady beat of panic and joy amidst the routine of Human Stuff that needs dealing with. So, when I came across Carolynn L. Smith and Sarah I. Zielinski’s article in the most recent Scientific American about new evidence for intelligence and even empathy in chickens, I rejoiced at scientific attention finally being focused on the complex social life of these wonderful animals.
Smith has been running experiments to test how chickens use their language in different situations, and the results show a degree of cunning that one usually only associates with humans or, let’s face it, cats. For instance, they have a call which means “there is a predator coming down from the sky” but they are very selective when they use it. As Smith explains, “A rooster that sees a threat overhead would make an alarm call if he knows there is a female nearby, but he would remain silent in the presence of a rival male.” More than that, if the rooster is in cover and sees a rival out by himself in the field, he will go ahead and make the call anyway, knowing that it will draw attention to his rival while costing himself nothing. That’s some meta-level calculation going on there, and speaks of a depth of consciousness not often associated with these animals.
More endearingly (though, I suppose if you’re a fan of devious critters, the above was rather endearing), they have a marked capacity for empathy and concern. I notice this all the time at home – when my daughter takes one of the chickens out of their run area to pet for a while, the other two will pace back and forth making panicked little noises until their friend is returned. Those three are an inseparable unit very invested emotionally in each other’s welfare. Organized research has substantiated these ideas, showing that mothers who see their chicks in unusual situations will exhibit stress signals and clucking noises until things are set aright – they have the ability to imagine what another chicken is dealing with and to empathize with it appropriately.
All of which should make humanity feel like proper asses for the way we treat these smart and affectionate animals, shoving them into factories with no room to move, injecting them with growth hormones and then slaughtering them at a tenth of their usual life span, before too much inflicted malformation sets in. It is a practice unworthy of an enlightened species, as we claim to be. If ignorance of their mental capacity was our excuse before, that won’t serve now.
If you want to help this species out a bit, here is an easy first step, a petition to end factory farming in Canada. If you must buy ten minutes of stimulated taste receptors at the cost of another sentient being’s life (and, to be frank, every time you eat meat, that’s the grossly uneven trade you’re making), you can at least make sure that that life is as decent as possible.
This isn’t a trend which will reverse itself any time soon. The more we learn about animals, the more we find neural structures that enable them to experience bits and snatches of our own rich emotional life, and the harder it will be to justify our millennia of abusive and callous stewardship.