The secret life of chickens: It turns out the humble pecker is something of an egghead

Assumed to be the lowest in the avian-intelligence pecking order, chickens are, in fact, more like feathered imitators
of Sherlock Holmes, says John Lewis-Stempel.

Why did the cockerel cross the track? To get to the barn, where the chicken feed is now stored.

Our Maran cock, Robespierre (‘the terror of the farmyard’), on discovering that the metal feed bin was not in its usual place in the woodshed, had gone off exploring to find it.

Chickens? Often assumed to be the lowest in the pecking order of avian intelligence. The reality? The world’s most common farmed animal — there are 19 billion chickens on planet Earth — is not such a dumb-cluck.

Quite apart from possessing the numeracy skills of a human three year old, chickens are able to recognise 90 others in the flock (whether live or in photographs) and even do a passable feathered puzzle-solving imitation of Sherlock Holmes.

If something, such as the metal feed bin, is missing from one location, it has been moved elsewhere. Out of sight does not mean out of mind in chicken conceptualisation.

A study by Bristol University even suggests that chickens have the ability to perform ‘mental time travel’ and self-control. When presented with the option of pecking a key giving brief access to food after two seconds or pecking a second key giving prolonged access to food after six seconds, 93% of chickens tested chose the jackpot. Such self-control is not typically exhibited by human children until they are four.

Neither does chicken eggheadedness end there. In her review paper The Intelligent Hen, Christine Nicol, professor of animal welfare at the University of Bristol, proposes — slightly freakily — that the birds understand structural engineering, by demonstrating an uncommon interest in diagrams of buildable objects over ones that defy physics.

A White Crested Poland chicken

(This doubtless explains the persistent tendency of our flock to find holes in the fencing of our capacious orchards and paddocks in the absolute QED of ‘free range’.)

Certainly, the farmyard chicken is capable of downright cunning. Robespierre has a crush on Little Red Hen and, when he discovers a definitely dainty morsel, he will silently hop from one scaly leg to another to gain her admiring attention, without arch-rival Bertie Bantam noticing.

Robespierre sometimes does his jig… not having troved a titbit. In other words, he lies to impress Little Red Hen. If this mendacious behaviour is nothing for him to crow about (chickens have at least 24 distinct vocalisations), it does rather prove that chickens are not so ‘bird-brained’, after all.

Indeed, the chicken’s grey matter is actually derived from the same neuroanatomical substrate as the mammalian forebrain. Moreover, chicken brains are as lateralised as our own, meaning the right and left hemispheres divide up tasks rather than duplicating the work necessary to accomplish them.

Robespierre’s Machiavellian foul play should come as no surprise. Look at the chicken’s ancestry: domestic chickens are descended from the red jungle fowl (Gallus gallus) of Asia — and it really was a jungle out there, with only the savvy birds surviving.

Despite 10,000 years of domestication, farmed chickens remain similar to their wild counterparts. Thus the farmyard hen sees a broader range of colours than humans, kens low-frequency sounds beyond our ear and can simultaneously focus on objects close up and far away. Many breeds even retain the avian ability to orient to magnetic fields.

You can take the hen out of the jungle, but not the jungle out of the hen. (If in doubt, try showing a Light Sussex a silhouette of a hawk.) Yet, even experienced poultry-keepers may be surprised by Chicken Little’s ability to fly.

Robespierre sometimes does his jig, not having troved a titbit. He lies to impress

Jade, our first ever Minorca, celebrated her arrival at the farm by winging her way up an oak tree to roost on a branch next to a pheasant. The black beauty could manage 30 vertical feet, which was no paltry feat.

More usually, hens prefer to lounge around the base of leafy, branchy trees — their safe space, as raptors like a clear aerial run. Chicken corticosterone levels (a physiological measure of stress) decrease in environments they decide improve their welfare. Hence the ancient longing for trees.

I give my hens arboreal cover. Selfishly, for me as a farmer, this improves the ‘HHA’, the hen-housed average of egg-laying. Altruistically, I have happy hens.

Yes, scientists, on scratching the surface of chicken cognition and psychology, have found that Gallus gallus domesticus experience a range of emotions, from pleasure to boredom to pain.

This rather throws into the air the question of chicken welfare, particularly ‘debeaking’, where, in the factory farming of poultry, the tip of the hen’s bill is removed to prevent the bird pecking its close-packed neighbour.

A chicken’s beak is tipped with a specialised cluster of highly sensitive mechanoreceptors; partially debeaked chickens show a significant increase in self-protective behaviour, such as tucking the bill under the wing and diminished use of the bill. Well, you try having a sense organ cut off.

Chickens can also empathise. In a series of studies at Bristol University (which, I feel, is Chicken Comprehension Central), the boffins puffed air, a mildly aversive experience, at chicks. The chicks’ mothers were fitted with heart-rate monitors: their tickers raced in distress at the treatment of their offspring. The mother hens also called out in maternal alarm. However, the same hens showed no significant physiological or behavioural response to air puffs in their own cage.

A free range hen walking down a wooden ladder from a henhouse

Hens homeschool, teaching their picture-cute fluffy offspring what to eat and how to identify dangerous areas. ‘Mother hen’, it transpires, is a sage and complimentary saying.

Otherwise, the hoard of Anglo-Saxon aphoristic associations with ‘chicken’ are cowardice, ineffectual panic (‘running around like a headless chicken’), neurotic anxiety (‘the sky is falling!’) and demasculinisation (‘hen-pecked’). Even the fierce fighting capability of the rooster has become ‘cocky’, meaning overweening pride.

This is a sad lexicographical demise for the bird that saved Western civilisation. By the side of a road in Greece in the first decade of the 5th century BC, the Athenian general Themistocles, on his way to confront the invading Persian forces, stopped to watch two cocks fighting.

Summoning troops, he declared: ‘Behold, these do not fight for their household gods, for the monuments of their ancestors, for glory, for liberty or the safety of their children, but only because one will not give way to the other.’ The rest is history. Themistocles and his inspired troops went on to trounce the Persians at Plataea.

Nature has played a cruel trick on the chicken. Those weird, staring eyes suggest mechanistic remoteness. Experience, however, suggests chickens are characterful, individualistic and as keen as every other farmyard animal on some TLC.

To the slight bemusement of my wife and I, our daughter Freda’s first words were ‘flabja’ (Flapjack) and ‘weli’ (Wellington), the names of two Barnevelder hens given to her as a Christening gift. They pecked corn from her palm, went for walks with her and sat in her lap for a comforting cuddle.

Chickens make great companion animals. They’re as colourful as guppies, but more affectionate, as cute as hamsters, but better tasting, and altogether superior mousers to cats. And they do deductive reasoning like Mr Holmes of Baker Street.

Chickens? There is more to them than McNuggets in the making.


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