People have always thought that chickens are unsophisticated and lacklustre in the brains department. For years, everyone has taken for granted that chooks are only ever good fried and hot on the plate or, more harshly (and largely still happening elsewhere in the world), as objects for sport that are kept in chicken coops only for a while. Well, it would surprise you to know that chickens are in fact thinkers and soak up things about their chicken pen environment more than you realise. Scientists are only beginning to scratch the surface when it comes to understanding bird brains, but what they have gathered so far about the intelligence of chickens is remarkable.
Chickens learn by observation
Chickens, studies found, are actually sharp observers. They learn what to do and what to avoid by watching the more experienced ones in the flock, even as chicks. A study involving chicks showed that they avoided going for a bitter substance after they saw the responses of the others who went for it first. In another, untrained hens learned to peck at coloured keys that gave way to food after observing a previously trained hen do the same. Long-time chicken raisers would attest that it only takes days for chickens to learn the sounding calls they assigned for food and for getting inside the chicken coop, as well as other routines they may have at their place. Apparently, chicken see, chicken do, and well, too.
Chickens know their maths and start learning how to solve problems as soon as they hatch. In a study, 5-day-old chicks were made to identify the hole containing food out of 10 identical holes. Even if the sequence of the holes was switched around, the chicks were still able to identify the correct hole. What’s more, very young chicks can already understand that an object that moves out of sight still exists. In contrast, human babies do not learn out of sight does not mean out of mind until they are about a year old. In another problem-solving exercise, chickens knew that if they waited longer and ignored an immediate reward, they would get the ultimate one by getting food and longer access to it.
Chickens talk to one another
If you have been raising chickens for a while, you will know that chickens do not just make random sounds and gestures. Rather, they have their own set of unique calls to refer to various things like food and danger. Even while still in the egg, chicks communicate with their mother when they are feeling the cold or are otherwise comfortable, to which the mother responds accordingly. Chickens definitely communicate about threats. They actually have different calls to signify whether a predator is coming from the land or the air.
One important way chickens use their calls is in teaching their young coping skills. When mother hen finds food, she sounds a call and chicks respond by pecking at the ground. When chicks wander too far away, the mother sounds an alarm call that makes the babies come running back to her side. In one study, a mother hen learned that red-coloured food was good. But when her chicks began pecking at blue ones, the mother promptly vocalised the error and began scratching and pecking to emphasise.
Roosters are also talkers when it comes to food. Although the gesture is partly mating-related, roosters exhibit tidbitting where they vocalise food calls, move their head up and down while picking up and dropping a food titbit to tell hens that they found food. When hens see a rooster do so, they trip over themselves in their hurry towards the location. However, the hens do ignore a rooster’s tidbitting when they know that food is around in the chook pen.
Chickens know who you are
Who would have thought that those piercing predator’s eyes are actually looking at you and memorising your facial details? It is true; chickens have good memory. Although perhaps not as un-forgetful as elephants, chickens can remember people, places and things, even months after encountering them. In one account, broiler chicks rescued from the Typhoon Katrina disaster immediately recognized who their main caregiver was. In another, an animal rescuer who had cleaned up a muddied hen after a cockfighting raid, noticed the hen acted more differently than the others did when walked by, like walking up to the front of the chook pen and making friendly noises.
As you would expect, every chicken inside a chicken pen knows one another. In fact, each coop of chickens has an established pecking order, where each chicken has its specific position that they assert by pecks, postures and vocalisation. Because of their sharp memory, hens know which tidbitting males to favour. The ladies keep tally of which and how many times a cock keeps finding food, which gives them the upper hand in determining the status of the cocks with them.
Chickens are walking sundials
It would not hurt to further your amazement of these feathered marvels in knowing that they can tell time by the sun. That’s right, they look at the sun to know the time of day. To do that, chickens will have to know how to measure the height and position of the sun. At two weeks, chicks can already begin doing so, no small feat at such a young age. Apparently, this skill allows chickens to locate food, water and good perches that keep them out of predators’ reach. In the case of the chicks rescued from the typhoon, they knew when the caregiver was late. When she was tardy, even by just a few minutes, the chicks would cheep madly until she arrived and filled the feeders. Insistent, they are, but they know how to tell time.
With all these nifty skills on hand, it is no wonder how chickens are able to take stock of and survive in the environment they might find themselves in.