In a new study conducted by Andy Lamey of Monash University in Australia, researchers who studied chickens conclude that, contrary to earlier studies, chickens do possess “primitive self-consciousness” as identified in human newborns and higher primates. In this report, Lamey demonstrates how chickens respond to tests where they must learn the details of the tests first, hold them in memory for varying periods of time, and react on their memory of these learned behaviors by choosing an “optimal” reward, which requires practicing self control, i.e., “the ability to resist immediate gratification for a later benefit.”
Lamey reports: “It is relatively uncontroversial to ascribe greater cognitive abilities to chickens than to [human] newborns. For example, the ability to retain recognition of partly hidden shapes, an ability possessed by two-day-old chicks, does not emerge in humans until 4-7 months (Lea and Ryan 1996). Tests of two-day-old chicks’ abilities to recover fully occluded objects have also found that they mastered some aspects of stage four of the so-called Piaget Scale of object permanence, a level human infants do not begin to reach before three and half months of age (Regolin et. al. 1994, Regolin et. al. 1995; Baillargeon and DeVos 1991).”
Lamey found that studying the interaction of mother hens and their chicks to be an important area of understanding this level of self conscious awareness. “The researchers concluded that hens modified their own behaviour in response to perceived feeding errors by their chicks, seeking to instruct them in what type of food to avoid [and which to eat and how to eat it].” Furthermore, chicks and hens remembered through trial and error which food items they were presented with were inedible and which were edible. The hens remembered these actions and passed them on to chicks later on.
Lamey draws on Peter Singer’s widely-accepted principle of equal consideration to assert the ethical implications of his findings that chickens are at least primitively self-conscious. In Singer’s words, equal consideration implies that “the interests of every being affected by an action are to be taken into account and given the same weight as the like interests of any other being” (Singer 1990: 5). That said, Lamey concludes that the killing of chickens, animals who have an interest in staying alive based on their cognitive capabilities, is morally indefensible when the justification is not based on necessity but a simple preference for chicken as a food source.
While research such as Lamey’s is important, the big blind spot in his assessment about chicken intelligence is the knowledge we can gain from simple observation of chickens, particularly by those who keep them as companions. Beyond the feeding behavior of mother hens and chicks lies a vastly complex world of social interaction and communication — with their own species and with us. Countless people keeping chickens marvel how they have formed deep and complex bonds with them — ranging from physical affection to highly sophisticated ways of communicating. Surely these observations must be factored into the discussion and surely they reveal animals that are in many ways more evolved than human newborns.
A big thank you to Humanespot.org for uncovering this study. Download Andy Lamey’s complete report. Learn more about chickens from both a scientific and observational perspective at our factsheet, Chicken Behavior: An Overview of Recent Science.
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