Chicken Emotion & Cognition
It’s no secret that chickens have a bad rap. After all, we often call cowardly people “chickens.” One reason for this might be that chickens are viewed as commodities– something to be sold and consumed– rather than as sentient creatures with valuable lives. Contrary to common stereotypes about chickens, cognitive research reveals that “bird brains” are actually quite mentally rich and complex. As one social scientist puts it, “chickens are just as cognitively, emotionally, and socially complex as most birds and mammals in many areas.”
Evolution has fine-tuned many of the senses that chickens possess. Their skin alone has numerous types of receptors dedicated to measuring temperature, pressure, and pain. Chickens also have an advanced level of eyesight, and they can detect a broader range of colors than even the human eye can detect. Their incredible sense of sight leads to remarkable cognitive traits, including spatial orientation, reasoning, and self-recognition.
Chickens become aware of their environments early on. Two-day-old chicks can grasp object permanence, retrieving objects partially hidden from view. Chickens also can solve rudimentary math problems, as they can count up to five and have a basic understanding of quantity. They perceive time, both past and present events, and they have the ability to anticipate future events.
Chickens also have a sense of self-control, as evident from a recent study that provided chickens with the choice to either (1) peck a key and receive food after two seconds, or (2) peck a different key and receive even more food after six seconds. Many of the chickens chose the latter, which indicates that they were willing to give up an immediate reward in anticipation of a larger, less-immediate reward. This all demonstrates that chickens have the capacity for self-control.
Chickens have a relatively high level of emotional complexity, as evident by their interactions with other chickens and humans. For instance, chickens have between 24-30 different calls that they use to communicate with one another in different scenarios, with research suggesting an “adaptive plasticity in the structure of chicken aerial alarm calls.” Chickens also display advanced social cognition through their hierarchies. They are able to bond not only with other chickens, but they also bond with humans and with other animals. When not imprisoned on farms, chickens remember and bond with their caregivers, and they have the capacity to recognize over one hundred different human faces. They also remember other animals they meet, such as dog and pig friends. Another amazing fact about chickens is that they experience rapid-eye-movement during sleep, which indicates that they, like humans, have the ability to dream! Individual chickens have their own unique personalities, dreams, and emotionally rich lives.
Contemporary research on chicken cognition paints a portrait of chickens that is unfamiliar to most of us. Chickens are undoubtedly smarter than we give them credit for, and they display many of the same emotions and feelings that humans do. So, the next time you encounter a chicken, remember that her life is just as enriching and complex as the lives of other animals!
Chickens on Today’s Factory Farms
Every year in the U.S., 9.3 billion chickens are killed by the animal agriculture industry. There are two different breeds of chickens that are raised and killed on farms: “broilers” and “layers.” Chickens of both breeds are subjected to terrible harm, all so that humans can eat their eggs and flesh. Whether chickens are used for their eggs or their flesh, they all end up in the same slaughterhouse, where they are killed in painful ways, given that poultry (e.g., chickens and turkey) are not protected by the Humane Slaughter Act, which requires that animals be rendered unconscious before being slaughtered. For example, broiler chickens are often killed by being hung upside down and electrocuted while they are fully conscious. Sometimes they are stuffed through a tunnel face first and their throats are slashed, all while they are fully conscious.
“Broiler” chickens are raised for their flesh. In the U.S., approximately 9 billion “broilers” are killed every year. Used during large-scale industrial farming operations, “broilers” are, for their entire lives, forced to live in highly cramped spaces (sheds or cages), with little to no room to move or even spread their wings. Because chickens naturally have a hierarchy, the intensive confinement and overcrowded conditions of factory farms causes mass confusion and stress, and, as a result, chickens will often peck one another, which often results in death.
To prevent them from pecking at each other, which causes financial loss, farmers cut off 1/3 to 2/3 of each bird’s sensitive beak, a painful processing known as “debeaking.” The farmers use a hot blade that cuts through a complex of a horn, bone, and sensitive tissue, which causes severe pain to the chickens, who aren’t provided with any pain relief. Because the tip of a chicken’s beak contains more sensory receptors than any other area of the beak, the debeaking practice is incredibly painful and some chickens die from shock immediately after they are debeaked.
The pain that “broiler” chickens endure doesn’t stop with painful mutilations. They are also genetically manipulated and given growth-hormones so that they become fat quickly. In the past, chickens used to get as big as 2.5 pounds, but, in the modern era, “broiler” chickens usually average around 6.3 pounds. As a result, their body weight is too heavy for their bodies to handle, and this prevents them from walking and often causes injury and excruciating pain. Some of these “Fraken-chickens” die from organ failure and heart attacks.
The stench of chicken farms is overwhelming; once inside, you can’t miss the repugnant smell of dead chickens atop their own feces and the high concentrations of ammonia. Because the conditions in which they live are so filthy, chickens are pumped full of antibiotics, which leads to antibiotic resistance in humans.
Chickens used specifically for eggs are often called “breeders” or “layers.” In the U.S., approximately 300 million hens are caged for egg production each year. Because male chicks can’t lay eggs, they are useless to the egg industry. Consequently, approximately 250 million male chicks are killed every year, usually by either being ground up alive or suffocated to death in trash bags.
The majority (95%) of egg-laying hens are confined to battery cages for their entire lives. These cages usually hold between 5-10 birds, and, on average, each hen is afforded only 66-67 square inches of cage space. Imagine being confined for 18-24 months to an area that’s smaller than a single sheet of letter-sized paper (a standard sheet of paper measures 94 square inches)! To prevent pecking, egg-laying hens are debeaked, too.
In addition to enduring perhaps the worst kind of intensive confinement, egg-laying hens suffer tremendously when they are forced to “molt.” Forced molting is a practice that involves keeping hens in low lighting and starving them or severely restricting their food rations for 7-14 days to artificially cause them to lay eggs when their egg-production naturally decreases. And, of course, once these hens are no longer capable of laying eggs, they are sent to slaughter– a process which is itself terrifying and painful!