I’m part of a small ethno-ornithological research group looking at the propagation of fire in the Australian savanna grasslands by two species of raptors. As part of that project we are examining various aspects of bird behaviour, including avian tool use and cognition.

A lot has been written about bird behaviour—usually looking at individual species and specific aspects of their behaviour and cognition—so I was pleased to come across a (very) recent paper linked at the Ethnoornithology Facebook group page by Lori Marino of the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy entitled Thinking chickens: a review of cognition, emotion, and behaviour in the domestic chicken. 

Thinking chickens examines:

… the peer-reviewed scientific data on the leading edge of cognition, emotions, personality, and sociality in chickens, exploring such areas as self-awareness, cognitive bias, social learning and self-control, and comparing their abilities in these areas with other birds and other vertebrates, particularly mammals.

Just as many of us are sadly so removed from nature that we no longer associate milk as coming from cows, and so it is for too many of us with chickens, where “chicken” is something comes in a box from a fast food store, or, the end product of these frankly delicious—I made a bunch last weekend—recipes for fried chicken from the New York Times.

Thinking Chickens has two primary purposes:

… first, to gain a better understanding of the minds of chickens from the best scientific literature, separating fact from fiction; two, to identify compelling areas for future noninvasive research. Moreover, as with any taxonomic group, species-specific factors, such as evolutionary history and sensory abilities, need to be taken into account in order to interpret findings on cognition, emotion, sociality, and other characteristics and to make better informed comparisons across taxa.

Thinking Chickens examines a number of examples of ‘complex cognitive, emotional, communicative, and social behaviour in domestic chickens’ and makes a compelling case for further directed research in a number of areas. Marino argues that these capacities are similar to those seen in other taxa considered as ‘highly intelligent,’ including that:

1.Chickens possess a number of visual and spatial capacities, arguably dependent upon mental representation, such as some aspects of Stage four object permanence and illusory contours, on a par with other birds and mammals.

2.Chickens possess some understanding of numerosity and share some very basic arithmetic capacities with other animals.

3.Chickens can demonstrate self-control and self-assessment, and these capacities may indicate self-awareness.

4.Chickens communicate in complex ways, including through referential communication, which may depend upon some level of self-awareness and the ability to take the perspective of another animal. This capacity, if present in chickens, would be shared with other highly intelligent and social species, including primates.

5.Chickens have the capacity to reason and make logical inferences. For example, chickens are capable of simple forms of transitive inference, a capability that humans develop at approximately the age of seven.

6.Chickens perceive time intervals and may be able to anticipate future events.

7.Chickens are behaviourally sophisticated, discriminating among individuals, exhibiting Machiavellian-like social interactions, and learning socially in complex ways that are similar to humans.

8.Chickens have complex negative and positive emotions, as well as a shared psychology with humans and other ethologically complex animals. They exhibit emotional contagion and some evidence for empathy.

9.Chickens have distinct personalities, just like all animals who are cognitively, emotionally, and behaviourally complex individuals.

You can read the full Thinking Chickens paper at Animal Cognition here and see more about the work of the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy at either their Facebook page or website.

You can find out more about our “Troublemakers for Fire” project on ornithogenic fire propagation here and here.