If you've ever been pressed up against total strangers in a crowded elevator, you may have an inkling of what life is like for egg-laying hens in factory farms around the world.
Even sharing that crammed elevator with friends would get old real fast. So imagine eight hens jammed into a battery cage, each with less than a sheet of paper’s worth of space on which to live. It’s a bleak, torturous existence—made all the more so when you consider the smarts, skills, and potential of these intelligent birds.
Yes, that's right: intelligent.
Scientists have just begun to scratch the surface when it comes to understanding bird brains. But already, studies have shown remarkable cognitive abilities in the world’s most intensively farmed animal. Like humans, chickens recognize one another. They take cues from one another. They look to their mothers for guidance and they have a sense of time.
Heck, they've even moved on to geometry.
Not Greek, chicken speak: Chickens communicate with more than 24 vocalizations, each with a different meaning.
Even before hatching, chicks are talking to their mother. Stress peeps tell her they're cold, prompting her to turn or move the egg in the nest. A purring-like sound lets her know they're comfortable. By the time they hatch, they know mom’s voice.
Live, teach, learn: Hens actively teach their young skills such as foraging and avoiding predators.
When mom sends out her food call, her chicks respond by pecking at the ground. In one study, hens learned that red-colored food was good while their chicks were given blue-colored food. When the hens saw their chicks eating the wrong color, they began scratching, pecking, and vocalizing to convey the perceived error. Notes Shields: "It's one of the true teaching examples that we have data for in the animal kingdom."
Chicks also learn alarm calls from mom, an important lesson as they stray farther from her side. "Her chicks know the call and come running," says Jonathan Balcombe, an animal behavior scientist at the Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy. "And she shelters them under her wings."
Chicken see, chicken do: Chickens are sharp observational learners.
In one study, chicks avoided pecking a bitter-tasting substance after observing the responses of other chicks. In another study, untrained hens pecked at colored keys for food after observing a trained hen do the same.
The HSUS’s Dave Pauli, who has been rescuing chickens for 20 years, says it doesn’t take long for new arrivals to fall in line. They follow other hens as he calls "bak-bak-bak" for feeding time, while another call—a rolling "B" sound, made with his tongue—corrals them into the coop. "It only takes about two days to learn the routine, not necessarily from me but also from the other chickens." When Pauli lays out deep wood ash for dust bathing, the newbies stand off to the side. "They watch the experienced hens walk in and lie down, fluff their wings out, and lie on their side to get that dust everywhere on their body." Only then will the new hens take their turn.
Old friends, new friends: Chickens have a knack for remembering people, places, and things, even after months apart.
Albert Chickenstein: Chickens are capable of solving complex problems, counting, and using geometry.
And they start young. In one test, 5-day-old chicks showed off their ability to identify a target based on its numerical place in a series of 10. The young birds were presented with a row of identical holes, one of which contained food. When the apparatus was rotated, they were still able to return to the designated hole.
In one clicker-training program, chickens were taught to consistently peck at one of four unique geometric shapes—even as the order of shapes changed. When the target shape was removed, they waited to peck. Pauli's hens put geometry into action as they seemingly predict where grasshoppers are going to land when hunting them. "They don't run to catch the grasshopper in flight but rather run to where it's going to land," he says. "And they do this with precision."
Best-laid plans: Chickens plan ahead and take into account prior experience and knowledge of a situation.
They can also anticipate the future and exhibit self-control, as shown in one study in which chickens sacrificed an immediate reward for a food jackpot if they waited to eat.
Celestial navigators: Chickens can use the sun as a compass.
This ability helps them locate food, water, and safe perches and gives them a keen sense of time. After being taught to wait six minutes for food, study groups of chickens were consistently there pecking at the feeder around the elapsed time. At the Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch in Texas, operated by HSUS affiliate The Fund for Animals, director of operations Arturo Padron remembers how 600 broiler chicks rescued from a factory farm after Hurricane Katrina recognized their primary caregiver. If she was even a little late for their feeding, they cheeped madly until their feeders were full.
But because broiler chickens are genetically selected to grow obese very quickly—before being killed for their meat—none of the chicks survived a year. Their bodies became too big to roam outside or enjoy the perch that staff had built inside their coop. "They were so big and their little legs were getting all deformed," Padron remembers. "They couldn’t use them anymore."