Chickens Are Smarter Than Toddlers

At the tender age of two weeks, a chicken can already navigate just by looking at the sun. Two weeks old and they get astronomy.

We often dismiss birds’ abilities and consciousness for two reasons. One is that they aren’t mammals, making it that much harder to empathize with them or to imagine much is going on in their little feathered heads.

The other is that people want to eat them. It’s easier to eat someone if you believe she wasn’t aware of much. The closer to vegetable she is, the easier to fry. (Ironically, most Americans eschew actual vegetables.) Chicken expert Siobhan Abeyesinghe sums it up: “we have this psychological shielding to devalue animals we use for meat so we feel less concern about them.”

Meat eaters who psychologically shield in that way should avoid information about a new study headed by Bristol University’s Christine Nicol. The study, “The Intelligent Hen,” concluded that domesticated chickens have sophisticated mental abilities, many of them beyond the capacities of children under four. The birds understand much more than we think they do. “Studies over the past 20 years have revealed their finely honed sensory capacities, their ability to think, draw inferences, apply logic and plan ahead,” Nicol says. “It takes a chick just a few hours to develop its representational and numerical abilities in comparison to the months and years it takes a human child to do anything comparable.”

The Telegraph summarized the study’s findings.

  • Math/Logic: Chickens understand the transitive property (if A is greater than B and B is greater than C, than A is greater than C).
  • Engineering: They understand when a diagram depicts something that is not physically possible and are more interested in realistic diagrams.
  • Physics: Young chicks understand object permanence (that an object still exists even when they can’t see it). Humans don’t get this until they are a year old, which perhaps is why babies find peek-a-boo endlessly surprising.
  • Planning Ahead/Self Control: In an experiment where chickens who waited longer to start eating got longer access to the food, the birds waited. Depending on what food we’re talking about this is more self-control than I have, and I am considerably older than a toddler.

Chickens also understand that they are living individuals. Last year an Australian study reported that chickens have “primitive self-consciousness” comparable to that of higher primates and human newborns. The study also concluded that they have good memories and confirmed Nicol’s finding that chickens have “the ability to resist immediate gratification for a later benefit.”

The lead researcher of the Australian study, Andy Lamey, even asserted that “it is relatively uncontroversial to ascribe greater cognitive abilities to chickens than to [human] newborns.” Because their self-consciousness gives them an interest in staying alive, Lamey considers it “morally indefensible” to kill and eat the birds.

I think I’m justified in extrapolating from there that chickens also have an interest in not suffering, as they undeniably do when crowded together to the point of immobility in small cages for their entire lives so farmers can sell their eggs.

So what is our justification for eating them and their eggs? Psychologically shielded folks — you got anything?

Didn’t think so.


Photo credit: iStockphoto/Thinkstock


Diane L.
Diane L.3 years ago

Once again, Mark, you are absolutely, completely off base and incorrect. I insulted nobody, but pointed out the fact that the writer here can't tell the difference between a chicken and a duck. Where did I call her any names? Many other members have. I said only that the article is silly and not factual. That's not insulting anyone. I've DISAGREED with comments made by a couple of other members when their facts were incorrect, and again, that is not insulting. State one instance of my insulting anyone or calling anyone else any name. You, on the other hand, came in here and accused me of "embarrassing jealousy of chickens" and then went on with your usual and typical insulting me because I am not vegan and I don't think chickens are the brightest bulbs in the pack. Now, I HAVE said that chickens were "dumb" and as far as I know, chickens aren't members here and can't flag what I say as being "inappropriate". Give it a rest.

Mark D.
Mark D.3 years ago

Actually, DianeL, if you took a look at your own posts, there's plenty of insults and personal attack strewn throughout those posts and not only to me either, but to all those that disagree with your views of slaughtering animals as what you insist is the acceptable thing to do, so I wouldn't be throwing those "last freebie" insinuations at me until you sit down and "consider" all the freebies others have been giving you.

Diane L.
Diane L.3 years ago

Actually, Mark, consider this latest personal attack your last "freebie". I forgot that you insulted me in a very excessive way in another C2 discussion just a day or so ago. You can't seem to help yourself. I don't know why you single me out to insult, but you do and it will not be tolerated in the least anymore.

Diane L.
Diane L.3 years ago

Mark D., I'm hardly jealous of anyone who is so ignorant that they can't distinguish the difference between a chicken and a duck. I've also not insulted anyone, including you. If you think chickens are so highly intelligent, maybe you'd like to enlighten those of us who have them, and explain to all of us what your own expertise is, rather than just rant and insult others. I will tell you this...........if you continue to come into C2 only every few months with no other agenda than to seek out what I've posted and hurl insults at me, by name, your posts will be "flagged" and sent to Customer Support to address. I'm pretty sick and tired of your attempts to bully and harass me, personally. At first, it was just amusing, then boring. You have crossed the line so many times, it's pathetic and you should seek help for your anger & hostilities. You resort to personal attacks rather than post anything on the topic, and that is clearly violating C2's Code of Conduct.

Mark D.
Mark D.3 years ago

DianeL you should deal with the problem of your embarassing jealousy of chickens, since they clearly have more intelligence and awareness than you can handle. It's not hard to notice that the perpetrators and condoners of violence without fail will constantly denigrate and stereotype and insult their victims to make themselves feel better about themselves

Sheri D.
Sheri D.3 years ago

thank you

Carrie-Anne Brown

thanks for sharing :)

Diane L.
Diane L.3 years ago

David V., you're right but chickens are animals only in a technical sense. They ARE quite dumb birds. I cleaned my hens' coop today and scrubbed their water container to refill. When I went to put it back, some of the water spilled onto my tennis shoes & the dumb birds started pecking at my feet and were quite persistent about it. They will peck at most anything and everything, including each other.

Now, "smarter than a toddler" makes little sense. In reality, I've known some adults who, in my opinion were "DUMBER than rocks", and reading some comments in C2, well..................????

David V.
David V.3 years ago

animals are way smarter than we give them credit for.....

Diane L.
Diane L.3 years ago

Bernadett, we're discussing CHICKENS here, (well, the author seems to think chickens quack and have founded bills), and not puppies. In case you ween't aware, puppies can walk at a day or so of age, and they can bite as soon as they get teeth, and when they're eyes open (are human babies born with their eyes shut?) they can pretty much get around without their parent's help. By one year of age, they're considered adults.

Chickens actually mature faster than that. My hens were hatchlings when I got them the 3rd week of March and basically, they are full grown now. I doubt many humans grow as fast in 3 months! The writer is attempting to compare I.Q. and brain function. I'm sure your puppy understood "sit, down, stay" and my children, when toddlers understood "Open up" (for being fed, and many other words. My hens, on the other hand, understand the sight of me approaching with a bucket of feed or to clean their waterer. It's called "instinct" and/or reaction.