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