Chicken vs. Chimp
For years, the popular misconception that birds are unintelligent has been bolstered by pseudo-scientific claims that avian brains are built in a way that renders birds incapable of learning. Recent studies have shown just how profoundly misguided this perception is. The prominent avian physiologist Lesley Rogers is credited with the discovery that bird brains, like those of humans, exhibit “lateralization” (they are divided into two hemispheres with different specialties), leading her to conclude that, far from being mere “creatures of instinct” as had been previously assumed, “birds have cognitive capacities equivalent to those of mammals, even primates.”1 Rogers’ research has shown that although birds lack a neocortex (the highly developed outer portion of mammalian brains), the proliferation of tissue in a different part of birds’ brains, the paleocortex, may account for these strong cognitive abilities.2
What this means in practice is that although birds are denied legal protection from abuse in the poultry industry due to a perceived lack of intelligence, the truth is that they have a capacity for learning that is equivalent (and in some areas superior) to that of most mammals. Experiments have shown that chickens and turkeys have extremely sophisticated memories that allow them to recognize and remember details about hundreds of individuals from their flocks.3 And recent studies of chickens have proved that they are aware of an object’s continued existence even when it has been removed from view4 (an ability that eludes young human children) and that they are capable of exhibiting patience—forgoing an immediate reward when they know that doing so will result in a greater reward later on.5 As the ethologist Peter Marler has observed, when it comes to intelligence, there are more similarities than differences between birds and primates.6
Together with empirical data showing that chickens and turkeys are social animals with individual personalities and a rich vocabulary of expression that registers both pain and pleasure in abundance, the methods of modern poultry farms—by far the most intensive agricultural procedures in history—are disturbing to say the least.
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- 1. Lesley Rogers, The Development of Brain and Behavior in the Chicken (New York: CABI Publishing, 1996).
- 2. ibid.
- 3. William M. Healy, The Wild Turkey: Biology and Management (Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1992).
- 4. William Grimes, “If Chickens Are So Smart, Why Aren’t They Eating Us?” The New York Times, January 12, 2003.
- 5. Jennifer Viegas, “Study: Chickens Think About Future,” Discovery News, July 14, 2005.
- 6. Peter Marler, “Social Cognition: Are Primates Smarter Than Birds?” in Current Ornithology, Vol. 13, ed. Val Nolan, Jr., and Ellen D. Ketterson, (New York: Plenum Press, 1996).