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Chickens Know More Than We Think

By Theodosia Burr

Did you know that chickens worry about the future?  I'm worried about chickens worrying.  But what worries me the most is that most people do not worry about chickens at all.

A recent sobering sight on the freeway brought the truth home to me. I noticed a smell outside the bus I was on and looked over to see flatbed truck passing on the left. It was stacked high and long with crates of chickens. But these chickens weren’t happily pecking about in their boxes. They were trussed, lying on their sides, with their feet sticking outside the crates.

Directly outside my window, I could inside the crates, only a few feet away. The chickens were on their sides…they were not sleeping, but in fact were wide awake, with panicked, staring eyes…I knew that they KNEW trouble was on its way. It was a horrible sight, but I couldn’t look away. My eyes stayed glued to that truck as it moved down the highway, and my last memory of it was a view of all those little yellow legs sticking out from the sides, and those little yellows legs bumping away on a road that lead them to a certain death.

“Slave ship,” the thought popped into my mind as I watched the truck exit the highway, “that’s nothing but a slave ship.” And indeed, those animals with their legs tied together, being carried to a destiny they had no control over, truly reminded me of all the first-person accounts I had read of slave ships.

Although I don’t consider myself an animal rights activist, the term “animal slaves” that is used so often by animal rights organizations certainly seemed appropriate in this instance…and that appropriateness was numbing in its implications after I read a recent publication in the journal Animal Behavior.

A research team from the Biophysics Group at Silsoe Research Institute in England has determined that chickens have a concept of the future. Prior to this publication, scientists believed only humans and other primates had the concept of time existing beyond the present moment. But not so any longer…we now know that chickens can anticipate the future.

Researchers used a simple method of food reward to ascertain this truth. If a hen pecked on a colored button, they received a food reward. If the hen waited a couple of seconds, they received a small amount of food. But if they waited for 22 seconds, they received a much larger amount. Over 90% of the hens held out for the big reward.

The anatomical structure of the chicken brain is much more complex than most people think. Previous studies show that the organization of the neurons in the chicken brain is highly structured. This sophisticated arrangement of the brain implies that, like humans, a high level of intelligence has evolved--an intelligence that helps them survive.

Although we don’t know the exact thoughts of chickens, the concept of the future and the complex brain structure suggests that chickens are intelligent enough to worry.

More than 40 billion birds worldwide are raised for human consumption…and if chickens can worry about what happens to them, that’s something to consider before you bite into a drumstick.

The choice to eat or not to eat chicken is, of course, a personal one. But for me, there’s no question. The slave ship of yellow legs, and the thought of contributing to it, has stopped me from eating chicken in any form…and although I always bought eggs laid by cage-free hens, eggs have also made the I-won’t-eat-it list.

Yes, I’m worried about chickens worrying…and it worries me that more people won’t be worrying about it as well.

Source: Animal Behaviour

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