Chickens exhibit Machiavellian tendencies, new research shows

Illustration by Matt Golding

Chickens are just as intelligent as many of their feathered friends, demonstrate thinking skills on par with mammals and primates, and even exhibit Machiavellian tendencies, a US scientist has discovered.

A new study, published in the journal Animal Cognition, has reviewed previous research to find that, despite popular belief, chickens are intelligent and emotional animals with individual personalities.

“Chickens are behaviourally sophisticated, discriminating among individuals, exhibiting Machiavellian-like social interactions, and learning socially in complex ways that are similar to humans,” the report revealed.

They were found to be masters of manipulation and counter-strategies, with males making false food calls to attract nearby females, and females eventually ignoring those who made false alerts too often.

Author Loro Marino, a senior scientist at The Someone Project, a venture focused on changing public perceptions of farm animals, said that chickens exhibit logical reasoning that humans do not develop until the age of seven.

“Unlike many other birds, chickens are categorised as a commodity, devoid of authenticity as a real animal. But chickens have the capacity to reason and make logical inferences. They perceive time intervals and may be able to anticipate future events,” he said.

The farmyard bird was found to exhibit social awareness; capable of waiting for a better food reward, and recognising their status in the pecking order.

They also have distinct personalities, with mother hens exhibiting different “maternal styles”, thought to influence the behaviour of their chicks, and have a complex system of communication, consisting of a wide range of visual displays and at least 24 different vocalisations.

Dr Marino said that the scientific literature on chickens has historically been skewed by dominant perceptions of the bird as “cognitively simple”, almost exclusively focusing on their potential as a food source.

“Chickens are misperceived as lacking most of the psychological characteristics we recognise in other intelligent animals and are typically thought of as possessing a low level of intelligence compared with other animals,” he said.

Many scientists think that corvids – the family of birds that includes crows, ravens, rooks and jays – may be among the most intelligent animals on earth, based on their ability to solve problems, make tools and apparently consider both possible future events and other individuals’ states of mind.

Meanwhile, songbirds can be trained to understand non-language aspects of human speech, a study has found.

And who can forget goats? The quickly learn how to solve complex tasks and have excellent long-term memories, scientists say.

As published in the Sydney Morning Herald, January 2017. Read the full story here

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