How much thought do you give to the lowly chicken?

By Megan McGrath

chickensProbably not much, besides as a pale cellophane-wrapped piece of meat to be slipped into the frying pan for dinner (or to be avoided, if you are the sort of person who avoids chicken for dinner). And when cracking eggs for an omelette breakfast, who among us remembers the beast the egg came from—or that might come from it?

Spend a few hours with a farmer’s flock of dirt-scratching chickens, however, and you will find these charismatic birds hard to forget. A small troupe of free-range chickens is a hopping, flapping, muttering flurry of colorful plumage and head-bobbing motion. A chicken may stalk and pounce upon a waving blade of grass as a predator, or stand alert and cock its head toward a distant sound as a prey animal that fears ambush. They are a species whose domesticated lives are inextricably bound with our own.

On the October 26 edition of the Thinking Animals lecture series, Drs. Joseph Barber and Mark Hauber, both professors at Hunter College, led a discussion on these intriguing birds. Barber and Hauber recently made contributions to the new book The Chicken: A Natural History.

Why study the chicken, argue Dr. Barber and Dr. Hauber? Because it is a complex, fascinating organism, and there is far more to a chicken than the sum of its uses to us—though its uses to humans are indeed considerable. Chickens are, of course, used for their meat and eggs, and we eat a lot of them. “Right now there could be over 20 billion chickens on Earth,” said Dr. Barber—they vastly outnumber humans, and the chicken industry is a vast and profitable one. Despite this, continued Barber, “When it comes down to it, we don’t know an awful lot about chickens. We assume that we do, but we don’t.”

So what do we know about chickens? When left to their own devices, chickens are a highly social animal that live in flocks. They spend much of their time foraging for food, socializing with other chickens, and watching out for predators that could eat them—and their brains are adapted to this lifestyle. Fetal chickens develop entirely in their eggs, and in the last day before hatching the almost-chicks peep to their mothers, inciting her to turn the eggs and expose different sides to light. This differential light exposure affects the chicks’ brain development so that it is lateralized. The left side of the chick brain becomes specialized for foraging, so the right eye and right foot are used thereafter for close examination of the ground for food. The right side of the chick brain, on the other hand, becomes more adept at wide-range sensory sweeping, for socializing with other chickens or scanning for predators, so that chickens will “look out” with their left eyes. If you ever have a chance to hang out with chickens, maybe you will see this lateralization: the right eye peering at the ground for food, and the left eye scanning the horizon when the chicken is alert.

While still in the egg, the baby chicks also chirp to each other, so as to coordinate the time of hatching. Once hatched, like many birds, the brood imprints on their mother, and follow her around throughout their juvenile period. Scientists have found that chicks can be tricked into imprinting on other things—but only on objects that have eyes, or that move biologically, as if alive, and they do indeed prefer things that move like chickens. Fresh out of their eggs, these chicks know what “alive” looks like, they know what “chicken” looks like, and they can discern between individuals. They can even discern between different humans, and between different types of predators: like many animals, chickens have referential alarm calls, which are distinct cries that tell their flock-mates whether to look out for a fox, or a hawk, or a two-legged, threatening man.

When asked about the process of contributing to the new book The Chicken, Dr. Hauber said, “Contributing to this book was particularly interesting. I’m an avian behaviorist, and anybody who studies avian behavior knows a ton about chickens because all the basic bird experiments have been done on chickens. We all have an image of chickens being these simple animals, but really they’re anything but. When you really consider the chicken you can start to see them in a more interesting way. It was exciting to go back to the basics like this, and find that chickens themselves are incredibly complex animals, and we can really learn a huge amount about behavior from them.”

Most of the time, of course, we treat chickens as a commodity. It can perhaps be easier to ignore the fascinating facts of a chicken’s intelligence and nuanced social life. So next time you come across one of these birds—whether it be in your neighbor’s backyard, or on your dinner table—take a moment to acknowledge the lowly chicken, who is perhaps not so lowly after all.

Megan McGrath is a writer and student studying animal behavior and conservation in New York.