Interview with Chicken Ethologist Dr. Giorgio Vallortigara, University of Trento, Italy


Could you please give the lay people in our audience a brief overview of your studies of chickens and the results your studies have yielded?

Basically, I use the young domestic chicks to investigate the origins of knowledge; I’m interested in core knowledge abilities like number, space, time and cause, and I am trying to clarify how much of these abilities are already available at birth, before interactions with objects of the world may have shaped them through learning and experience. We found that indeed newly hatched chicks do possess surprisingly sophisticated abilities at birth, they know about basic principles of physics (such as solidity), could perform basic arithmetic (with small numerousness), they can deal with the geometry of enclosed surfaces to orient and navigate… and show several others abilities. Interestingly, some of these abilities seem also apparent precociously in the behavior of human newborns. We are now investigating the underlying brain mechanisms of these mental capabilities.


What caused you to start studying chickens specifically?  What interested you about them?

I needed a model in which experience can be controlled for precisely and behavioural testing can be done very early. Chicks are a precocial species, and thus are perfect in this regard. Soon after hatching they are mature enough from a sensory and motor point of view to allow experimenters to carry on sophisticated cognitive tests.


Had you interacted with chickens much before beginning your studies?  What was your opinion of chickens before you started working with them?   What, if anything, surprised you about chickens’ mental functions?

I remembered to have been looking at them as a child when visiting farms during the week ends or during holidays with my parents. I liked them but, frankly, I could not have imagined they should have been the companions of my scientific life…

I can’t say I was really surprised by their mental capacities. In these years I worked with a variety of animals, from fish to dogs, from bees to chimpanzees. My feeling is that minds are everywhere in the natural world, though they are apparent as different kinds of minds.


This exhibit asks three main questions: How do we as a society view chickens?  How do we treat chickens?  And who are chickens really?  How would you personally answer those questions?

Well, to answer succinctly to your first two questions, I suspect that, among domesticated species, chickens are probably the most exploited and the less respected. Chickens, I believe, are quite fascinating animals, with a rich social life and the same basic cognitive abilities of other birds and mammals with similar eco-ethological characteristics.


Do you see any ethical implications of your studies?  Do you think we as a culture should change our view and/or treatment of chickens?

Frankly, no I do not see any particular ethical implication from my research. I believe we should treat animals humanely irrespective of their mental capacities. I would urge people to treat chickens with respect even if they were not intelligent as they are.


Do you have any stories from your experience with chickens that you think would illustrate who chickens are to the public?

I have a funny story that illustrates perhaps how humans look at mental capacities. Usually, after our cognitive tests we donate our chicks to local farmers. Years ago I had a student working in my lab whose uncle was a farmer. So the chicks for a period were donated to his uncle and the student had the opportunity to look at the chicks’ development. He noticed, much to his surprise, that male chicks coming from the lab tended to became the dominant ones in the groups when adults. His uncle however had an explanation for this, he commented: “Of course, they are clever, they attended to the university!” The correct explanation was in fact more trivial, alas. We have got our eggs from hatchery that raised broiler chickens, selected to grow up very rapidly, and much more rapidly and efficiently than the indigenous strains available to the uncle of my student.

In Giorgio Vallortigara's studies, chicks are imprinted on various objects so they will follow them, the way they would follow their mother.  This allows the chicks to demonstrate their ability to count, add, subtract, and understand simple geometry.
This chick has been imprinted on a red triangle.  By consistently favoring the image on the left, the chick demonstrates the ability to identify the triangle even when partially obstructed.  This understanding helps a chick recognize and follow his mother, even if she is obstructed behind vegetation.  This ability is beyond human infants.
Giorgio Vallortigara's studies have demonstrated that chicks can count and perform simple addition and subtraction at only a few days of age.
Giorgio Vallortigara's studies have also demonstrated that chicks understand that an object is the same even if partially or fully hidden, a concept beyond human infants.
A chick can recognize a pattern of lights in the basic shape of a hen moving consistenly with a hen's movements.  The chick will not respond to scrambled light movements.
In Spanish and Italian.

Thoughtful Birds

Chickens (and to a lesser extent) birds in general—have historically been dismissed as unintelligent, operating primarily by instinct.  However, in recent years, scientists have developed a new understanding of the avian brain and have realized that birds are not the “birdbrains” we once thought.  
Dr. Giorgio Vallortigara, Director of the Center for Mind/Brain Sciences at the University of Trento, Italy discusses the importance of filial imprinting and the problem solving abilities of chicks. 
This video is an excerpt from “Thoughtful Birds in Action: Mental Feats the Avian Way,” produced by A Question of Balance, a grassroots environmental radio show from a Sydney, Australia community radio station, reproduced here with permission.  This video presents compelling footage from ethological studies by leading researchers from Italy, New Zealand and Australia that demonstrate the complex higher cognitive abilities of birds. 

Chick Demonstrates Understanding of Basic Arithmetic in Giorgio Vallortigara's Studies

In his studies, Giorgio Vallortigara has found that newly hatched chicks understand basic principles of physics (such as solidity), can perform basic arithmetic (with small numerousness), and can use the geometry of enclosed surfaces to orient and navigate. The chick in this video has been imprinted on the yellow canisters, with the idea that s/he will want to go toward the larger group of them. S/he watches a researcher place canisters behind the screens, four on one side, one on the other. The researcher then moves one canister from the group of four to behind the other screen, so that the groups contain two and three canisters, respectively. The chick, who cannot see the final groups of canisters behind the opaque screens, is now released. S/he heads directly toward the group of three, indicating that s/he has kept track of the canisters' locations and recognises which screen covers the larger number of canisters.