Interview with Chicken Ethologist Dr. K-Lynn Smith, Macquarie University, Australia
Could you please give the laypeople in our audience a brief overview of your studies of chickens and the results your studies have yielded?
A little background about domestic chickens: all chickens are descended for wild red jungle fowl. These birds evolved in the dense forests of China and Indonesia. Groups of males and females lived in long-term stable social groups and both sexes had a dominance hierarchy. Domestic chickens have retained many of the behaviors of their wild ancestors including complex communication, individual recognition of each other by their faces and voices, and the ability to behave deceptively. I’m going to focus here on their communication.
Chickens use over 24 different types of vocalization. Many of the sounds and visual displays they produce are not simply a reflexive or automatic response but depend upon the context and the identity of the other individuals that are around them at the time. Moreover, some of the sounds and behaviors refer specifically to important events, such as the presence of food or predators. These vocalizations are so specific that the sound alone is sufficient for the listener to respond appropriately. Their ability to communicate about their world is actually more sophisticated than that of some primate species.
Let’s take the example of what happens when a male finds a high-quality food item in the presence of a female. He starts by giving a series of staccato calls and bobbing his head up and down using his beak to point towards the food. He’ll often pick it up and drop it repeatedly, suppressing the urge to eat the tasty morsel. The female usually responds by approaching and taking the food from him. Why should a male give up food for the female? The reason is that females prefer to mate with the male that provides the most food. (As an aside, females eavesdrop on the male’s interactions with other females and remember which ones are the best providers overall for the whole group, not just for her.)
As you might imagine, this creates competition between the males to display for the females. Within a group, there is a dominant male, who attempts to control the behavior of the other males, and several subordinates. If a subordinate displays with food and the dominant male hears him, the dominant male will rush over and attack the subordinate, causing him to drop the food. The dominant will then display for the female and feed her. To avoid being attacked and losing his food, subordinates often just do the visual display without making a sound. The hen sees the display, recognizes that the subordinate has food, and takes the food from him. This sneaky behavior allows the subordinate to feed a hen while avoiding the punishment from the dominant male.
But that’s not all. Some males will call and display when they haven’t found food ‘hoping’ that the female will still approach him. He can then court her (using a display called waltzing) or even attempt to force copulate with her (not everything in the chicken world is nice). So females also remember which males call without food and stop responding to them. This shows that females track the male’s reputation for honesty.
Furthermore, if the hen has already found food in the area, she will ignore the male’s calls because the information is not useful. This suggests that the calls may form a mental representation of that event in the mind of the receiver. Of course, if the male is alone or there’s only another male around, the male may give a few brief calls, in case there’s a female out of sight, but then eats the food himself. Males don’t share with other males.
Their behavior in the face of dangerous predators is just as surprising. Rather than keeping quiet, they use vocalizations that indicate the type of predator present and how threatening it is. The type of call they make is also tailored to the predators’ hunting strategy. Ground predators hunt by stealth so both males and females make loud calls that alert their flock mates as well as deterring the predator from continuing the hunt. In contrast, aerial predators hunt by speed so staying hidden is important. Under these circumstances only males (most often the dominant) and hens with chicks are willing to take the risk of calling. This is because they have the most at stake. If a male warns his mate, then she and his offspring are more likely to survive. Again, calling is not reflexive. Males take into account which other individuals are in the area as well as their own risk before calling. Perhaps most surprisingly, males also appear to recognize if calling would put their rival male in danger and are more likely to call if it will put the rival at risk.
This suggests that the male not only keeps track of his mating success but also his own risk of being caught and the location and presence of other males when determining how he will respond to a threat. I should emphasize that these aren’t Rudyard Kipling’s “Just So” stories. We rigorously experimentally test each behavior and each context to determine how and when the calls are used. We use techniques such as 3D animation and high-definition video and high-fidelity audio to simulate the natural interactions under controlled conditions. We also deploy remote cameras and microphones so that we can eavesdrop on the birds’ interactions without changing their behavior.
What caused you to start studying chickens specifically? What interested you about them?
I’ve always been intrigued by the idea that higher cognitive abilities (like language and social contracts) evolved from the pressure of living as part of a social group. Chickens have all the hallmarks of a species (stable social groups, dominance hierarchy, diverse array of vocalizations, etc) that should exhibit higher cognitive abilities and were therefore the prefect study animal. When I started, I had no idea how complex their lives could be and how endearing and intriguing they would be.
Had you interacted with chickens much before beginning your studies? What was your opinion of chickens before you started working with them?
I grew up in suburban Maryland, USA. I had contact with the usual household pets (dogs, cats, budgies, hamsters) and other animals, like horses, but I’d never had any experience with chickens. I became a vegetarian when I was 13 so I didn’t even have that type of interaction with them. I suppose like most people, I didn’t think much about them.
What, if anything, surprised you about chickens’ mental functions?
How quickly they learn and adapt to new situations. It’s actually quite challenging to work with them because they are such fast learners, especially the hens. In one of my experiments testing the female’s responses to the male’s visual display, I built an enclosure with a remotely released door. The females had to wait behind the door for 10 minutes before they could approach a video of a male who appeared to have food. One female became impatient and worked out how to release the latch herself. After she did it once, I could never use her in that set-up again, even years later, because she knew from that one trial how to let herself out. Frustrating and fascinating at the same time.
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?
Western society generally views chickens as a commodity, a resource to be used as we see fit. In general, people are happy not to know where their food comes from and their main concern is the safety of the food rather than the experience of the animal before it reaches their plate. It does seem that that may be changing slowly as more public attention (particularly in Europe) focuses on the experience of the animal on the farm and at slaughter. I am also heartened by the number of people who are keeping chickens in their backyards and who have them as pets. When I talk to people who have chickens, they are not surprised by what my research shows. They know their animals. People who have no contact with the birds often respond with incredulity. After I explain how we rigorously test each behavior, they have a new appreciation of the birds.
Chickens are not the dim-witted creatures most people assume they are. They have individual personalities. They can recognize each other by their faces and voices. They have reputation; they eavesdrop on each other and they remember things for a long time. In many situations (although not all), they are fast learners. There are complex social interactions happening within a flock and all we have to do is listen and watch to see that they don’t just live in the moment. There is still a tremendous amount that we don’t know about them.
In your paper “The Chicken Challenge: What Contemporary Studies of Fowl Mean for Science and Ethics,” published in Between the Species, you make the case that chickens’ cognitive capacities merit ethical treatment. How do you think we as a culture should change our view and treatment of chickens? How far should this ethic extend?
I think we need to recognize that they are capable of a greater understanding of their circumstances than we give them credit. It isn’t currently possible for us to conclusively determine whether the chickens’ extraordinary behavior is the result of higher cognitive capabilities or an advanced ability to make associations between actions and outcomes and to learn from their own experience and from watching others. But I think that even only affording them the lowest level of awareness mandates that we improve our treatment of them.
Do you have any stories from your experience with chickens that you think would illustrate who chickens are to the public?
I gave a radio interview about my research a few years ago and at the end, one of the interviewers said, “Funny, before I talked to you, I thought chickens only had a 30 second memory.” I sincerely hope he was joking but fear that people really think that chickens only live in the present and have no ability to remember the past or to have expectations of the future. By assuming that the birds have such a limited understanding of their world, we can justify our current treatment of them.