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.
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.
Interview with Chicken Ethologist Dr. K-Lynn Smith, Macquarie University, Australia
Rooster "Tidbitting" in K-Lynn Smith's Studies
Chicken ethologist K-Lynn Smith has done extensive studies on "tidbitting" vocalizations in which a rooster calls hens to a high-quality food item. The rooster 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.
“While chickens display feelings comparable to those of humans (such as grief, fear or happiness), they no doubt also possess their own exceptional forms of emotion and consciousness that even the most rigorous scientific tests may not begin to uncover—simply because these inimitable perspectives of chickens do not register conceptually or experientially within the human domain. Instead of fearing or dismissing this alterity, we might instead respect and take pleasure in the uniqueness of chickens, their inscrutable yet delightful chicken-ness, their complex and nature-loving chicken worlds.”— Author Annie Potts
 Potts, Annie. Chicken. London: Reaktion Books, 2012. Print.