A recent article in The Buffalo News cited a reader who said she's a vegetarian, except for chickens, because chickens are the "least intelligent" animals of the meat choices available to her ("Animal admirer wild about avocation," July 1). I would like to challenge this view with evidence of the intelligence of chickens.
There's been a tradition of treating birds as less intelligent than mammals, and chickens and other ground-nesting birds were once dismissed as "unquestionably low on the scale of avian evolution." However, modern science refutes this assumption, revealing that birds, including chickens, are intelligent animals on a par with mammals.
Summarizing what we now know, avian specialist Lesley Rogers wrote in "The Development of Brain and Behaviour in the Chicken," published in 1995, that "It is now clear that birds have cognitive capacities equivalent to those of mammals, even primates." Moreover, she wrote that increased knowledge of the behavior and cognitive abilities of the chicken has brought "the realization that the chicken is not an inferior species to be treated merely as a food source."
One reason is that chickens have excellent memories. They can recognize more than 100 other chickens and remember them. Chickens removed from their flock and then returned weeks or even months later remember, and are remembered by, their flock mates.
In addition, chickens are able to wait for rewards, demonstrating that they can anticipate the future and exercise self-control. In laboratory studies, chickens have learned not to peck at buttons that yield only a small number of grains in favor of waiting longer to peck at buttons that produce a large amount of food. According to researchers, such findings show that "like humans, chickens evolved an impressive level of intelligence to help improve their survival."
Hens fed grains that made them ill not only avoid such grains in the future; they push their chicks away from the bad grains (which they distinguish by color coding) and lead them to the good ones. Researcher John Webster said this teaches us that "the mother hen has learned what food is good and what is bad for her, that she cares so much for her chicks she will not let them eat the bad food and she is passing on to her young what she has learned."
This claim fits laboratory findings which show that lame chickens, given a choice between food bowls laced with pain reliever and bowls having none, choose the medicated food. Here, it may be noted that the widespread joint diseases in chickens raised for meat, caused by their being forced to grow too large and too fast for their fragile bones, support the evidence that these birds spend most or all of their lives suffering in extreme pain -- a good enough reason to stop eating them.
Karen Davis, PhD, is president of United Poultry Concerns (www.upc-online.org), a nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl.