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The Farm Sanctuary

Chickens Are Much, Much Smarter Than They Look

The Farm Sanctuary
The Farm Sanctuary

Why did the chicken cross the road? We don’t know, but it probably had its reasons. A new paper published in the journal Animal Cognition reports that the barnyard birds’ intelligence and social skills are far more complex than we thought.

Lori Marino is senior scientist for The Someone Project, which aims to challenge popular misconceptions about chickens, cows, pigs, and other farm animals. Her report, which was partially funded by the ASPCA, describes experiment after experiment showing that chickens are, in fact, very complex animals with rich inner and outer lives.

Last year was a big year for bird intelligence research. in 2016, scientists reported that some birds are at least as smart as apes. They found tool-making crows and clever pigeons and puzzle-solving bullfinches. The phrase “birdbrain” began to lose its meaning.

But amid the myth-shattering, some birds got more attention than others. “There’s not a lot of scientific work being done on chicken cognition,” Marino tells mental_floss, “because if you assume an animal doesn’t have a given trait, you aren’t going to study it. But what research there has been is very, very compelling.”

For example: Studies have found that chickens have object permanence—that is, they understand that when you cover something, it does not go away—a skill humans develop around age one. They’re also capable of counting and basic arithmetic, even as chicks. They understand logic and simple reasoning, including some concepts we don’t understand until we’re six or seven years old. They have some sense of time and complex social relationships. They have distinct personalities and show one another empathy.

“Chickens have a mind. They have a life,” Marino says. “They’re not just these dumb, inert objects scratching in the dust. It is like something to be a chicken.”

Why is that so hard for us to believe? “It’s a perfect storm,” Marino explains. The first problem is our longstanding skepticism of avian cognitive ability—the "birdbrain" idea. We’re getting over that, but “the history is there,” she says. “The other thing is that, well, we eat them.”

People have a vested interest in thinking of farm animals as inanimate commodities, Marino says, because otherwise we’d start feeling bad about killing and eating them. Instead, we focus on turning them into better meat—a strategy that she believes dulls our scientific rigor and robs us of the chance to learn more about our fellow organisms. 

“Most of the work that’s done on chickens, fish, and cows tends to involve trying to figure out how to make them lay more eggs or grow faster or not peck each other,” she said. “It’s all very applied, and it misses the whole point. These are animals who have an evolutionary and adaptive history just like a chimpanzee or a dog or a human being. They’re animals. And at the very least, we need to approach them as animals in their own right.”

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Animals
Goldfish Can Get Depressed, Too
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Don’t believe what Pixar is trying to sell you: Fish are not exactly brimming with personality. In aquariums, they tend to swim in circles, sucking up fragments of food and ducking around miniature treasure chests. To a layperson, fish don’t appear to possess concepts of happy, or sad, or anything in between—they just seem to exist.

This, researchers say, is not quite accurate. Speaking with The New York Times, Julian Pittman, a professor at the Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences at Troy University, says that fish not only suffer from depression, they can be easily diagnosed. Zebrafish dropped into a new tank who linger at the bottom are probably sad; those who enthusiastically explore the upper half are not.

In Pittman’s studies, fish depression can be induced by getting them “drunk” on ethanol, then cutting off the supply, resulting in withdrawal. These fish mope around the tank floor until they’re given antidepressants, at which point they begin happily swimming near the surface again.

It’s impossible to correlate fish depression with that of a human, but Pittman believes the symptoms in fish—losing interest in exploring and eating—makes them viable candidates for exploring neuroscience and perhaps drawing conclusions that will be beneficial in the land-dwelling population.

In the meantime, you can help ward off fish blues by keeping them busy—having obstacles to swim through and intriguing areas of a tank to explore. Just like humans, staying active and engaged can boost their mental health.

[h/t The New York Times]

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Pigeons Are Secretly Brilliant Birds That Understand Space and Time, Study Finds
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Of all the birds in the world, the pigeon draws the most ire. Despite their reputation as brainless “rats with wings,” though, they’re actually pretty brilliant (and beautiful) animals. A new study adds more evidence that the family of birds known as pigeons are some of the smartest birds around, as Quartz alerts us.

In addition to being able to distinguish English vocabulary from nonsense words, spot cancer, and tell a Monet from a Picasso, pigeons can understand abstract concepts like space and time, according to the new study published in Current Biology. Their brains just do it in a slightly different way than humans’ do.

Researchers at the University of Iowa set up an experiment where they showed pigeons a computer screen featuring a static horizontal line. The birds were supposed to evaluate the length of the line (either 6 centimeters or 24 centimeters) or the amount of time they saw it (either 2 or 8 seconds). The birds perceived "the longer lines to have longer duration, and lines longer in duration to also be longer in length," according to a press release. This suggests that the concepts are processed in the same region of the brain—as they are in the brains of humans and other primates.

But that abstract thinking doesn’t occur in the same way in bird brains as it does in ours. In humans, perceiving space and time is linked to a region of the brain called the parietal cortex, which the pigeon brains lack entirely. So their brains have to have some other way of processing the concepts.

The study didn’t determine how, exactly, pigeons achieve this cognitive feat, but it’s clear that some other aspect of the central nervous system must be controlling it. That also opens up the possibility that other non-mammal animals can perceive space and time, too, expanding how we think of other animals’ cognitive capabilities.

[h/t Quartz]

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