Crafty chickens use complex clucking

By AAP with Julian Swallow 18 August 2010
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Chickens can be as cunning as humans at outsmarting rivals with sophisticated language, scientists find.

CHICKENS ARE GENERALLY REGARDED as dumb cluckers, but it seems the smart ones are as crafty as people.

A study by Macquarie University’s Dr K-Lynn Smith and Professor Chris Evans portrays chickens as social creatures that employ Machiavellian intelligence and adjust what they say depending on who is listening. The research won the pair one of the awards at Tuesdays’s Australian Museum Eureka prizes, the nation’s most prestigious science awards.

K-Lynn says chickens, living in an environment where they compete for food, shelter and mates, can become as cunning as humans. “The ones that can outsmart the others and are slightly more clever, are more likely to get the food [and] get the girl,” K-Lynn says. “That’s what we mean by Machiavellian – you do it to outsmart your companion.”

Funky chicken

The study found that squawking and gestures convey information about chickens’ external environment. “If a male finds food, he can call and do a series of motions and any other chicken seeing this will say, `Aha, that guy has got food,'” K-Lynn says.

The pair found that chickens changed their message when potential mates or rivals were around. “If you’re a male you can go take the food from him and feed it to another female – because females like males who give them food. It’s kind of like boys and girls here – take me to dinner and a dance and I’ll be more likely to mate with you.”

“The chicken world is predominantly a social one and sounds, gestures
and postures are all critical in communication within the group,” says
Dr Rafael Freire, a Charles Sturt
University expert on animal behaviour who was not involved in the research.

In the process of studying the chickens in a natural environment, K-Lynn and Chris also developed a new testing facility that used 3-D animation to simulate changes in the appearance and behaviour of the animals, without the need for invasive procedures. K-Lynn says it was wrong to assume that the closer creatures were to human beings, such as chimpanzees, the more intelligent they were likely to be.

Social cunning

“What we’re finding is that if you live in a complex society and you have to get along and out-compete your friends and neighbours, that is probably what is driving intelligence or cognition – that need to be just that much smarter than the next guy, so you win and he doesn’t. It tells us a lot about how complex cognition arose.”

The study won the 2010 Voiceless Eureka Prize for scientific research that contributes to animal protection. It won because changing people’s perceptions about the intelligence of chickens is important to building a consensus for ending factory farming, Australian Museum director Frank Howarth says.

“An understanding of intelligence can help us to understand in which situations welfare may be compromised,” agrees Rafael. “As the researchers have highlighted, the social environment is critical to chickens, and intensive farming places chickens in an unnatural environment where they cannot display their natural social behaviour of moving away and towards each other. This is known to lead to social stress and is one way in which cages compromise the welfare of chickens.”

The research is included in a range of international textbooks and has recently become part of the curriculum for secondary students in the UK.