The Intelligence of Chickens and the Great Chain of Being

Rushing waterThe February issue of Scientific American includes a delightful article by Carolynn “K-lynn” L. Smith and Sarah L. Zielinski on the intelligence of a creature we usually encounter at the supermarket: featherless, cut in pieces, lying prostrate on a Styrofoam tray and covered with a slick sheet of cellophane. By now, we’re used to the idea that the critters out there are way more intelligent and social than we used to give them credit for, but chickens?

If we’re going to credit chickens with social awareness, cunning, a language and complicated dating behaviour, then this is the definite proof that the Great Chain of Being rather than stretching up to heaven is lying dangled on the ground in a great heap.

But to return to chickens: it has been known for some time that the natural chicken world is rather harem-like with an alpha rooster maintaining order over his “girls” by showing off what a good provider he is. His courtship strategy involves swinging his wattles from side to side and bobbing up and down over a food source while saying “doc doc”. Should his rivals seem inclined to move in on his intended, he will peck them.

From there, things can get complicated as was discovered by Carolynn L. Smith, a research fellow at Macquarie University in Sidney Australia. The male who has been sidelined by the alpha rooster can still get the girl if he can perform the bobbing dance convincingly while omitting the accompanying “doc doc” sound—that would attract the attention of Mr. Big and his pecks.

Sinkhole(We know of other avian strategies to undermine the dominance of the alpha male. A young red-winged blackbird will take advantage of his feminine-like absence of colouring to move in on an older male’s territory. This ploy is not unknown to humans of course. Literature is full of tales of men disguising themselves, sometimes as women, to get past the gate.)

Nicholas and Elsie Collias of the University of California correlated 24 different chicken calls to distinct events/crises/opportunities in a chicken’s life, events such as a new food source, flying predators, ground predators, rivals, love interests, threats to offspring and so on.

Scientifically establishing the connection between these momentous events and their corresponding millisecond chicken sounds proved more difficult until the advent of audio and 3-D video recorders and high-resolution television sets. Using these tools, Chris Evans and his colleagues at Macquarie University in Sydney Australia created a virtual reality for these birds including virtual companions and virtual predators, and then recorded the chickens’ responses. Think of this as a Truman Show for birds.

Carolyn L. Smith clinched it when she came up with a contraption made up of the hooks and cups she cut off from bras (black only) that she used to fashion backpacks for her chickens. Called Chicken Big Boy 2.0, she used them to record all the fleeting sounds her chickens made and link them to events. That’s how she stumbled upon a purpose for the rooster’s wattle that had baffled other researchers. It exaggerates his head shaking, female alluring, come-and-get-my-food behaviour.

The research team concluded that these chicken sounds did in fact constitute a language of sorts that was understood and acted upon by other chickens. Even more surprisingly, they tailored their communications to particular audiences. A rooster might raise an alarm if his sweetie was in danger, but remain silent if the danger, an eagle say, might threaten his rival. Lying by omission is definitely a higher order of malfeasance than pecking some guy’s backside, while screaming, “Die, you feathered dick head!”

Similarly, mom chickens exercised discretion about sounding an alarm depending upon whether or not they had chicks about, saving their vocal chords for when it matters.

However, Joanne Edgar at the University of Bristol in England discovered something like the opposite when she discovered that a mother hen becomes distressed at seeing her chicks exhibiting signs of distress, even in cases when there wasn’t actually any cause for it. This is an example of empathy, as well as getting all worked up about nothing.

Further research conducted by Giorgio Vallortigara at the University of Trento in Italy has indicated that young chicks can distinguish numbers and grasp elementary geometry. Given a triangle with two sides, the chicks could mentally supply the missing side. What evolutionary value this might have, is not explained, but perhaps the evolutionary value of triangles to us humans still remains to be explained.

If these researchers had presented their findings at a European university in the Middle Ages, they would have been burned at the stake, not simply because their ideas would have seemed outlandish, but because they would have been regarded as deeply heretical, guilty of spreading egregious falsehoods about the Great Chain of Being.

StepsThe Great Chain of Being has its origins in the works of Plato and Socrates around 400 BC before Christianity grabbed on to it. It assigned a place in a hierarchical order to every being in the universe beginning at the bottom with stones and metals before proceeding upwards through plants, animals, humans, and angels, all the way to the highest perch occupied by God. The higher up the chain, the more noble and intelligent, more “spirit” and less “matter” one had. And every one of these divisions would have its own sub-orders, and sub-orders within them: lots of stuff for monks to quibble about.

The highest order of birds were birds of prey, hawks and owls, followed by vultures and crows, then worm-eating birds such as robins and ending with seed-eating birds such as our poor fried, roasted, poached, breaded and Saran-wrapped chickens.

Challenging these rankings, such as ascribing a form of intelligence to chickens, or actually even thinking about this, was received as telling lies about God. It led to disorder that reverberated along the chain. Shakespeare’s King Lear was mad, which reflected a disorder in the state, which was a function of a child ruling a father and subjects ruling a king, which also found expression in disturbances in the heavens, meteoric disturbances. We understand these references to be metaphors now but in the Middle Ages, they were taken much more literally.

The Great Chain of Being is so deeply ground into our brains that it didn’t have to be cited directly to justify the subjugation of one order by a higher order. The domestication, captivity of, and cruelty to animals just seemed like the natural order of things. The same rationale was applied to slavery and the subjugation of women and on it went. This explains why the theory of evolution was so threatening. It suggested that beings weren’t fixed on the rung of a ladder, and that they had once been something else before being what they are now.

The chain is long-ago stuff we no longer “believe” in, but it’s still stuck inside us and can be yanked back into consciousness whenever it suits our designs. Until science comes to the rescue and pushes it back down again.

Wikipedia, The Truman Show, 1998 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Truman_Show

Virtual Chicken Experiments Solve Mystery of Why Roosters have Wattle http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/chickens-virtual-experiments-solve-mystery-of-why-roosters-have-wattles-video/

Scientific American: Brainy Bird, by Carolynn “K-lynn” L. Smith and Sarah L. Zielinski, February, 2014 http://www.scientificamerican.com/magazine/sa/2014/02-01/

Wikipedia: Great Chain of Being http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_chain_of_being

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