• Emily Costello

Empathetic Chickens?

Updated: Apr 26, 2020

To me, one of the most interesting topics within the science world is animal cognition. We are able to observe certain animal behaviours (what they are doing) but it's almost impossible to explain exactly why they do these without investigating the mind set behind this.

A long time ago, cognition was put into a black box and shoved on a shelf by leading behaviourist to never be looked at again - simply because the idea of exploring the mind of another human, let alone an animal, seemed ridiculous.

Recent research however has totally proved that this is possible and there have been many discoveries highlighting what animals minds actually are capable of ... it may surprise you, but some are more similar to humans than you might have thought.

Here, I'm going to discuss empathy. A term that requires an individual to understand how another is feeling and then react appropriately towards them. So for example: if you have been a victim of theft before and then one of your friends gets burgled, you will understand how horrible that experience is and act sympathetically towards them by comforting them.

Now, we know that every species and animal group is very different. Some have large brains, some don't. Each have different parts of the brain that they will use more than others. There is evidence to suggest animals such as apes, whales, dolphins and elephants have the ability to mourn the death of another and help a complete stranger in need, empathetic-like qualities.

In humans, we have a large neocortex - the part of the brain that generates conscious thought and reasoning. It's this that generates the idea that empathy is a strictly human trait.

So, do chickens have a neocortex? Nope.

To branch away from the idea that only humans and possibly mammals can show empathy, recent research has been exploring similar abilities in chickens. Why? Because chickens are extremely maternal - sometimes even rearing young of an entirely different species!

In the study, a mother hen and her chicks were placed side by side in a

coop so they could see each other but were separated. They ran 4 trials:

1) Nothing happened (control)

2) Air puff aimed at mother hen

3) Air puff aimed at chicks

4) Just noise of air puff

When the air was aimed at just the mother hen, she was standing alert and stopped preening herself which suggests she is aware that she should be alert for danger (here she is experiencing the negative situation).

Now, when the air was aimed at the chicks, she had the same reaction, only this time she was also creating a maternal clucking noise towards her chicks (this suggests that she knows what they are experiencing and communicating with them).

It wasn't just the noises she made that show she is aware of what her chicks are going through. The mother hens heart rate increased and body temperature decrease showing she was stressed (only when the air was directed at them and not herself).

So, it's clear that the hen was understanding the situation. She was able to experience something she didn't particularly like and then was able to put herself in the place of the chicks because she knew they would experience similar feelings, consequently, comforting them.

So... can chickens show empathy?

Well, if we rethink the definition of empathy - reacting towards another's negative emotions.

The chicks were not acting stressed or calling for their mother so whilst she is reacting appropriately to their situation perhaps we cannot call it true empathy. We also are not certain how she would react towards chicks that were not her own or even another adult hen.

Chickens are certainly capable of much more than previous thought. Incredible mothering abilities driven by perhaps a different level or degree of empathy than ours. It certainly shouldn't be ruled out, but for now I think stating chickens can show empathy on a human level would be very far fetched. Sadly

(If you'd like to read the scientific article yourself -> Edgar, J. L., Lowe, J. C., Paul, E. S., & Nicol, C. J. (2011). Avian maternal response to chick distress. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 278(1721), 3129–3134. https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2010.2701)

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