Calling Fowl on Our Treatment of the Bird World’s Brainiacs

Bird brain. To many, it’s a term of derision, evoking thoughts of our, well, less cerebral side. But as our understanding of avian intelligence increases, scientists are telling us that birds, especially chickens, are actually far smarter than we might have imagined.

With numbers much greater than that of the world’s human population, chickens are the most numerous birds on the face of the planet—and unfortunately, they’re also the most abused. American poultry companies alone raise and kill more than eight billion of these animals each year in conditions often so inhumane, most of us have a hard time even witnessing it.


Doug Argue Chicken Factory Painting at Weisman Art Museum

We already know that these birds are capable of suffering, but would we act differently if we knew more about the mental lives of chickens?

Avian expert Chris Evans, Ph.D. explains:

“Chickens exist in stable social groups. They can recognize each other by their facial features. They have 24 distinct cries that communicate a wealth of information to one other, including separate alarm calls depending on whether a predator is traveling by land or sea. They are good at solving problems. As a trick at conferences I sometimes list these attributes, without mentioning chickens, and people think I’m talking about monkeys.”

Yet despite their mental acumen, almost all of the chickens used in the meat industry have been selectively bred for extremely rapid growth. This fast weight gain, exacerbated by routine antibiotic use for growth promotion, takes an enormous toll on the birds’ welfare.

In short, these animals have been bred to suffer.

Animal science expert Temple Grandin, Ph.D., sums it up bluntly when she notes: “Today’s poultry chicken has been bred to grow so rapidly that its legs can collapse under the weight of its ballooning body. It’s awful.”

Perhaps the time has come for us to gain a new appreciation for chickens and other birds. Food Day—which can and should be celebrated year-round—offers the perfect opportunity to start looking at these animals differently, and needless to say, treating them differently, too.

In her exhaustive work on the development of the chicken brain, Lesley Rogers,Paul_Shapiro_with_Chicken.jpg Ph.D., a professor and author on animal behavior, concludes: "With increased knowledge of the behaviour and cognitive abilities of the chicken has come the realization that the chicken is not an inferior species to be treated merely as a food source."

So true.

Paul Shapiro is vice president of farm animal protection at The Humane Society of the United States. Follow him at

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