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

Showing 10 reactions

  • commented 2015-12-08 11:39:40 -0500
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on modern pork production. I’ve also shared my thoughts on pork farming from an agriculture point of view
  • followed this page 2015-02-21 08:32:28 -0500
  • commented 2013-02-02 02:01:00 -0500
    This is a timely piece, considering I’m now reading Jeffrey M. Masson’s “The Pig Who Sang to the Moon: The Emotional World of Farm Animals”, and I’m on the section about chickens! Being a veterinary technician, I thought I knew about them, but they never taught us how intelligent they are! Thanks to both of you, the word is getting out. And the conclusion is: factory farms are just plain wrong!
  • commented 2013-01-28 14:03:10 -0500
    Really great blog, Paul. The mental abilities of chickens has been too long underrated and their suffering inside factory farms too long ignored. The industry needs to reduce the growth rate of these poor birds, along with providing them with enrichments. And we can help chickens every time we sit down to eat. When we incorporate vegetarian meals into our diet, we can eat with compassion and mercy to our fellow creatures.
  • commented 2013-01-28 12:49:50 -0500
    Great piece, Paul! Thanks for sharing this important information. It’s high time people recognize the cognitive abilities of chickens and other animals and stop treating them as nothing more than (billions of) pieces of factory equipment. We should all strive to make our diets as compassionate and environmentally responsible as possible. Paying people to torture and slaughter intelligent and feeling animals is certainly neither compassionate nor eco-friendly.
  • commented 2013-01-28 12:44:17 -0500
    With 8+ billion chickens being raised for food each year in the U.S. it’s high time that welfare standards are raised to reduce their suffering. We can also eat less chicken to make an impact for these intelligent animals. Thanks for raising awareness about this vital, yet often ignored issue!
  • commented 2013-01-28 12:44:15 -0500
    Thanks for this post. The more we learn about chickens, the more apparent it is that they, like all animals are sensitive and intelligent. The way we treat them in food production is abhorrent and must change.
  • commented 2013-01-28 12:40:46 -0500
    Chickens are sweet, intelligent and gentle animals. I don’t think it’s possible to hold a chicken and not think of your own pet at home. Chickens love life and they deserve much better than what the meat industry believes they deserve. Great article and I’m glad there are people out there like Paul Shapiro who are defending chickens and their brilliant ways.
  • followed this page 2013-01-28 12:27:33 -0500
  • commented 2013-01-28 12:25:05 -0500
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