The psychology and behaviour of chickens

The Our Hen House podcast recently had a great interview with Lori Marino which I’ve been meaning to summarise. She talks about her recent review paper on the psychology and behaviour of chickens. I found it particularly fascinating because I’ve never really known a lot about the actual characteristics of animals used for food, despite caring a lot about their welfare. As an anecdote, a few years ago I found myself sitting in a field with half a dozen cows, feeling somewhat scared, but found them to be incredibly gentle and curious.

One of the most interesting points to me was that chicken’s beaks are highly innervated. Their beaks are their main way of exploring the world. It’s used to touch and sense their surroundings, to find food, to preen themselves, and to move things. I’ve always known that chickens are debeaked in factory farms to stop them from attacking other chickens in the tight living conditions, so this just drives home how painful that must be. Lori says that many people assume debeaking is like clipping a fingernail, but it’s actually more like taking a finger.

Chickens are able to perform basic arithmetic, even at two days old, which is a function many, myself included, don’t expect chickens to be able to do. For example, you can present a two sets of balls to them with a different amount, which are then put behind a screen. The chickens have to remember how many were behind each screen, presumably to get some reward.

The history of chickens is also interesting. Originally, they are a type of red jungle fowl from India and South East Asia. Subsequent breeding has been primarily focused on getting them to grow faster or produce more eggs, with very little impact on their cognitive capacity. This means that food chickens are not adapted for living in a factory farm. Interestingly, if given access, they will often prefer to climb trees over living in a barn.

Many of the papers reviewed in this paper were, of course, the result of animal testing. To Marino’s credit, she used all of the available research, including that which involved animal testing. She argued that leaving out that research would result in not capturing useful data. She also argues that such an action wouldn’t result in the end of that research taking place. Marino is careful to make the point that reporting on some data doesn’t mean you condone the way in which it was collected.

I want to drill down on this a little. In a sense, it might actually have some non-trivial effect on the production of studies that use animal testing. In academia, there is a saying that goes ‘publish or perish’. Basically, progression and prestige in academia is largely based on the number of citations you get on your papers (when another study references yours), and the prestige of the journals you publish in. This guides promotions, grant funding, awards, and so on.

So in a way, giving such studies citations might actually have some small effect on the likelihood of future animal testing taking place. Having said that, the effect really is probably quite small, and I don’t think it would outweigh the positive effects of this research being available. But I did just want to call into question this claim. I’m curious about this, and will be reaching out to Marino for further comment, and will update this blog post if she responds.

I found this interview fascinating and interesting, and just wanted to share a taste of it and encourage you to check it out, which you can do so here.

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