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No Dumb Cluck

by Belinda Recio

Contrary to popular opinion, chickens are really smart

Over the past 10 years, chickens—the most common bird on the planet—have been making headlines. One of the most memorable reported the discovery of preserved protein in a 68-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus rex fossil. Scientists sequenced the DNA in the dinosaur protein and compared it to known proteins of living animals, hoping to learn which extant species might be genetically closest to the mighty king of the dinosaurs. The comparisons showed an evolutionary link between Tyrannosaurus rex and Gallus domesticus, the chicken. Scientists have theorized for some time now that birds evolved from dinosaurs, but Tyrannosaurus rex “descending” into a chicken was one of those “truth is stranger than fiction” discoveries.

Other headlines focused on chicken cognition and asserted that chickens aren’t just smart—they are really smart. They engage in observational learning (watching another’s behavior and learning from the results) and delayed gratification (understanding that sometimes it is better to refuse a small reward in the moment if, in exchange for waiting, you get a bigger reward in the future).

Chickens also demonstrate a “theory of mind,” which is the ability to understand that others have mental states, such as beliefs, knowledge, desires and perspectives separate from their own. These socially savvy birds watch one another to find out about food sources, pecking order status and threats to safety. Then they behave in ways that demonstrate they have made inferences from their observations.

Chickens also “talk” to one another. Those clucks aren’t meaningless vocalizations—they are a complex communication system. With more than 30 different calls (identified by scientists), they communicate information about types of predators (“hawk!”), locations of food (“tasty worms over here”), activities (“gotta go lay an egg”), health status (“feeling stressed today”), mating (“hey sexy rooster, wanna hook up?”) and more. Hens and chicks also use soft calls to check in with each other while the chicks are still in their eggs (“Mom, I’m cold, can you sit on me?”).

Chickens even have math skills. Within only a few days of hatching, chicks can discriminate between different quantities and can add and subtract. Equally amazing, hens are capable of logical inferences, and understand that “if A is greater than B, and B is greater than C, then A is greater than C.” This rule is especially helpful in trying to determine who can beat whom in a fight.

The Backyard Chicken Movement

Another reason chickens have stepped into the limelight is the momentum of the backyard chicken movement that has swept across the United States in recent years. As people have become increasingly concerned about GMOs, pesticides and other issues, they have turned to more reliable local sources of organic produce, dairy, eggs and meat. But an ever-expanding number of people have gone one step further and started producing their own food, including raising their own chickens. Some people just enjoy watching the pecking order play out in the hen house; others name their chickens and treat them as family pets.

Chickens also provide natural pest control. They eat crop-destroying insects as well as spiders, ticks and even scorpions. If you keep chickens, chances are you’ll also save room in your compost bin because they eat most kitchen scraps. Finally, you will save money on fertilizer for your garden, landscaping and lawn because chicken manure is an exceptionally good fertilizer.

As for the eggs: they taste so much better than commercial eggs. And the nutritional differences are substantial. According to Mother Earth News, which analyzed the nutritional value of free-range eggs, they have one-third less cholesterol, one-quarter less saturated fat, two-thirds more vitamin A, twice the omega-3 fatty acids, three times the vitamin E and seven times more beta carotene.

Finally, there’s the wonderful experience of producing your food in your own backyard. When you keep chickens, fresh, organic eggs are just steps away from your table. And when you walk out back to collect them, there’s the added benefit of being greeted by a flock of feathered dinosaur descendants that can do math.

Counting Your Chickens Before They Hatch

Chickens can be noisy and they like to scratch up the ground, so if you prefer things tidy and peaceful, they aren’t for you. Most people don’t realize that chickens live for eight to 10 years, but only produce eggs for five to seven, so be certain you are committed to caring for them in their golden years.

Expect to spend money on building or buying a coop, feed and other supplies. It’s also possible your chickens might need veterinary care, so factor in that expense, too. You’ll need to spend time cleaning the coop, which is very important for a healthy and disease-free flock. Finally, you will need to protect yourself and your family from diseases such as salmonella and the avian influenza by establishing rigorous hygiene practices.

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