Chickens are generally regarded as dumb cluckers, but it seems the smart ones are as cunning as humans.
A study by Macquarie University’s Dr K-lynn Smith and Professor Chris Evans portrays chickens as social and intelligent creatures that adjust to what they say, depending on who is listening.
The research has won the pair one of this year’s Eureka prizes, awarded for excellence in science by the Australian Museum.
Dr Smith says chickens, living in an environment where they compete for food, shelter and mates, can become as cunning as humans.
“The ones that can outsmart the others and are slightly more clever, are more likely to get the food, get the girl,” Dr Smith told AAP.
“That’s what I mean by Machiavellian – you do it to outsmart your companion.”
The study, titled Sentient Chickens: The Scientific Case for Improved Standards, found that chickens can use sounds and gestures to convey information about their external environment.
“Like if a male finds food, he can call and do a series of motions and any other chicken seeing this will say, `Aha, that guy has got food,’” Dr Smith said.
“So if you’re a female, you want to take the food (for yourself). If you’re a male you can go take the food from him and feed it to another female.
“Because females like males who give them food.
“It’s kind of like boys and girls here – take me to dinner and a dance and I’ll be more likely to mate with you.”
In the process of studying the chickens in a natural environment, Dr Smith and Prof Evans also developed a new testing facility that used 3D animation to simulate changes in the appearance and behaviour of the animals, without the need for invasive procedures.
Dr Smith said it was wrong to assume that the closer creatures were to human beings, such as chimpanzees, the more intelligent they were likely to be.
“What we’re finding is that if you live in a complex society and you have to get along and out-compete your friends and neighbours, that is probably what is driving intelligence or cognition.
“That need to be just that much smarter than the next guy, so you win and he doesn’t.
“It tells us a lot about how complex cognition arose.”
The study has won the 2010 Voiceless Eureka Prize for scientific research that contributes to animal protection.
It won because changing people’s perceptions about the intelligence of chickens is vital to building a consensus for ending factory farming, Australian Museum director Frank Howarth said.
The research is included in a range of international textbooks and has recently become part of the curriculum for secondary students in the UK.