Chicken Dreams: Smart chicken in a dumb world

Rosey is examining a new box in her coop, her curiosity is clearly sparked as she walks around it, turns her head from side to side as if to say; “Hmm, I wonder what’s going on here?” and then she glances at me, looking down her beak. I answer her; “Yes Rosey I put the box in there.” She lets out a low murmur.

The box has a small, rough wood ramp leading to its top where there are several holes cut into it in a sequential line. It’s an old blueberry box. Rosey checks the ramp with one foot and pushes down to make sure it’s steady enough to walk up. Then she carefully makes her way to the top and tests the box, one foot stepping down firmly. When it holds up she steps on top of it. Walking across it she is now peaking in each hole to see if something is in there. She hops down and gives it a kick with one foot. The box moves a little but stays in place. There’s no noise beyond the sound of Rosey’s foot on cardboard. She lets out a small, high whimper and holds her kicking foot up. Then she plants it back on soil, peaks through some holes on the side of the box and seems to determine it’s a big disappointment. Nothing more to see.  She limps off to her roost and takes a nap.

She applied the scientific method, pecking the surface, peaking, moving it, testing it’s weight and structure and found it to be just a plain old box. Rosey has a good point; if there’s a box with little holes drilled into it one might assume there would be something to see inside. If I placed it in her home, there must be a reason. What she didn’t know is that I was just trying to come up with something for her and her chicken friends to explore, which she did at a level I never expected.

Rosey is smart.  She has 24 distinct cries that communicate a wealth of information to her others, including separate alarm calls depending on whether a predator is traveling by land or sea. She can recognize 100 different faces and remember a chicken she may have met just once when she was a baby.  She can also recognize the faces of other species whom she knows and though friendly she remains reticent of strangers. Rosey has clear preferences and communicates them well. This is also part of her expansive repertoire of sounds which I could only call speaking. She loves to be spoken to even in human because she picks up a lot by tone of voice, all her friends have this same ability.

Professor Joy Mench from UC Davis says chickens show a sophisticated social understanding and organization. They have a richness and social depth many have failed to see and other researchers have determined without ambiguity that birds are comparable to primates in intelligence. People are primates.

Rosey, like any smart creature has her own special talents, she is the logistics chicken in the group.  She is fascinated by any structure I put in their coop and is often the first to kick the tires so to speak and explore its uses. Being more of an engineer than artist, she is disappointed with objects which serve only an aesthetic or minor functional purpose.

Her best friend Henny comforts her in these moments of disappointment. Upon waking from her nap Henny takes Rosey over to the box and jumps up on top of it. She walks along the edges, bounces on it and leaps off, flying across the coop to the other side. She says something to Rosey which seems like; “Hey cheer up! it’s kind of fun to use as a bouncing spot to fly off of.” Rosey ruffles her own feathers and shakes her head. Henny does it a second time and a third. Happy the rooster picks up the cue and leaps a few times too adding a nice crow into the equation to show just how cool the box could be.  Rosey consents and gives it a nice bounce, she is twice the size of her friends so she gets a little more bounce and the box tips a bit to one side. She nearly trips before jumping off.  She lets out a shrill noise and the others get a kick out of it. The mood is now cheery.

I dash in the house for some spinach and corn on the cob to add to the celebration.

Watching this game play out are the four little silkie chickens, Star Moon, Rosey’s boyfriend and his three tiny sisters-Flower,Dandelion and Rosemary. They are purring to see their friends at play. When the corn comes they fly at it like little kids at the ice cream truck. They are small but very fond of good groceries.

It’s just another day of harmony and discovery down at the coop. It’s also another day where I am humbled to learn yet again that my sixth grade science teacher was not right when he proclaimed homo sapiens as the biggest deal on the planet. If I could find him today I’d suggest he come over for a few days and observe the goings on at the coop and how some really smart creatures work through their lives devoted to, well, devotion, curiosity, play, discovery and communication on so many levels the highest elevator could never touch it. He even proclaimed humans are the only ones who use tools–unless you take crows, squirrels, all the primates, dolphins, sea and river otters, beavers,octopi and a whole host of other species into account. It’s not all his fault, that was the wisdom of the time. We know better now.

The fact is that Rosey and her flock are so bright I find it a challenge to keep them entertained. I put a toy or project in the coop and within hours or sometimes minutes they’ve done what they can with it and have moved on. If I leave it long enough, like the treat balls I put in once, they can make up new things to do with them but let’s face it, treat balls have limits. They are stretching my intelligence to invent new things and frankly I’ve been hitting the books to get ideas.  Many of these books speak to “improving production” by creating a happier place to be a chicken. That’s fine, I’m not about that but I’m not above borrowing ideas. Some speak to ways to confine birds and put them on difficult diets to fatten them or increase “production” and that, to quote Keats, fills me more full of weeping than you can understand, so I just put them away or more truthfully throw them across the room and then throw them away. Knowing my flock makes me know about deeply cheerful, kind and intelligent animals. I’m lucky to live with them.

This weekend as I rummage thrift shops for things I can reclaim into chicken jungle gyms I will be thinking of my engineer Rosey and seeing if I can stump her or at least entertain her longings for intellectual stimulation. Wish me more of that luck I claim to have.

Heaven knows a box for someone as smart as Rosey is not going to do the trick and I don’t even think Henny could get me out of that fix as hard as she might try–bless her sweet heart.





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