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Q. Why did the chicken cross the road?

Press release issued: 12 September 2002

A. To take a lesson in diet and social behaviour

Media release
Q. Why did the chicken cross the road?
A. To take a lesson in diet and social behaviour

The ability of animals to teach by passing on information to others may be more widespread throughout the animal kingdom than previously thought, according to Professor Christine Nicol from the University of Bristol speaking at the BA Festival of Science [11 September 2002].

Scientists had always thought that the deliberate transfer of information regarding diet, social activity and behaviour had been limited to the primates, but recent research on chickens has shown that they are not the bird-brains of popular thought.

"The hardest thing about this kind of research is differentiating between what has been learnt by simple observation and what is an action that has been taught by another hen," says Professor Nicol. "Many people with chickens will have seen their hens developing new behaviours, but did they learn it for themselves or what it taught to them by another hen? Contrary to popular opinion, we have found that hens are very adept at teaching and learning."

Professor Nicol investigated how chickens acquire information about food, and how they develop new skills and behaviours and respond to mistakes made by their chicks. She found that naïve animals (observers) are able to perform new behaviours sooner, more accurately and more completely after contact with experienced animals (demonstrators) than they would if they would have using individual learning. She also found that hens (female chickens) were able to learn faster from other hens, especially socially dominant hens, rather than cockerels (males). Although all types of chickens had pupil potential, only broody females (mother hens) had the makings of good teachers, keeping order in class and responding flexibly to mistakes made by their chicks.

The findings will be important in understanding the extent to which social learning might affect animal welfare and in encouraging hens to accept novel foods and discouraging undesirable behaviour such as feather pecking.

The next step in the research is to look more broadly at the learning and cognitive abilities of hens and their spatial cognition and ability to navigate using the sun.

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Copyright: 2002 The University of Bristol, UK
Updated: Thursday, 12-Sep-2002 11:40:29 BST

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