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At first glance, they might not seem to have much in common. Dodos are extinct, their population: zero. Chickens are the most populous bird on the planet; there are tens of billions of them at any given time.
But scratch the surface on humans’ relationship with these two largely ground-dwelling birds and you’ll start seeing similarities than you might not have imagined. Exhibit A: Our inaccurate and self-serving degradation of both birds’ mental capabilities.
Isolated on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius, dodos had never seen humans until our arrival in 1598, and so hadn’t evolved defenses against us. Not a single dodo survived the onslaught. Within less than a century, after millions of years of living in this tropical paradise, they’d been hunted to extinction.
Exploitive industries and individuals often tell themselves that their victims lack intelligence, perhaps to help ease any pesky pangs of conscience. And that’s exactly what happened with the dodo. Rather than feeling pity for these birds who were being slaughtered wholesale, human migrants to Mauritius marveled at their “stupidity” for not knowing to flee from their killers. Centuries later, the derision of this now-long gone bird continues with the common insult of referring to someone you view as intellectually inferior as a “dodo” or “dodo brain.”
Like the dodo, chickens are also the victims of massive exploitation, so it should come as no surprise that calling someone a “chicken” or comparing their intelligence to one of these birds isn’t exactly a compliment.
In reality, chickens’ intellectual prowess is actually quite impressive. We already know that these birds are capable of suffering, but avian expert Chris Evans, Ph.D. explains what may be a bit more surprising to some:
“Chickens exist in stable social groups. They can recognize each other by their facial features. They have 24 distinct cries that communicate a wealth of information to one other, including separate alarm calls depending on whether a predator is traveling by land or sea. They are good at solving problems. As a trick at conferences I sometimes list these attributes, without mentioning chickens, and people think I’m talking about monkeys.”
Despite their remarkable mental acumen, almost all of the chickens used in the meat industry are forced to suffer enormously. They’ve been genetically selected for extremely rapid growth which -- exacerbated by routine antibiotic use for growth promotion -- takes an enormous toll on the birds’ welfare. These animals are prisoners in their own bodies; they’ve been bred to suffer.
Animal science expert Temple Grandin, Ph.D., sums it up bluntly: “Today’s poultry chicken has been bred to grow so rapidly that its legs can collapse under the weight of its ballooning body. It’s awful.”
Awful indeed. And so is our mocking of both of these birds’ mental acuity, which represents a side of our behavior that calls into question our intelligence, not theirs.
While chickens are unlikely to go the way of the dodo any time soon, that’s not because we respect them any more than we respected dodos. Instead, our extraordinarily high meat consumption levels mean we’ll keep breeding them by the billions to ensure they have a place on our dinner plates.
Perhaps as our understanding of these birds’ complex abilities continues to grow, our willingness to allow the factory farming industry to subject them to a lifetime of suffering may accordingly shrink. Eating less meat, and specifically less chicken, will reduce animal suffering, decrease support for industrial factory farms, and increase the value we place on farmers who adhere to higher animal welfare standards.
In her exhaustive work on the development of the chicken brain, Lesley Rogers, Ph.D., a professor and author on animal behavior, concludes: "With increased knowledge of the behavior and cognitive abilities of the chicken has come the realization that the chicken is not an inferior species to be treated merely as a food source."
Now that’s a smart thing to say.