Animal Behavior

Hello faithful Blog Readers!  This installment is brought to you by ShaeLynn, because Kevin has a lot on his plate, and because I’ve been thinking it might be nice to put a word in again (last time I did was to announce our engagement… no such important news this time).   

No, these guys aren't on the ranch!
One of the most fascinating connections between my old life and this one is my exploration of animal intelligence.  For my honors thesis, I watched hours of video of bonobos at the wild animal park, which means that I listened to the tour guide say, roughly 10 thousand times, that bonobos have the intelligence of a human three year old.  I always found this fact to be very misleading.  On one hand, similar to a three-year-old, bonobos are decent at counting up to about 20, but don’t do much math beyond that.  Unlike a three year old, though, they really struggle with anything beyond a basic, basic grammatical system.  But also unlike a three year old, they engage in extremely complex and calculated social behaviors designed to maintain or disrupt a delicately balanced dominance hierarchy.  Three year olds are learning to do this, but in my experience (with three year olds and bonobos) the three year olds have nothing on the chimps.  So in any case, this comparison (bonobo to three year old) always seemed a little arbitrary to me. 

Nearly every time I tell someone that I am raising turkeys and chickens, they respond with something along the lines of, “wow, those guys aren’t too bright!”  So imagine my surprise when I’m browsing a local animal rescue website, and their chicken page declares that because chickens understand object permanence, they are smarter than a three year old!  Here we go again.  What does that statement mean?  Object permanence is the knowledge that when something goes out of your view, it still exists, it doesn’t just pop out of existence because it’s out of your field of vision.  There is debate in the field about how well (human) children do on this test.  It’s one of those things where most parents would say that their three year old understands this concept, but they routinely fail the test.  I tend to blame the test in this case.  So, while I find it impressive that a chicken passes this test, I’m not sure I find it to be compelling evidence that they are smarter than a three year old.  On the other hand, I think most folks underestimate the intelligence of these birds.  I like to say that they aren’t too great at being humans, but they are, actually, remarkably smart about chicken things.  I have yet to be able to narrow this down to specific behaviors or anecdotes, but I really feel that it’s there.
One particularly interesting piece of chicken behavior is that as soon as one chicken shows and interest in an object, all the surrounding chickens want that object.  It doesn’t matter what it is.  It doesn’t matter that the other chickens don’t even KNOW what it is.  What matters is that SHE wants it, and if SHE wants it, then HE wants it.  It’s fascinating.  I think it’s interesting to see the evolutionary history of this trait.  If food is scarce, then always getting a bite off your neighbor’s mouthful would be a good evolutionary strategy.  The setting that makes it so interesting though, is when the object isn’t scarce!  The day after the PLANT! party, we started feeding our hens the leftover spaghetti from the party.  Despite the fact that we gave them a hotel-pan of spaghetti, so big they could have all stood in the pan at the same time and gorged, they collectively ate the spaghetti one bite at a time.  One girl would get a good noodle in her mouth, another would notice, and then all four would chase her around taking little nibbles off her noodle, even though there are HUNDREDS more noodles in the pan.  Then, when that mouthful was gone, they’d all run back to the pan and start the whole thing over again.
Evolution is obviously thrown a little out of whack with these guys because they’ve been domesticated, but even that can be interesting.  Domesticated turkeys have very little inherent fear of humans, which in my experience is very different from their wild cousins.  Whereas even the chickens shy away from the side of the shelter when I kneel down to take pictures, I have more pictures than I even want to think about with turkey heads blocking the action because they approached me!  One particularly intrepid turkey managed to escape his shelter when we propped up the sides for ventilation on a hot day, and he ended up “exploring” the inside of our raccoon trap!  Incidentally, he’s the only thing I’ve seen set the trap off—which is a good thing!  And while I have a hard time believing the old story about turkeys drowning in the rain, I can imagine all kinds of other trouble they get into.  Essentially I wouldn’t say that turkeys are stupid—I’d say that their natural and healthy fears have been turned off to the extent that they don’t shy away from dangers.  I’m not sure if fear is something that was bred out of them deliberately, or if it’s a side effect of domestication (like floppy ears on mammals), but either way, it’s interesting that they maintained their curiosity without the appropriate level of fear to reign it in.
Thanks for sticking around for the animal behavior lecture!  I’m sure I will have more to say on this topic (in fact, I could say more now, but I’ll spare you!).  Instead, I’ll leave you with a somewhat hilarious bit of animal behavior—the ever elusive Stealth Cow!