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The cognitive chicken: higher mental processing in a humble brain

Play  The cognitive chicken Part I  Lesley Rogers I.mp3  
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Professor Lesley Rogers, from the University of New England, looks at research carried out at the Italian universities in Trento and Padua into cognition in birds. The research by Professors Giorgio Vallortigara and Lucia Regolin and colleagues shows that chicks display some higher cognitive abilities just days after hatching, that human babies do not achieve until at least seven months old.    

One example is known as amodal completion, which means chicks can complete (ie recognise) an object when it is partly obscured. A picture of a dog behind a tree, for instance, is seen by human babies as separate animals, whereas chicks see it as one, something humans can't do until eighteen months of age.    

Chickens can imprint on various things but in this experiment it was a pink triangle, which they would duly approach as "mother". The chicks were then tested in an alley with a pink triangle with a black bar across it at one end and the bar and separated pieces of the triangle at the other end. Given this choice (see diagram of testl set up below), they approached the former, demonstrating amodal competion was among their cognitive abilities. It is thought that this skill is needed for survival very early in life for chicks who need to follow their mothers around, no matter how much of the hen's body is visible.



Chicks can correctly identify biological motion from a moving point light display (see left: stationary example of human biomotion stimulus image) In a series of experiments, chicks were imprinted to a point light display of a hen walking (see video clip of hen biomotion). Given a choice between a random pattern of dots moving and the point light display of a hen walking, the hen was selected, clearly showing they were reacting to biological motion.
In addition, they can correctly discriminate between the moving hen display and the same moving stimulus presented upside down (see upside down hen biomotion video clip) or when the moving hen dot array was 'scrambled' (see scrambled hen biomotion video clip).

Hen biomotion        Play  henbiomotion.mpg  
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Scrambled hen biomotion        Play  scrambledhenbiomotion.mpg  
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Upside down hen biomotion        Play  upside down hen biomotion.mpg  
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Chicks can also follow the direction of gaze of human eyes. In this experiment, a floor with grains of food scattered on it was located on one side of an arena and a mask head was fixed to the wall. While the head remained facing forward, the eyes could be swivelled to the right or the left. When the gaze of the mask was directed towards the floor with food, chicks naïve to human eyes would take a long time to approach the food, as if avoiding the attention of a predator. If the gaze was directed away from the food, the chicks would approach the food more readily. There may be survival value in responding to the direction of gaze of a potential predator.  

Chicks experienced with human eyes show the opposite results, perhaps because they have learnt to associate the direction of human eye gaze with getting fed. 


Chicks can also use geometry. They were trained to find grains of food under sawdust in the centre of a circular arena. The shape of the arena may then changed to a square or triangle but that doesn't fool the chicks, who go straight to the centre no matter what the shape. Further, the size of the arena (ie the distance from the walls) is not the cue being used by the chicks since they perform equally well if trained in a small arena and then tested in larger ones of the same (or different) shapes.

Young chicks also have a range of numeracy abilities. For example, in one series of studies, chicks were imprinted to a suspended red ball, others to two balls and yet others to three balls. The chicks were then put in transparent holding cages inside a large arena which had two screens. The screens were used to show pictures of suspended red balls of differing numbers. Released chickens would correctly identify the right number of balls to match their particular imprinted memory, showing numerical ability. They also have been shown to have the ability to correctly discriminate (or count) at least up eight, something that toddlers will take many months to achieve.

Separate groups of chicks were trained to feed from (say) the third, fourth or sixth bowls in a series of bowls. The graph of results for the three groups, shows clearly that the chicks were able to correctly identify the appropriate ordinal bowl number whatever the length of the row.     

The researchers were able to demonstrate that it was the position number (for example bowl four) that the chicks were determining and not simply the distance of the bowl from the chick.  Here, most of the bowls were removed, so that (eg) now the bowl that is fourth in line from the chick is in the distance location of the original bowl ten in the series (see diagram). The overwhelming preference by chicks was for the correct serial position number and not simply the distance location. That is they chose the fourth bowl in line away from them.



Do chicks 'count' from left to right? By taking the above studies one step further (and changing the orientation of  the line of bowls with respect to the chicks) the researchers discovered that chicks have a strong preference for counting from left to right.  The experimental set up and results are summarised below, together with a video clip that demonstrates the set up and findings.


Is it only humans who count from left to right.        Play  Filmato_ordinale_definitivissimo.wmv  
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Chickens are clearly very skilled thinkers - perhaps something to ponder over the next serving of KFC.

This is Part I of Professor Rogers' discussion. All images and film clips have generously been provided by Professor Giorgio Vallortigara, Centre for Mind/Brain Sciences, University of Trento.
His webpage address is: http://www.unitn.it/en/cimec/11761/giorgio-vallortigara

Professor Lesley Rogers was interviewed for A Question of Balance by Ruby Vincent.  All images were supplied by Professor Giorgio Vallortigara. Summary text was prepared by Victor Barry,  January 2011.

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