The humble hen shows off its clever side

Chickens are smarter than dogs when it comes to problem solving, according to research revealed in a TV documentary presented by Jimmy Doherty.

In The Private Life of Chickens, on BBC2, Jimmy, who runs’ Jimmy’s Farm in Suffolk, sought to find out what really goes on a chicken’s brain.

In addition to testing how clever they are, he found out how they decide their pecking order, how they communicate with their chicks, whether they really can change sex, and how they guard against predators.

The programme was one of a series in which Jimmy looks at the hidden lives of farmyard animals and, in other programmes, he focuses on pigs and cattle.

Much of the research for the chickens programme was carried out at Jane Howorth’s farm in Devon. Jane runs the British Hens Welfare Trust and is a leading authority on chicken behaviour.

The intelligence test was carried out by students studying animal behaviour at Exeter University. They trained hens to recognise shapes on trays where worms would be hidden – and the hens very quickly learned how to find the food. In another experiment, a bird of prey was released above a flock of hens to see how they reacted. A cockerel immediately spotted the danger and gave an alarm call, which sent the hens scurrying under the cover of a tree. The bird of prey bided his time on a tree and later swooped for the kill, but the hens were still protected and he was unable to take one. A further experiment, to look at how hens establish a pecking order, involved marking the tail of each bird and observing how one hen became dominant, and the behaviour displayed to achieve this.

Researchers also detected how hens use sound to communicate with their chicks even before they emerge from their eggs, and confirmed that it is possible for a hen to change sex if there is internal damage to its hormonal system.

Finally, Jimmy accompanied Jane to collect 100 caged birds from a farm where they were being intensively reared. Once released in a barn, the birds adapted to their new surroundings almost immediately, and showed little fear.

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