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More on Bird Brains…

Last time around, Miriam shared her reactions to the “news” that chickens feel empathy. Pattrice here, with a few more words on the subject of bird feelings, and the brains that generate them.

My first reaction to the news story was a flood of memories. The sanctuary’s original site was on a country road shared by several factory farms. Often, open-sided trucks stacked with crates of young chickens headed for the slaughterhouse rumbled down that road, only a few feet from the yards where the birds who had found sanctuary with us foraged and socialized. When that happened, all of the birds would freeze for a moment, silence hanging in the air in the wake of the departing monstrosity.

This did not happen when other big trucks rumbled past the yard. It seemed clear enough to me that the chickens were sensing and responding to what must have been a deluge of feeling flooding from the terrified youngsters in the trucks.

Chickens express empathy? Oh yes, I saw so many instances in my years at the sanctuary. Once, early on, we didn’t even realize that one bird was blind until the hen who had been her friend, guide, and protector died.

Altruism. That’s another trait that we people like to attribute only to ourselves. Consciousness. Tool making. Self-awareness. Each of these and so many other characteristics have fallen by the wayside in the wake of proof—as if any were needed—that other animals have them too.

Including birds. Especially birds. Like us, birds are social animals whose brains evolved consciousness and intelligence in response to the taxing cognitive demands of collective survival in ever-changing circumstances. Empathy is one of the most essential skills for any social animal. Too bad our own capacities in that realm have become so atrophied.

Speaking of science and chicken empathy, the story of a particularly empathic chicken at the sanctuary appears in an article I recently wrote for the psychology journal Spring. You can read all about a little rooster called Heartbeat, and learn a lot about bird brains, here.

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