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Nov/Dec 2006 – Animal Intelligence

Some curious goings-on in the barnyard this week set me to thinking about animal intelligence. First, there was the lamb that held back while the others dashed for the freshly loaded hay feeders. Normally this would signal illness, but as Susan and I approached to investigate, the lamb moved slowly ahead of us, looking over her shoulder to see that we were following. She lead us around the corner of the barn where, in a hidden quarter of the yard, was another lamb with its head stuck in the squares of a page wire fence. The lamb’s head was rubbed raw from struggling. If it hadn’t been able to free itself, and I doubt that it could have, we wouldn’t have known about it until alerted by the stench of a rotting carcass. We released it, and the freed lamb and her friend scampered off in time for a feed of hay. The first lamb had lead us to her troubled flockmate, and at the expense of a meal.

Then I watched the sows as the new dog, Quilly, repeatedly trotted by their farrowing pens. Though the sows cannot see beyond the solid, waist-high walls, they followed the dog’s progress as if connected by a tether. Back and forth their heads swung—like spectators watching a long rally in a tennis match. Call it instinct if you want, but alert minds were at work.

Interesting, isn’t it, how we pay so much attention to the body of creatures when they are so clearly possessed of intelligence? Or perhaps their intelligence is an inconvenient reality better forgotten: the drumstick could think, the bacon had a brain.

As anyone who knows me will tell you, I’ve long been an admirer of chickens. I once wrote an essay comparing the intelligence of chickens and humans, and observed that whereas the collective intelligence of chickens increases with the size of a flock—they hook up in series, like batteries in a dump truck—the collective intelligence of humans decreases with the size of an organization. In other words, people get stupider in groups, the ultimate examples being school boards, the United Nations, parliamentary subcommittees etc.

Based on our experience with a new flock this summer, I’d suggest that there’s another complex intelligence at work in poultry. The chickens, despite repeated efforts at fencing, kept escaping. I now believe that they—alleged to have short attention spans—are actually possessed of extraordinary concentration that allows them to focus on one thing with all the intensity of a chess master. In this case, the focus was escaping.

Here’s what I think happens: a farmer applies, say, 45 per cent of his or her intelligence to patching a fence for two hours. A chicken applies 100 per cent of her admittedly much smaller intelligence to getting out, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The farmer’s effort is big but short term, the chickens’ teensy but lasting.

It isn’t really a fair match, is it? A quick burst of half-focused energy versus a thorough relentless force. It reminds of all the other classic lopsided battles that have been waged since time began: water versus earth, wind versus rock, diesel versus gasoline.

So, am I about to turn over the farm to the livestock? No. But given the hash people are making of things (see United Nations, above), I wouldn’t object if a barred rock hen was on the next election ballot.