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April 24, 2014

New research ruffles feathers

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By Pat Kelly.

A new study has shown that empathy, long thought to be a uniquely human characteristic, is not just the preserve of homo sapiens.

Gallus gallus — or the common hen, to you and I — may not be so bird-brained after all. Researchers at Bristol University have recently concluded a series of experiments, which showed that chickens clearly exhibit empathic traits and signs of anxiety when their young are disturbed.

This is the first time such results have been gleaned from any creature in the bird species and the researchers said that the outcome may have implications for the welfare of chickens raised in battery farms.

In humane tests, the feathers of chicks were ruffled by gusts of air and the hens’ reactions were monitored. The hens clearly showed what in psychological terms is described as ‘mirroring’, in which the hens became increasingly alert, their heart rates increased, and their eye temperatures lowered — a tell-tale sign of anxiety. The hens also dramatically reduced their preening activities and ‘clucked’ at the chicks more than usual.

The researchers also noted that in battery farms, commercially-reared chickens may be highly affected when encountering others who are distressed “owing to routine husbandry practices or the high prevalence of conditions such as bone fractures or leg disorders”.

Study leader Prof Joe Edgar explained: “We found that adult female birds possess at least one of the essential underpinning attributes of empathy — the ability to be affected by, and share, the emotional state of another.” The findings were published recently by the Royal Society.

pat.kelly@imt.ie