Sunday, October 20, 2013

1173. Birdbrains?

By Nicholas D. Kristof, The New York Times, October 19, 2013
Chicken in cages

SOME Americans are wondering whether to eat chicken in the aftermath of the latest salmonella outbreak.

But there’s another reason to avoid poultry, and that’s the inhumane way birds are often raised. We tend to feel more sympathy for calves with large, cute eyes, but, as an Oregon farmboy, I have to say that poultry are far from the nitwits we assume — and of the two-legged folk I’ve met over the decades, some of the most admirable have been geese.
Even as a boy, I was struck that our geese mated for life, showing each other tenderness and support without obvious marital squabbles or affairs. If there are philandering geese, I have never met one.
I remember being impressed by the way our geese shared family obligations. A mother goose would sit on her nest, while her mate would set out into the fields and find, say, an overlooked stash of corn kernels. Instead of sneaking a few for himself, he would rush them back to his “wife.”
The nobility of geese was most on display at execution time. My job as an 11-year-old when we beheaded the geese was to capture a bird and take it to the chopping block as my dad wielded the ax.
So I would rush at the terrified flock and randomly grab an unlucky goose. The bird in my arms would honk in terror and try to escape, and the other geese would cower in the corner of the barn.
Then one goose would emerge from the flock and walk tremulously toward me, terrified but unwilling to abandon its mate. It would waddle after me toward the chopping block, trying to honk comfort to its mate.
Even as a child, I was awed. This was raw courage and fidelity — and maybe conjugal love, although it sounds hokey to say so — that made me wonder if these animals were actually our moral superiors.
Maybe my farmboy recollections reflect anthropomorphism or soggy sentimentality. But, in the last decade or so, scientists have conducted experiments that tend to confirm the notion that poultry are smarter and more sophisticated than we give them credit for.
For starters, hens can count — at least to six. They can be taught that food is in the sixth hole from the left and they will go straight to it. Even chicks can do basic arithmetic, so that if you shuffle five items in a shell game, they mentally keep track of additions and subtractions and choose the area with the higher number of items. In a number of such tests, chicks do better than toddlers.
A lengthy study this year from the University of Bristol in Britain, “The Intelligent Hen,” lays out the evidence for the chicken as an intellectual. The study also notes that hens are willing to delay gratification if the reward is right.
Researchers in one study gave hens the option of two keys, one of which would wait two seconds and then give the hen three seconds of food, and the other would force a wait of six seconds but offer 22 seconds of food. After learning that trade-off, 93 percent of hens preferred the delay with more food.
Chickens communicate with different calls to warn about ground predators and birds of prey. Still other calls signal food.
Hens are social animals, preferring the companionship of those they know to strangers. They recover more quickly from stress when they are with an acquaintance.
Their brains are good at multitasking, for the right eye looks out for food, while the left watches for predators and potential mates. Poultry watch television, and, in one experiment, learned from watching birds on TV how to find food in particular bowls.
Look, farmbirds are not Einsteins. But evidence is mounting that they’re smarter than we have assumed, and just because they don’t have big brown eyes doesn’t mean that they should be condemned to spend their lives jammed into tiny cages in stinking, fetid barns, with bodies of dead birds sometimes left rotting beside live ones.
I don’t know myself where to draw the lines. I eat meat, so this entire column may be braised in hypocrisy. But just as we try to protect dogs and cats from undue suffering, without necessarily considering them our equals, it makes sense to minimize animal suffering more broadly when we can. So even when there are no salmonella outbreaks, there are good reasons to keep away from wretched birds raised in factory farms.
For my part, whenever I’m offered goose, I think back to my childhood and see those brave birds stepping forward, gallantly trying to console their mates. Whatever we make of these animals, we needn’t scorn them as “birdbrains.”

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