The smartest chicken in the world

I am not a romantic.

My husband will vouch for me here. When we got married, it was a cut-and-dried affair. We went down to City Hall with our two oldest friends and, eight seconds later, we were married. We then took our two oldest friends out for breakfast, and got on a plane to go to golf school in Arizona.

When we got home, in the space where my dirt-cheap 24-inch gas stove used to be, was a brand new Viking, gift-wrapped. Kevin had bought it as a wedding present, on the sly, and arranged to have it installed while we were away. It was exactly what I wanted, and I was completely surprised. What did I get him? Not a damn thing. It never occurred to me that you were supposed to get your spouse a gift on the occasion of your marriage.

Since then, I’ve remembered about half of our anniversaries. Sometimes, we go out to dinner to celebrate. Sometimes we don’t. This year, our friends the Caplans were in town, visiting their kids at Brown, and our anniversary celebration was an intimate Ethiopian dinner for seven. We couldn’t have been happier.

The Wikipedia dictionary defines “romantic,” the adjective, as “inclined toward or suggestive of the feeling of excitement and mystery associated with love.” In a broader sense, “romantic,” the noun, is a person who is “imaginative but impractical.” Seeing as I am not inclined toward mystery associated with anything at all, and I am as practical as I am unimaginative, I think I can rest my case.

Which is why you can believe me when I tell you that we have the smartest chicken in the world.

Not being a romantic, I don’t romanticize my pets or my livestock. Our cat was a fine cat, and we cared for her, but she barfed on the rug and was certainly no Felinestein. Our pigs were nice pigs, and we cared for them, but they weren’t always nice to each other and they had terrible table manners. Our chickens have been perfectly satisfactory backyard chickens. Some more engaging than others, but nothing out of the ordinary. Until George.

When George was a chick, she was a lot like other chicks. She didn’t start to stand out from the flock until she was old enough to roam around the property. And then, in a matter of days, she earned her name. Any open door, she would go through it. Any new bench, or box, or boat, and she would jump up on it. Leave your car trunk open, and she’d be inside, checking it out. A new person? She’d come over to get acquainted. We’d never had such a curious chicken.

She figured things out. There was a fence around the garden, but George would fly up to the top of the woodshed and then down into the collard greens. All the chickens eat the potato leaves that stick out through the chicken wire surrounding their raised beds, but only George reasoned that she could reach the untouched upper leaves if she stood on the tree stump next to the bed.

But I know that’s not so remarkable. My mother told me that my great uncle Frank, who had a couple hundred chickens on his subsistence farm, would band any chicken that got into the garden. If she got in twice, she was fricassee. Chickens figure out how to get in gardens.

George, though, looks you in the eye. You talk to her, and she gives evidence of understanding she’s being addressed. But the incident that convinced me that George was the smartest chicken in the world was back in the winter, when rats were getting into the chicken run.

There is wire fencing attached to the underside of the timbers that form the base of the run, and it’s covered with about six inches of wood chips and dirt. Any predator that tries to dig under the wall will hit the fencing and be prevented from getting into the run. Rats, though, are small enough to fit through the holes. Although they aren’t a threat to the chickens, they were eating a lot of the feed, and we wanted to put a stop to it.

So, section by section, I shoveled away the dirt and woodchips and exposed the fencing. I covered it with chicken wire, which has much smaller holes, and then put the dirt and woodchips back. I spent many hours over several days getting the job done. This was winter, when our chickens don’t get out much. There’s nothing for them to forage, and there isn’t enough leaf cover for them to be safe, so we keep them in most days. They were right there in the run with me as I worked.

Most of them took advantage of freshly dug piles of dirt and woodchips to scratch around looking for something to eat. Anyone who has chickens can attest to their inability to resist a freshly shoveled pile. But George had other ideas. She needed to see what I was doing, and hung out next to me as I worked. My third day in the run, though, she seemed agitated. As I lay the chicken wire on the run floor, she started making chicken noises and pecking at my gloves. Not hard, but insistently. She’d peck my glove and then look at me. In the face. I looked at her and said, “George, what is it?” and she actually pecked my upper lip. Not hard — it didn’t hurt. But I have never, before or since, had a sense that a chicken was trying to communicate.

As a physical specimen, George is nothing to write home about. She’s a runt, and she looks like she’s perpetually molting – she never gets the filled-out, glossy look of a fully feathered chicken. She never seems like she’s completely integrated into the flock; she goes off on her own while the other birds tend to stick together. Lately, she seems to spend a lot of time with Queenie, a docile, tractable chicken. George taught Queenie how to get into the garden, and that may be the kind of thing that makes fast friends in chickendom. But George still seems to be more interested in people than in other chickens.

I’ve often wondered about chicken intelligence. Birds run the IQ gamut, with crows and parrots on the sharp end of the scale, and domestic turkeys anchoring the dull end. Chickens haven’t had the luxury of natural selection, which might award more points than human breeders do to raw intelligence. We’ve bred them to lay eggs, raise chicks, and put themselves to bed at night, and they haven’t had much need to think for themselves.

There are people studying chicken intelligence, but here’s where we come back to the problem of being a romantic.  Christine Nicol is a Bristol University professor who reviewed the chicken literature and concluded, among other things, that her chickens are smarter than your toddlers.  She also claimed they are good at math, and exhibit laudatory self-control.  And don’t forget their vaunted structural engineering ability!  Since a drawing of an actual, buildable building chickens’ attention longer than an Escheresque impossible structure, Professor Nicol concluded they were evaluating new coop design

I’m willing to give you even money she’s never forgotten an anniversary.

24 people are having a conversation about “The smartest chicken in the world

  1. I got five chicks 4 years ago. There was one that was my shadow. She was incredibly smart and intuitive. I miss her.

  2. There’s always one. I have no idealization that any of my chickens can count to 3 or build their own coop, but there was Henny Penny who could wrangle a sausage from 2 Very large dogs. And Miss Busy Body who sounds a lot like George. BTW what was George up too??

  3. Also, I find it interesting that our measure of “intelligence” is based on what our species is capable of.

  4. Love it! I love the special one that stand out in a crowd, human or otherwise. But I’m with everyone else – did you figure out what she was trying to tell you?

    After six years of living with my cat Giblet, I’ve finally started figuring out her vocabulary. Usually she just wants me to pay attention to or play with her, but the most insistent meows mean, “My food bowl is empty, you idiot!” or “Let me into the garage – it’s 120 degrees in there and I want to pretend I’m an African lion on the savannah.”

    • That’s it — it’s why living with animals is interesting and satisfying. It’s only when you’re in close quarters, for an extended periods, that the differences among the individuals make themselves known. And then you start to wonder — why does George like cars, but Elvis won’t go near them? Why is Mumps so skittish, and Queenie so complacent? Or why is Giblet meowing in that particular way?

      It is to your credit that you have discovered that your cat has an active fantasy life.

      • Unfortunately for Giblet, we sometimes don’t realize she’s out there and she gets shut in the garage. But judging by her body temperature when we find her, she’s found some cool spots in her little personal savannah.

  5. I’ve said it before: Red is special. I find the way she follows me around endlessly charming. I will happily underwrite her private school tuition or summer camp:) That’s Some Chicken:)

  6. It is with regret that I admit that I never did figure out what she was trying to tell me. My suspicion is that she was simply hungry for human company, but it’s possible that she wanted to point out the structural flaws in the coop, or report on the number of rats that had broken in.

    I feel sort of stupid even telling the story, because I do believe chickens are limited creatures, and it’s hard for me to countenance the idea that they might have something to tell us. But there’s a lot we don’t know about what goes on in animals’ brains. Hell, I can’t even usually tell what my husband is thinking, let alone my chicken.

    • I think Trish made a good point – we all too often judge animal intelligence by comparing their capabilities with ours. You have to let go of that to recognize that different abilities and thought processes can be equally worthy of respect.

  7. Tamar,
    You forgot to mention the chicken that are usually at a fair that will play tic tac toe with you and you usually would lose, which would prove your theory on the chicken intelligents

    • We thought about teaching George tic tac toe. We figured we could make a little extra money, but it somehow seemed undignified.

  8. I have noticed there is a difference with some chicks — most will be milling around, acting like normal chicks, but then there is the one that when you look in the brooder, it is looking back. It is the one that has an ineffable something extra that the other chicks don’t share. It will be the one who understands that you are not a big, bad monster, so it does not run away like the others. When you pick it up, instead of struggling, it will calm down and look you in the face. There is a different kind of sentience there; a different way of thinking from the way most chickens think.

    I think these are the birds that we tend to develop a special attachment with.

    I sound far more mystical and new age here than I actually am. It is just that I have observed this more than once. The chick that looks you in the eye in the brooder is different.

    • You’re right, and there’s no new age about it. Some chickens seem to have an interest in humans, and a real understanding of the relationship.

  9. Henry,
    We are currently trying to teach George accounting… So far nothing but chicken scratch!

  10. Tamar – I have in fact played (and lost) tic tac toe to a chicken in Cape Cod. There was a time-worn and slightly depressing place that used to be called the Aqua Circus (Yarmouth, I think). So, it seems there’s a precedence for game playing chickens in your neck of the woods. George sounds like she could be next in line for that throne. And I’m due a re-match.

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