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Rooster in the mirror: these bird-brains may be smarter than we thought

It turns out bird-brained might not be the insult we thought it was. According to research done by a pair of universities in Germany, roosters may have the ability recognize themselves. But it took an unconventional method to get there.

A research team in Germany came up with a new method for determining self-awareness in roosters

A rooster looks at itself in the mirror.

It turns out being bird-brained might not be much of an insult, as new research by a pair of universities in Germany suggests that roosters may have the ability to recognize themselves in the mirror.

But it took an unconventional method to get there.

"A lot of people just totally underestimate the cognitive abilities of chickens," Inga Tiemann told As It Happens host Nil Köksal.

Tiemann studies the behaviour of chickens at the Institute of Agricultural Engineering at the University of Bonn in Germany. She teamed up with researchers at Ruhr University Bochum to find out if chickens were self-aware.

Their research was published last week on PLOS ONE, a peer-reviewed journal published by the Public Library of Science.

The study's authors say that research into animals' self-awareness is an important part of discussions on animal protection and animal welfare.

Finding a new method

A mirror test is the go-to tool for researchers testing animal awareness. Typically, researchers put a mark on an animal's head and then watch to see how the animal reacts to the change in their appearance.

"When you present a mirror, the animals touch the mark, as it is something strange on their body," said Tiemann.

It's easy to record the reaction of a dog or cat, which have many different facial expressions. According to Tiemann, reading the face of a chicken is a bit more difficult

The research team tried the traditional testing method, but the rooster didn't give any indication that it recognized itself as the bird the mirror.

It adds yet more evidence that helps us reposition our species as maybe not being as intellectually special as we once thought.

– Joe Nocera, associate professor of wildlife management at the University of New Brunswick

"You really have to get to know chickens in order to understand their emotions," Tiemann said.

So the team altered the test a bit. Roosters are known to alert their hens with a special call if a predator is nearby. But if they are alone, the rooster will often stay still, hoping its enemy won't notice.

Tiemann and her team set up an arena with two pens and ran a couple scenarios.

Two women with a carton of eggs.

More study needed

In the first scenario, they placed a rooster in one pen, hens in the other and projected the image of a predatory bird onto the ceiling.

They tested 58 roosters, repeating the experiment three times with each rooster. In the first scenario, the roosters issued their danger alarm 77 times when other chickens were present, but only 17 times when they were alone.

In the second scenario, they put the rooster in one pen and a mirror in the other to see if the rooster would try to warn its mirror image of the projected predatory bird.

If the bird was self aware, Tiemann explains, it wouldn't bother to alert its mirror image. If it recognized the reflection as another bird, it would sound the alarm.

Of the 174 trials, roosters only let out the warning cry 25 times.

"This indicates that the rooster understands that it's himself in the mirror instead of another animal," said Tiemann. "It seems to us that they show a self awareness."

But Tiemann says more testing is needed. It's possible the rooster was just confused by the mirror image.

Two women walk towards a chicken coop.

Joe Nocera, an associate professor of wildlife management at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, says the method used in the study is a step forward for this type of research.

"The result is both intriguing and unsurprising at the same time. It is unsurprising because self-awareness is now being found as a widespread trait in animals quite evolutionary distant from humans," said Nocera, who wasn't part of the study but read the findings.

"It is intriguing that it may extend all the way to chickens, which have never been associated with great intelligence."

Nocera says this type of research is important for understanding animal psychology and its development.

"Knowing these things is essential for how we interact with them…. Essentially it helps improve animal welfare," said Nocera.

"Prior to modern science, we long thought only humans had self-awareness. Now we know it extends to primates, ravens, crows, and now maybe even chickens. It adds yet more evidence that helps us reposition our species as maybe not being as intellectually special as we once thought."

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