My neighbour James brings us his rooster, carrying him across the street in his arms. I watch from the dining room window where I sit working, watch the rooster’s succulent comb tremoring lightly, his long yellow legs dangling below the crook of James’s arm. They are smooth, still spurless, and remind me of a rubber chicken’s legs. The bird looks placid, like a trusting cat at ease, like he might drift off to sleep in James’s embrace. I feel a pang of guilt, sorry that the rooster will soon meet the blade and, if chickens believe such things, his maker.
Luckily, for me, my husband has agreed to do the slaughtering.
I go out and meet James. It’s a sunny day in late summer, hot, and we stand awkwardly for a moment in my driveway.
‘Well, here’s Stanley,’ James says.
‘You’ve named him?’ I say, trying not to sound like I’m criticising. James nods, explains how Stanley, sweet at first, developed a bad habit of chasing and menacing his five-year-old grandson. Across the street, James’s chickens roam in what was once a home daycare yard. Stanley started flying over the chain-link fence. Then the hens followed. They’d end up in the road or in an unhappy neighbour’s yard. And Stanley didn’t crow only at first light, but throughout the day, his hoarse call a crackling single note at first, quickly gaining syllables and volume.
‘It just got to be too much, you know?’
I nod, because I do. And I shouldn’t judge – we’d named our rooster, too, even though his name was Rooster, and it’s been about a year since we slaughtered him.
I marvel at Stanley’s plumage, clay-coloured with a hint of blue, darker bars lining his back and wings. He is lean and gangly, a teenager still, probably feather-light. He won’t make much of a meal. I know that if I were to feel for it, I’d find the hollow of his crop at the base of his throat and the washboard of his ribs beneath his wings. Maybe this, his youthful frailty, is why he sits so trustily in James’s grip. If it weren’t for Stanley’s bad habits, he could have had a good life with James.
I go inside to get a pet carrier to put Stanley in until my husband returns. ‘I hadn’t even thought of that,’ James says, and I wonder how he didn’t think of it, wonder what he assumed he’d do with Stanley when he brought him to our house. Maybe he was flustered, or rushing to get Stanley out before his grandson came over so he wouldn’t have to explain what he was doing. But mostly, it seems like he just didn’t think of it at all. I see this as a testament to how removed we are from slaughter, with what have come to be seen as the unsavoury details of backyard poultry-keeping. James probably didn’t think through bringing his rooster to his neighbour’s to be slaughtered because he’d never considered that he’d ever have to think through slaughtering a rooster. When he got the chickens, he probably didn’t think of having a rooster at all. His rooster, like so many unwanted ones of backyard chicken-keepers, was an accident. He’d bought six chicks at an agricultural store who’d been sexed immediately after hatching, but the act of sexing day-old chicks is hardly a science, or at least it’s one with a large margin of error.
James declines my offer to bring him chicken soup, not wanting to have to explain it to his grandson: ‘Now, remember Stanley…?’ he jokes, envisioning the conversation that would ensue over Stanley soup. I tell him I get it. We say goodbye. I park Stanley in the shade on our back patio and he peers with a beady eye through the holes of his carrier. I wonder what he knows, what he suspects, if anything. Chickens hate different: anything out of the ordinary is a signal of a threat – a coop with freshly changed shavings is a reason to baulk; a different food bowl is subject to wary scrutiny; a fresh dusting of snow on the ground enough to keep the birds cooped up for half a day.
Each time Stanley crows from the pet carrier, my heart contracts a little with guilt and, home and alone, I dissect the feeling, wondering if I can ever know if my guilt is innate, or just the byproduct of cultural norms that have sanitarily separated me from the bloody goings-on of meat-eating I’ve come to accept intellectually (all beings must die) and ecologically (many small flocks of backyard birds are easier on the land than massive agricultural compounds, and eating eggs, industrial or sustainable, leaves us with the dilemma of what to do with roosters) but that I still can’t negotiate morally (do I have the right to take this bird’s life?).
A man carries a chicken in his arms to give to his neighbour as a gift. The image almost seems like a metaphor, or the origin of a euphemism: He brought me a chicken – both a gift and a burden, a cursed offering of sorts.
If we suddenly start acknowledging chickens as more than just food, or more than even livestock, would we also agree they are beings worthy of a decent life?
From one perspective, I see a man who is ill-equipped to deal with the reality of keeping poultry – ‘livestock’, as poultry is defined in much of the United States – like so many other contemporary Americans who start out with good intentions and fantasies of sustainability. Contemporary Americans who get backyard chickens tend to treat the birds like pets, because that’s the way we know how to relate to animals. But unlike cats and dogs, whose unsavoury characteristics we’ve learned to manage (spaying and neutering, obedience classes, routine vaccines, etc), we’re too out of touch with chickens to know what we’re in for. Chickens aren’t pets, I can hear some old-time farmer chiding. To have chickens is to contend with animal behaviour and death in a new way, and most Americans aren’t prepared for this.
But if I look at this image another way, I see it as an opportunity: a chance to consider the chicken; one chicken – Stanley – as a creature and being worthy of a name and identity.
For the past half-century, Americans have mostly known chickens by their frozen body parts in the meat aisle, as tender ‘nuggets’, processed and breaded, delivered in a paper box. We’ve used chickens as adjectives and insults that routinely refer to cowardliness and stupidity (chicken-shit, bird-brained, dumb cluck, etc). But how many Americans have ever looked a chicken straight in the eye, really gazed into that black and amber orb, searching for some kind of signal? For meaning?
Chickens have become the most populous bird on Earth, yet we are distant from them. Somewhere under 23 billion chickens live on Earth today. The US has the largest broiler chicken industry in the world. Americans eat more chicken than anyone else, and eat more chicken than any other kind of meat. In 2015, the US produced 9 billion broiler chickens, processed in just 186 national evisceration plants. These slaughterhouses are out of sight and out of mind for most Americans, save the inhabitants of the towns where they exist. If you don’t live in one of those towns, then the lives and deaths of our most populous bird on Earth happen off-camera, their existence a mere technical detail of our daily lives. Yet the details are horrific: debeaking; caged birds whose feet grow around the rungs of the cage; genetic engineering that out-proportions bodies so that the bird would not even be able to stand if she were given the room to, which she is not. Their meat has become so ubiquitous that it creates quite the moral quandary. If we suddenly start acknowledging chickens as more than just food, or more than even livestock, would we also agree they are beings worthy of a decent life?
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A burgeoning awareness has led activists to leak what happens inside such facilities to the public through social media, with images and videos ripping virally through the internet – the quickest way to get people riled up about something. This increased awareness has precipitated a turn towards sustainable agriculture, a codification of what ‘organic’ means, and a general concern with the health and wellbeing of animals, the Earth, and those employed in the agriculture industry. In 2016, Massachusetts voted to approve a referendum requiring farmers of pig, calf and hen products sold in the state to provide adequate room for the animals, prohibiting ‘the sale of eggs, veal or pork of a farm animal confined in spaces that prevent the animal from lying down, standing up, extending its limbs or turning around’. The new law is set to go into effect in 2022.
An outgrowth of this burgeoning awareness is the trend of backyard chicken-keeping, in rural, urban and suburban settings in the US. In The New Yorker article ‘The It Bird’ (2009), Susan Orlean details her own experience obtaining a small flock of backyard hens. The telltale signs that informed Orlean that she was in the middle of a movement were the dozens of online chicken groups she eventually discovered; the ease with which she found a ready-built chicken coop online, which came with four young hens; and the fact that TreeHugger.com had ‘gone from describing urban chicken-raising as a “weird eco-habit” to declaring it a “movement across North America”’. She traces the trend back to the American lifestyle guru Martha Stewart, whose book Entertaining (1982) featured her Araucanas and Buff Cochins, with ‘Ford-model-style head shots that made them look ennobled’. They seemed ‘less like livestock and more like useful and companionable creatures’.
More recently, a 2013 report from the US Department of Agriculture found that, while less than 1 per cent of households in four major US cities kept backyard chickens, 4 per cent planned to have them in five years. With the backyard-chicken fad still booming, one question is going to become more prominent: what do we do with our roosters? We are going to be forced to confront chicken behaviour that we’d rather not confront (perhaps one of the reasons that moved chicken-farming out of our backyards and into industrial agricultural complexes in the first place).
Whether we become accustomed to slaughtering them ourselves or make space for them and learn to manage their behaviour, we must contend with violence – something we’d rather avoid. Perhaps newbie chicken-keepers are shocked and repulsed by the idea of violence, but owning chickens can mean not only slaughtering them but dealing with the rooster, an often-aggressive, if not violent bird.
Naomi Sykes, an archaeologist at the University of Nottingham and a director of the UK-based project Cultural and Scientific Perceptions of Human-Chicken Interactions, researches the evolution, history and migration of chickens throughout the world. She concludes that the introduction of chickens to various cultures throughout history wasn’t, in most instances, economic – chickens weren’t domesticated as food, but as symbolic animals full of vital energy. Their migration across the world with humans was for deeper socio-cultural reasons:
These introduced animals, so different from the native fauna and coming from remote realms, were seemingly imbued with cosmological power. Everywhere the chicken was introduced – Asia, Africa, America and Europe – it was quickly incorporated into magic and ritual practices.
Drawing on an assortment of historical and archaeological studies, Sykes draws a vast picture of the spread of the chicken that strongly correlates to cockfighting culture, weaving together studies about ancient literature, pictorial depictions and symbolism. Whereas others have concluded that chickens were introduced into Europe for meat, Sykes believes that ‘the high representation of cockerels … is better explained by their use in cockfighting or other ritual activities’.
It’s peculiar to think of such a sport as being powerful enough to drive the evolution of domestic chickens. In the US, cockfighting is now banned in all 50 states, Massachusetts being the first in 1836, and Louisiana being the last in 2008. Despite the perception that it is outlawed because it is cruel to roosters, it’s just as easy to make the argument that it has been outlawed because of its association with low-class, rural people, particularly in Appalachia, as well as with the Hispanic community, as the anthrozoologist Hal Herzog lays out in his book Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals (2010).
Chickens were selected for violence. It’s no surprise that cockfighting is correlated with masculinity
Herzog, whose psychology PhD dissertation was on human-chicken interaction, particularly in the realm of Appalachian cockfighting, discovered that rooster fighters look for three traits when breeding their birds for fighting:
The first is cutting – the ability of a cock to deliver accurate strikes to its opponent’s body, to puncture the lungs or heart. The second is the ability to put power behind the blows. But by far the most important trait, the one that gets breeders misty-eyed, is what they call true grit, or more commonly, gameness.
When he asked a third-generation cocker to define gameness, the answer he got was:
[T]heir desire to fight to the death … Gameness is the drive to beat the opponent. It is so instilled in the true game rooster that he is going to give everything he has, to his last breath.
It’s not difficult to speculate that some combination of such traits is what cockfighters have sought since humans first started breeding birds for the sport. And if Sykes is right – that the bird spread worldwide for fighting, not for food – then we can reasonably draw the conclusion that for thousands of years chickens were selected for particular, violent characteristics. It’s no surprise that cockfighting is correlated with masculinity (and, as Herzog contends, with ‘prostitution, identity theft, robbery, Mexican drug cartels, illegal gambling, bribery, gang activity, tax evasion, money laundering, immigration violations, hand grenades, and murder’).
It’s hardly surprising, contends Sykes, that ‘cockfighting tends to be the preserve of patriarchal societies’. After establishing a compelling correlation between cockfighting and the spread of chickens nearly everywhere across the globe, Sykes then turns her attention to a larger, anthropological question:
Given that most strands of evidence intimate that cockfighting was a central impetus for the domestication and spread of chickens, it is interesting that there has been little investigation into how the arrival of a cockfighting culture may have impacted upon the societies that adopted it.
It’s common to consider how human behaviour has influenced animals’ lives, but they can influence us, too, she says in her book Beastly Behaviour (2014):
[I]s it possible that the introduction and establishment of domestic fowl, an exotic species whose behaviour is unlike that of any of Europe’s native fauna, could have altered human behaviour and ideology?
To answer this, she examines the potential outcome that the ubiquity of cockfighting had on incidences of violence in Britain in particular. She suggests that chickens’ – and cockfighting’s – arrival in Britain directly affected how violence is expressed in humans. It’s possible that the introduction of cockfighting reduced violence overall, displacing other forms of violent behaviour (such as headhunting in East Timor, or ‘skull-curation’ in Iron Age Europe) with a sport where the violence was enacted by the animals rather than the humans. Sykes reviews archaeological data that suggests a ‘decline in interpersonal violence’ between the Iron Age and Roman eras in Britain. Whereas many would credit this decline in violence to Pax Romana, Sykes proposes an interpretation ‘that the emergence of a cockfighting culture allowed human conflict to be displaced onto animals’.
As roosters start crowding our backyards, will they start to change us again?
Indeed, archaeological evidence suggests a decline in war-type injuries inflicted on human bodies, men in particular, but indicates an increase in violence against women. Evidence that reveals an increase in nasal fractures in women from Iron Age to the Roman era indicates an increase in domestic violence, since contemporary data show that nasal fractures correlate with domestic violence. Sykes argues:
It seems feasible that a macho cockfighting culture could have arisen, potentially bringing an associated rise in female-directed violence, particularly if the sexually dominant behaviour of the cockerels was adopted by those who interacted with them.
Therefore, she concludes, ‘it is tempting to suggest’ that the prevalence of such fractures in women ‘reflect the kind of intimate terrorism often found in cockfighting societies’.
Did roosters exacerbate patriarchy? Create it, even? Did the human obsession with fighting these animals further suppress women? The term ‘intimate terrorism’ is one that I find frightening. I think of the intimate terrorism that plays out in the chicken yard, of roosters pinning hens, terrorising children. I also wonder – if so many people are keen on backyard chickens, and if so many people are unprepared for the violence of their roosters, does this mean that we’ve evolved our position on domestic violence against women (although, that’s not to say, of course, that the problem is by any means over)? As roosters start crowding our backyards, our urban and suburban neighbourhoods, will they start to change us again?
Despite living in a semi-rural region, my desire to keep chickens wasn’t any different from the New York transplants who started cropping up in my neighbourhood: I found myself increasingly separated from nature, particularly from animals. I craved something that would force me to be outside, even if momentarily. I craved a ritual chore that required me to bid attention to other creatures. As a professor, I was commuting two hours in a car, three days a week, to a city that could actually employ me. I spent more hours of my week inside my tiny Toyota Yaris than I did walking my dog. With the work-creep that seems unavoidable as better technology turns us into perpetually available-to-work cogs, I found myself, like so many Americans, yearning for some kind of interaction with the living, breathing world outside my cocoon of emails and grading and commuting. I wanted kinship. I wanted something to unglue me from the computer screen.
I wanted chickens.
My husband and I knew that having chickens was going to be more about the experience than any sort of practical way to save money on eggs. We embraced the experiential aspect. We ordered 16 chicks from a Midwest farm, and received 19 day-old fluffballs in the mail in early May. The farm we ordered from threw in three extra chicks because of the likelihood of mortality in their first few vulnerable days, but all survived. For a month, we raised them in a giant dog crate in our dining room. We awoke each morning to their gentle, soothing peeps. We fed them chick starter from the agricultural store, but also dandelion leaves and strawberries and potato bugs from our yard. We loved learning our chicks’ likes and dislikes, delighting in their delight, coming to see their personalities blossom.
As soon as they sprouted true feathers, we moved them outside to a chicken coop designed and built by my husband: a tall and narrow structure that looked part toll-booth, part church. It was well-insulated, and lined with hardware cloth so that no weasel could weasel its way in. He built a cupola for the top, with vents that could open in summer and close in winter, and shingled the outside, adding a fish-scale detail below the roofline. Inside were three nest boxes (whereas we had 19 hens now, we planned to give half of them away to friends who lived on farms), a series of rungs for perching up high, two old windows that could be propped open, and a removable screen door that we would put on every morning as long as it was warm enough. The coop was a durable, predator-proof structure of beauty.
perhaps they are so docile, they were bred to be this way, so that we would have an easy time in killing them when the time comes
My vision of having chickens mimicked a scene out of a Vermeer painting: Old World, rustically beautiful, an idealised image of sustenance. The reality wasn’t that far off. We let our lawn grow long and wily, and let the birds out in the afternoon while we were around to monitor for hawks. They’d run to the thickest grass, and the patterns of their feathers nestled in the greenery was something to behold: the black and white spots of the Wyandottes, the brown and yellow neck ruffs of the Welsummers, the gold glint of the Orpingtons; we could see aeons of history embedded in them. Not only were they hearty and docile birds that were productive egg-layers bred to withstand cold, New England winters, they were specimens of beauty, epic art projects woven upon the loom of generations of poultry-breeders.
Our chickens appear to be fond of us, too. They come running towards us when we walk out our door; they also run towards our dog, yet are able to distinguish him from other neighbourhood dogs. They are predictable creatures: they put themselves to bed at night, dutifully marching into the coop and finding a roost before it’s even dark. And if they are let out of their yard during the day, they keep a tight circumference as they are natural homebodies, never wandering farther than a few hundred feet from the coop. We and our chickens, we’re friendly, you could say. Some of our birds let us pick them up and hold them. For a period of time, we used to sit in chairs in the chicken yard, and our birds would come and sit on our feet, on the arm of the chair next to us, sometimes even on our shoulders. I couldn’t keep the notion from entering my mind that perhaps they are so docile, they were bred to be this way, so that we would have an easy time in killing them when the time comes. But it’s clear that chickens and people can make decent companions for one another.
To confirm what chicken-keepers already know, plenty of research has revealed the intellect and emotional depth of chickens. In a review of scientific literature from 16 peer-reviewed journals, the researcher (turned animal advocate) Lori Marino evaluates the ‘cognitive, emotional, personality, and social characteristics’ of chickens. She concludes that, among other attributes, chickens ‘show the capacity for self-control’; demonstrate ‘sophisticated logical reasoning’ via the pecking order; have a complicated array of vocalisations used for referential communication; ‘show … psychological complexity by flexibly, and often strategically, navigating a dynamic network of social relationships’; experience emotional complexity; and demonstrate empathy for other chickens. They’re smart and – dare I say it? – loving creatures.
As our birds started to mature, their combs turned red and fleshy, but one bird’s comb kept growing. Then her wattles filled out. While her companions grew black and gold neck ruffs, she grew long, reddish orange feathers, and an iridescent emerald green tail that seemed to sprout upwards in a spray. She was taller than the rest. Her attitude was, well, cocky. By the time our hens were four months old, it was clear that this lady was a rooster. She became he. He became Rooster.
Rooster was coming out of the coop one morning, last as usual (since he’d claimed the highest perch – a sign that he was at the top of the pecking order), when he went straight for a hen and tried to mount her. Still young enough to not submit, the hen slid out from beneath him and ran. A few days later he did it to another. Then another. He didn’t really know how to do it well, but the aggression in his action was undeniable. Then, he started crowing. At first, it was in the middle of the day, a few awkward notes released tentatively, as though trying it out on the hens. Then, the crows gained syllables. He started crowing early each morning just before first light. He’d crow from inside the coop, which was several hundred feet from our house and, with its insulation, muffled enough to not always wake us at 4am. But our coop was right next to our elderly neighbour’s house.
We’d heard stories of roosters who became so aggressive that they wouldn’t let anybody near the hens. We’d heard of roosters who chase after cars, who would jump up and try to peck people through the windows; who would chase people down, fly up and try to peck them in the eyes. We heard of roosters who could run. Fast. Roosters who knew how to really use those spurs. We knew people who’d unashamedly shot their roosters off the fence at dawn, who’d grabbed their rooster in one frenzied instant and wrung its neck like a wet towel when it went after a child.
I’d previously lived on a farm and watched roosters regularly rape hens – though, that’s not what the farmer called it. He called it chicken behaviour. I’d seen how they sheared the backs of the hens, plucking out the feathers of their favourite mounts, leaving exposed patches of red, pecked skin. True, a rooster would be good protection against predators, as they’re known to stand up and defend the flock. But, the feminist in me knew that my hens could probably fend for themselves just fine. If Rooster were to disappear, perhaps he wouldn’t be there to step in at the last moment were a neighbourhood cat or opossum to come sniffing around – but what must my hens sacrifice for his presence? Feathers, which means warmth. Energy (time spent being mounted is time lost for foraging). Dignity, if they have any. My husband and I were suddenly confronted with the moral dilemma: killing Rooster just didn’t seem right. But neither did keeping him around.
Google ‘chicken rescue’, and you’ll get about 44 million hits. ‘Rooster rescue’ gets about 3 million hits. Thousands of rescue farms exist throughout the country, many geared only towards rescued livestock animals, some just for chickens. The site Chicken Run Rescue claims: ‘The recent backyard-chicken fad has overwhelmed animal rescue organisations with inquiries from people wanting to find homes for chickens who are no longer wanted or have been abandoned.’ In a search they did on backyardchickens.com in 2015, they tallied 55,212 listings for free roosters over the course of seven years. Many towns, like mine, permit backyard chicken flocks but have ordinances against roosters, due to noise. One rooster-rescue farm, Danzig Farm in Colorado, asks: ‘Where do these boys go once they begin to crow and the neighbours start to complain? … The options are abandonment or death.’
Maybe killing the rooster is a way of putting an end to the violence. But killing them is unfair. They deserve lives
When we realised that we no longer wanted Rooster, I posted photos of him on Facebook, and a free listing on a regional Facebook group of farmers and homesteaders. Aside from a few ‘What a beautiful bird!’ comments, nobody was remotely interested.
It’s hard to argue with the Chicken Run Rescue’s statement that ‘Roosters are the most cruelly treated sex of the most cruelly treated species on Earth.’ But I question their claim that the rooster’s reputation for aggression is ‘really a failure on the human’s part to understand and respect the purpose of that natural behaviour’.
‘It’s just what they do’ has been the age-old response when people look aghast at the way roosters treat hens. Farmers scoff at newbies’ revulsion: What, never seen a rooster before? We’re supposed to be hard-headed, to understand that ‘nature’ is cruel, that animals’ values are not our values. Ironically, I find the animal-rights advocates’ excuses for rooster behaviour eerily similar to farmers’ explanations. I question how ‘natural’ this behaviour is, as the advocates argue, considering that chickens, a domesticated version of the red jungle fowl, have been bred by us for millennia. And, if we are to believe Sykes’s hypothesis, roosters have been bred, in large part, for violent behaviour – though, since chickens have become one of our most common foodsources, we have begun to select them for docility, not aggression, perhaps even reversing their violent evolution.
One thing that the rooster dilemma does is force us to engage with the morality of keeping poultry around our homes. More than 65,000 roosters needed homes this past decade: that’s 65,000 humans who were confronted with the reality of life and death, who were forced to look head-on at what it means to keep chickens – even if you’re not eating the flesh of the bird.
I don’t know the right way to think about roosters. Maybe killing the rooster is a way of putting an end to the violence that Sykes postulates arose from cockfighting. A man carries a rooster to his neighbour in his arms as a peace offering – as a very deliberate way of removing violence that humans have cultivated for too long. But killing them is unfair. They deserve lives, and given the right circumstances, they can be kept from exhibiting violent behaviour. They can be sweet, as sweet as Stanley looked resting in James’s arms. I think if I’d known about farms like Chicken Run Rescue that rehabilitate roosters, Stanley and Rooster might still be alive today.
Perhaps our conflicted relationship to roosters symbolises something bigger about the world – we’re blurring the lines: livestock, companions, food, fellow beings. We’re trying to figure it out. Can we have our roosters and eat them, too? Stanley passed from this world to the next swiftly and, I presume, somewhat painlessly. The cone made of sheet metal we’d used for Rooster was still in our garage. If you need to tame a chicken, turn it upside down, watch it go limp, its wings rest outward, slightly cocked, like a vulture drying after a rainstorm. Under such a spell, it’s impossible to imagine what a chicken might be feeling. The slice was quick, as quick as possible. Between my husband and me and our dog, the body was nearly completely consumed. Weeks after his body was gone, his feathers still lingered in our yard.
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lives and writes in western Massachusetts. She is a lecturer in SUNY Albany's Writing and Critical Inquiry programme and a contributing editor to Vela.
I have recently decided to bring two small parrots into my home. They are celestial parrotlets, originally from Ecuador and Peru, and one of the smallest parrot species that can cohabit with humans. I call them Dandolo and Madeleine. They fit well into my apartment life in Oxford, despite the burgeoning beak-scars on my fingers, and they fill my weekends with rainforest twittering.
They are the first birds I have kept as pets – which is surprising, because my professional life is entirely concerned with birds. I am interested in how they learn, what they learn, and the behaviours that made them such a successful group of organisms. Birds are directly descended from dinosaurs, and have diversified into more than 10,000 species, far more than mammals, amphibians or reptiles. In the past, I have worked with crows and pigeons, and am currently focused on ducks.
Recently I’ve been investigating whether ducks can learn the concepts of ‘same’ and ‘different’. First, my colleagues and I trained ducklings to recognise, for example, two red spheres, via imprinting. This is the process by which young birds can learn to identify and follow a moving object, normally their mother. The shapes were attached to rotating booms, and the ducklings followed them around like a mother duck. Then we gave them a choice between two more pairs of shapes: two red pyramids, and a red cube and a red rectangular prism.
To everyone’s surprise, the ducklings could spot the difference. Both sets of shapes were new to them, but the identical pair had a familiar ‘sameness’, and so the ducklings were drawn to it. They showed an equivalent preference for matching colours – when they were primed on two green spheres, for example, they picked a blue pair over a mixed violet and orange pair – and for difference itself, preferring mismatched shapes or colours when they had imprinted on a non-identical pair. Previously, only members of the big-brain club of clever animals had been shown to be able to grasp such abstract ideas: parrots, chimps, other primates, and crows. (Though, with extensive training, pigeons can do it too. A funny pattern in animal behaviour seems to be that whatever difficult task you devise will eventually be done by pigeons, trained through thousands of trials.)
But ducklings, it turns out, are the emperors of all clickbait. ‘Ducklings are capable of abstract thought,’ screamed the internet. Now, to the extent that ‘thought’ means ‘brain activity’, or ‘the identification of abstract representations’, that’s not necessarily wrong. But the intuitive reaction suggested that, for any creature to be able solve such a problem, it must consciously infer the relationship between each pair and compare them; it must possess a version of a tiny homunculus (or, perhaps, anatunculus) in its cute little head, furrowing its brow in consideration of which pair is the ‘same’ and which is ‘different’.
Even for seasoned scientists, it’s hard not to assume that animals are thinking. There was one clever duckling in the experiment that noticed the rotating booms above the testing chamber that controlled the stimuli he was meant to be watching, and spent the rest of the trial intently staring at the mechanism, looking contemplative. We named him Plato.
But the other ducks in the experiment didn’t have names, and with good reason. We referred to them using numbers and symbols. With some exceptions, this is a standard practice. It helps researchers maintain an intellectual distance and avoid anthropomorphism, which is a cardinal sin in the study of animal behaviour. However, long-lived species used in repeated, cumulative behavioural experiments tend to be privileged with names: take Nim Chimpsky, the chimpanzee at the centre of a controversial, decades-long experiment in language acquisition, or the New Caledonian crows in a colony in Bavaria that I worked with a couple of years ago. In these instances, it is easier for a human researcher to keep mental track of animals’ histories when they are given names such as Jungle and Mango rather than S602 and D14.
The question of naming gets at the root of my confusion about my parrotlets. At home, feeding and training Dandolo and Madeleine, they are little people. They call to each other when I have one out of the cage for training because they miss each other; they chatter at me while I work because they are envious of my attention; they look at me with curiosity; they bite me because they are annoyed. In short, at home with my pets, I do what we all do: I anthropomorphise them to understand them. Were I not an animal behaviour researcher, I would hardly notice; but because I am, I constantly ask myself: why do I treat my pets like thinking, conscious companions, and the ducklings in my lab like feathered robots? The reluctance of my field to engage seriously with animal consciousness is, I believe, holding back our efforts to truly understand their behaviour.
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Humans’ curiosity about other animals, and the seeming impossibility of knowing what it is like in their minds, if they have them, has persisted for the whole history of our species. Animist spirituality, the first human philosophy, posits open channels of communication between predator and prey. Yet many societies display a parallel tendency to brand animals as lesser beings, or even automatons, locked into the lower rungs of a great chain of being in which humans are at the apex. Medieval Europeans made animals stand trial for crimes and misdemeanours, but did not grant them souls or access to heaven. To this day, we worry about our dogs getting bored while we are at work, but think nothing of feeding them the exact same food every day of their lives. This ambivalence points to our own uncertainty and fear when confronted with the possibility of minds unlike our own.
After the 16th century, the scientific revolution gave humans new tools for examining other species through the lens of materialism. This is the idea that any explanation for behaviour must derive from the physical world. The scientific method demands testable hypotheses and, to be testable, they must concern only the physical world and its interactions. Anthropomorphism becomes a problem here because it inevitably calls upon the idea that animals are conscious, which is a hypothesis that cannot be tested.
For example, when my ducklings show that they can tell apart pairs of objects that are identical from pairs that are mismatched, we can say that the ducklings can discriminate abstract relationships, or learn abstract relationships, or compute or recognise or parse abstract relationships. All of these phrases are shorthand for the physical actions of the brain. Eyes gather light in patterns; that light stimulates neurons; those neurons stimulate other neurons; the brain performs a comparative calculation, in a complicated fashion we do not yet understand; and the duckling acts on the basis of these calculations, which is the behaviour we observe. What we cannot say is that the duckling thinks that the relationships are different, in the way a human might.
The reason for the resistance is because we have not yet answered the so-called ‘hard problem’ of consciousness. Why does the human brain produce a thoughtful awareness of our experience, instead of acting like a mindless computer driving a body? If we accept that all our choices and actions emerge from brain activity, then it is not hard to imagine all this commotion taking place without a fretful little mind in the cockpit, making us ‘feel’ it. What’s more, if such a driverless creature existed, with the same brain processes as you or I, its actions would be indiscernible from a conscious human’s – right down to asserting its own consciousness, a zombie fitting in with an enquiring world.
Hence the trouble with saying that a duckling ‘thinks’. From an empirical perspective, we cannot prove this. Whatever evolutionary history has led a duckling to do something will have tailored that behaviour to success, whether the action is consciously thought about or not. So to the external observer of behaviour, or even of neurons firing, there will be no difference.
Is there a way out? Let’s continue as strict materialists – assuming that there is no ethereal consciousness, and that the experiential feeling of ‘awakeness’ is an emergent property that comes from the activity of the brain. Now, each of us (assuming you are not a zombie) knows him or herself to be conscious. Quite reasonably, we do not assume ourselves to be a unique metaphysical marvel, the first and only conscious being in the Universe, a kind of Christ of Consciousness. The simpler explanation would be that, because each one of us is conscious and average, most other people are conscious and average. This line of reasoning does not mean there are no zombies – they could be the non-average ones – but all the information we have suggests to us that other humans are conscious.
In some senses, this is the scientific way of approaching the question. A guiding principle in science is parsimony: the notion that we should pick the least complex account that fits the evidence. Assuming that other humans are conscious is part of the simplest explanation for our own self-awareness. The scientific method is also an exercise in induction, drawing conclusions about a larger reality from the subset of data we have. Admittedly, our one data point – ‘I am conscious’ – is measly compared with a statistically rigorous sampling, but we have no other choice. Many strains of philosophy have problems with induction, and as a matter of pure reason, the regularity of past events does not necessarily guarantee the regularity of future ones. But science does seem to work regardless, and the fact it continues to do so is inductive support for the functionality, in the real world, of induction.
If this sounds plausible as an argument for consciousness in humans, why not apply the same reasoning to other animals? I find the parsimonious case for animal consciousness quite convincing. It goes something like this: humans are large-brained vertebrates that are good at solving problems creatively and can form abstract representations. They are conscious. Parrots, crows and many primates are large-brained vertebrates that are good at solving problems creatively and can form abstract representations. Since humans and these animals are composed of the same matter and evolved through the same general processes (and in the case of the primates, from the same lineage), it would be most parsimonious to assume that the emergent properties of their brains are similar. Including consciousness.
Many labs are now employing software to analyse animal behaviour on video not to reduce labour but to expunge flights of fancy
I am personally quite happy with this argument, and I suspect many researchers would agree – if not at the lab bench, then at least around the dinner table. Yet I continue to treat my ducklings like automata. One good reason for leaving sentimentality at home is that it’s simply not useful. One day, a loud lowing from a cow in the neighbouring farm building startled one of my ducklings. It turned its head, cowered and froze, ignoring the experimental apparatus. Now, I would be thrilled to disqualify his poor performance because I could tell that he was ‘scared’. On another occasion, I observed a duckling grow ‘confused’, turning its head in that oh-so-familiar confused-dog way when one of the stimuli pairs was just a little bit ‘less different’ than the training pair. I would love to be able to exclude the extended time it took the duckling to choose which set to follow. Given permission to read into their understandable expressions the perfect explanation for why my experiment wasn’t eliciting the right behaviours, I could find a solution for every quandary, and my conclusions would be iron-clad.
But that would be terrible science, because it loses all objectivity. The duckling might not have heard the cow, and the other one was probably just stretching. The only way to analyse every duckling in a consistent way is to be absolutely rigid in accounting for predetermined physical behaviours. As I am a scientist, I must banish all inventiveness to the experimental design phase, and keep the measurement clear of any fuzzy creativity.
In other words, in the pursuit of consistency, I must be conservative with respect to animals’ capabilities, and my own. In looking at the results, I must behave like a machine as much as I can in making and applying assumptions, and treat my animals, too, as close to machines as possible. This is why so many labs are now employing software to analyse animal behaviour on video: not to reduce labour but to expunge flights of fancy.
This might make lab life sound a bit sterile, but I’m happy to report that’s not the case. Analysing the video recordings is indeed an act of robotic precision, but running the experiments is almost always an entertaining disaster. Ducklings jump enclosures that were specifically built to an ‘un-jumpable’ height. Fully automated, humidity-controlled incubators flood. A duckling meticulously imprinted on a stimulus takes one look at me and declares me its ‘mother’ (a disaster for the data, but entertaining for me). Lab misadventure invariably makes the first weeks’ worth of data completely useless. This is universal to experimental science, but especially true of animal behaviour: things can go wrong for a chemist or physicist, but they don’t have arguably conscious little beings determined to make sure of it.
In the lab itself, I anthropomorphise in a casual and temporary way: ‘Naughty duckling! Why did you tangle your “mother’s” suspension wires? You knew I was testing you, didn’t you?’ Yet when I sit down with video and spreadsheet, any affection or empathy for my fluffy charges must go, so that science, untainted by fantasy, can be done.
So why do my pets think, and my lab animals do not? The answer, potentially unsatisfying, but actually hugely effective, is because that is what works.
I don’t mean this conclusion is somehow logically consistent; it isn’t. But this inconsistency comes not from a mistake in reasoning, but from the fact that ‘thought’ can mean so many different things. My lab ducklings mustn’t think – getting at the heart of what they do requires that I approach them from this perspective. I want to understand how their behaviours have evolved, and the adaptive purposes they serve. If they are thinking, regardless of the definition, it is merely part of the process that governs their behaviour, a process that will be evolutionarily constructed to produce the outcome that is beneficial to the duckling. Thinking about the ‘thinking’ only serves to cloud potential discoveries with unrevealing, bottomless questions. Ducks might or might not be conscious but, either way, it is beside the point in terms of arriving at an empirically justified answer.
When I train Dandolo, though, he must think. If I assume he is thinking and drawing inferences, I can predict what will annoy him and what will reassure him that I’m not going to hurt him but, rather, feed him. I can use anthropomorphism to draw the single-sample, ad hoc behavioural conclusions I need to work productively with a stubborn animal in a new environment. Humans are empathetic, and by endowing my little parrots with thought, I can more effectively empathise with their understanding of the situation that is moving into my flat and getting to know the giant that cohabits with them. Maybe they’re not thinking, but it’s damned effective to think they are.
We scientists could learn something from our experience with the animals in our homes. Sentimentality can skew the data, but it’s equally unhelpful to entirely shun the possibility that animals might ‘think’. A common scientific response to studies of ‘abstract representation’ or ‘thought’ is to argue down the cognitive explanations, and assert that the tested capabilities could be the result of lower-level processes in the brain. In the case of my concept-learning ducks, they might have made the discrimination by recognising visual features, rather than forming concepts. These respondents are doing their job: being skeptical of extraordinary claims and posing less unlikely explanations for new phenomena.
Muddling the distinction between consciousness and cognition forces us to play down the intellectual prowess of our companion species
Yet the antipathy to animal consciousness can crowd out equally valid accounts, simply because they demand higher cognition. It is absolutely true that we shouldn’t call on consciousness to explain how ducks solve the problem of detecting sameness and difference. But that proscription doesn’t mean the wholesale rejection of cognitive explanations in favour of sensory computations. Cognitive abilities such as abstract representation are not the same as consciousness. They just seem to cohabit in the one species – humans – to which we are comfortable ascribing consciousness. Cognition is a much easier nut to crack than consciousness, and seems to be reliably related to various physical properties (brain-to-body ratio, and neuron number and density, for example, among many others). There is no reason to shy away from ascribing cognitive abilities for fear of accidentally summoning the spectre of consciousness. The former offers plenty of richness without needing to be proxy for the latter, and an optimism about cognition invites experiments in unusual directions (such as unexpectedly discovering ‘abstract thought’ in ducklings).
If my ducklings do ‘think’, whatever that might mean, the best evidence for it is the fact that vertebrate brains are broadly more alike than they are different. That being the case, we should not assume either low-level or high-level cognition as the default when looking at such creatures. It is only a muddling of the distinction between consciousness and cognition, and researchers’ convention against assuming consciousness, that forces us to play down the intellectual prowess of our companion species. We would do well to break this habit.
To be clear, I have no crusade to blow open the doors of animal behaviour research and declare every animal a conscious mind. But nor should we be hubristic about the differences between humans and other vertebrates. That’s another sin in the biological sciences. As Ecclesiastes reminds us:
Therefore the death of man, and of beasts is one, and the condition of them both is equal: as man dieth, so they also die: all things breathe alike, and man hath nothing more than beast: all things are subject to vanity.
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is a researcher in the department of zoology at the University of Oxford. His current work is focused on how birds learn concepts and process information.