Bird Brains: Personal Experience, Behaviour Research, and the Welfare of Laying Hens


Jacob Holding a Hen

A younger Jacob with one of his hens
Photo by Roger Yip

“Here chick chick chick,” a 13-year-old me called out as I slipped on rubber boots and headed towards the run where I kept my hens. Hearing the call I’d taught them, my dozen birds scurried towards me and congregated at the fence as I stepped into the run and tossed them some cracked corn. Several of the hens, senior members in their social hierarchy, let out their usual “tick tick tick,” as they ate, communicating to the others that good stuff had been found. I checked the nest boxes in their coop - just three eggs. I dove into the lilac hedge where I’d seen a few hens exit a minute ago. After being poked and scratched by the shrubbery, I found a small depression lined with eight eggs, hidden quite expertly.

Eggs are arguably the most ubiquitous animal-based product, but they’re produced by a species that is poorly understood and often underestimated by most consumers. This month, I was lucky enough to connect with my former colleague Dr. Misha Ross, who is a published poultry behaviour researcher in the University of Guelph’s Animal Biosciences Department. You can watch the full length interview here.

The Avian Telos

I often refer to telos, a term for purpose, adapted by Bernard Rollin to mean the hard-wired nature of an animal. The telos of egg laying chickens is highly complex - their unique personalities, intelligence, and social structure are both entertaining and worthy of investigation. As Misha put it, “[the idea that birds are unintelligent] is a prevalent misconception that people have, and I think they use it to justify not caring about the animals.”

Much like humans, chickens live in social groups with a dynamic hierarchy; this is where we derive the phrase ‘pecking order.’ From a scientific perspective, the pecking order tells us a lot about bird brains. I learned from Misha that, “chickens have the capacity to perform simple logic: something called transitive inference, which can be seen through the pecking order.” 

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