Bird brains

Krahe by Hurlzmeier

Krahe by Hurlzmeier

One for Kellie.

I recommend listening to Gregory Radick’s and Nicola Clayton‘s sections from the podcast of the LSE’s Forum for European Philosophy Concilience’s (!) recent event on Animal Minds (Erica Fudge got very good during the questions and answers). It’s a bit tricky without the videos of cooperating and problem solving crows, but maybe you’ll get the picture.

Because I like crows very much, I was enthralled by Nicola Clayton, who argues that corvids (jays, rooks, crows and magpies, for examples) are as brainy as non-human primates in terms of tool use, problem solving, and cooperation. I wasn’t alone – most of the audience questions were for her.

See too a beautiful book Corvus by Esther Woolfson, about her love for a rook called Chicken, who fell from her nest as a chick.

And talking of chickens, the feathered proletariat of the farming world made the Metro, the Mail, the Telegraph, the BBC and ITN today. Findings from a BBSRC Animal Welfare Initiative-funded study by the University of Bristol’s Animal Welfare and Behaviour Research Group, who bothered chicks and monitored their mothers for empathetic responses, is published online in the Proceedings of the Royal Society. The abstract (my emphases):

“The extent to which an animal is affected by the pain or distress of a conspecific will depend on its capacity for empathy. Empathy most probably evolved to facilitate parental care, so the current study assessed whether birds responded to an aversive stimulus directed at their chicks. Domestic hens were exposed to two replicates of the following conditions in a counterbalanced order: control (C; hen and chicks undisturbed), air puff to chicks (APC; air puff directed at chicks at 30 s intervals), air puff to hen (APH; air puff directed at hen at 30 s intervals) and control with noise (CN; noise of air puff at 30 s intervals). During each test, the hens’ behaviour and physiology were measured throughout a 10 min pre-treatment and a 10 min treatment period. Hens responded to APH and APC treatments with increased alertness, decreased preening behaviour and a reduction in eye temperature. No such changes occurred during any control period. Increased heart rate and maternal vocalization occurred exclusively during the APC treatment, even though chicks produced few distress vocalizations. The pronounced and specific reaction observed indicates that adult female birds possess at least one of the essential underpinning attributes of empathy.

J. L. Edgar, J. C. Lowe, E. S. Paul and C. J. Nicol (2011) Avian maternal response to chick distress. Proc. R. Soc. B, online.

Bob tells me that some researchers consider goats to be the most human-like animal, since we share a sense of humour.

(Aside, the creatures are looking distinctly un-food-like these days, no?)

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