The ability to feel someone’s pain or see their point of view was once thought to be uniquely human. No more.
Now, a team at Bristol University has carried out experiments in which female chickens showed clear signs of anxiety when their young were in distress—it’s the first time empathy has been found in a bird. The tests on hens have important implications for the welfare of chickens in battery farms and science laboratories, say researchers.
The team chose hens and chicks because empathy is assumed to have evolved to help parents care for their young.
Jo Edgar, who led the study, said: “The extent to which animals are affected by the distress of others is of high relevance to the welfare of farm and laboratory animals.
“We found that adult female birds possess at least one of the essential underpinning attributes of empathy—the ability to be affected by, and share, the emotional state of another.” The researchers tested the mother hens’ reactions when their chicks’ feathers were ruffled with a puff of air. When the chicks were exposed to the gusts, they showed signs of distress that were mirrored by their mothers.
The hens’ heart rates increased, they became increasingly alert and, in a recognised sign of stress, their eye temperature lowered. Levels of preening were reduced and the mothers clucked at the chicks more, the findings revealed.
The researchers said chickens reared commercially regularly encounter other birds showing signs of pain and distress “owing to routine husbandry practices or because of the high prevalence of conditions such as bone fractures or leg disorders”.