By Rhianna Axon
Rhianna is the Animal Care Director at Charlie’s Acres Farm Animal Sanctuary.
I bet you’ve heard the phrase “bird brain” used as an insult before, but it’s actually not very insulting. It’s a common misconception that because birds are so small, their brains are small, and therefore they must not be very smart. It is actually not true! In the animal kingdom, birds have very large brain to body size ratio. They have comparably large brains compared to their size and are similarly proportioned to primates. Some birds even have a larger brain mass to body mass ratio than humans do!
There have been many studies on bird intelligence done, particularly with crows, ravens, parrots, and jays, who are among the smartest birds. From holding funerals, to remembering faces, to making and using tools, birds are incredibly smart and adaptive. Chickens are no exception to this but are often underestimated when it comes to smarts.
Researchers have found that chickens can learn to count, reason, recognize up to a hundred different faces, communicate with their unborn chicks through their eggs, anticipate future events, and do so many other amazing things.
I have always been fascinated by animal behavior and have had my fair share of practice when it comes to animal training – from chimpanzees, to dogs, to reptiles, to otters, to raptors, I’ve worked with all sorts of animals, and have used the same simple reward-based training on all of them. I am a certified canine trainer and behavioral specialist and have been able to apply my knowledge in most of the animal care jobs I’ve had in the past ten years.
Training is fun and enriching for the trainee, and useful for the trainer for vet visits, getting animals on the scale for weights, and all sorts of other things they are not always willing to do without a fuss. I have found that chickens have been some of the fastest learners here!
In my work with rescued farm animals at Charlie’s Acres Farm Animal Sanctuary, I have been training lots of our animals using clickers and treats. Clicker training is a very simple and rewarding way to work with animals. It consists of a clicker, high value treats, and patience. The idea is that the trainer clicks when the trainee does what is expected. In this case, I put a xylophone in front of my friend Bertha and once she pecked it, I clicked and gave her a treat. She immediately knew what I was asking her to do and training her to “play” the xylophone did not take very long at all, just a few minutes. I was so impressed with how fast she learned, her and I are thinking about starting a band someday!