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Chickens show empathy: Official

Chilling chick torture experiment proves hens hurt too

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A crack team from the University of Bristol has demonstrated that chickens show empathy – or at least hens do when their chicks are being tortured with puffed air.

The researchers suggest that empathy "most probably evolved to facilitate parental care", so they decided to see whether mother hens "responded to an aversive stimulus directed at their chicks".

That adverse stimulus involved delivering "air puff to chicks", a treatment chillingly abbreviated to "APC". The mums' reaction was "increased heart rate and maternal vocalisation" which happened "exclusively during the APC treatment, even though chicks produced few distress vocalisations".

The scientists conclude: "The pronounced and specific reaction observed indicates that adult female birds possess at least one of the essential underpinning attributes of empathy."

Team member Jo Edgar, of Bristol Uni's School of Veterinary Sciences, 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. Our research has addressed the fundamental question of whether birds have the capacity to show empathic responses.

"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."

Quite how the findings impact on the UK's chicken breeding industry remains to be seen, but since the research was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Research Council's Animal Welfare Initiative, we suspect a ban on subjecting chickens to APC is pretty much a certainty.

The abstract* of Avian maternal response to chick distress can be found down at the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. You'll need to pay for the full-fat, finger-lickin' good version. ®

Bootnote

* One of the paper's authors is listed as CJ Nicol. We assume this is the same Christine Nicol who previously had a hand in proving that cows bear grudges.

No doubt she regularly compares notes with fellow Bristol Uni academic Gareth Jones, who last year secured an Ig Nobel for demonstrating that fellatio in fruit bats prolongs copulation time.

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