30 May 2011

Mother hen

British researchers at Bristol University, School of Veterinery Sciences have shown that hens show empathy to their young – the first time this has been shown in a bird.

Making use of technical advances in non-invasive monitoring, the researchers found that domestic hens show a clear physiological and behavioural response to their chicks’ distress.

During one of the controlled procedures, when the chicks were exposed to a puff of air, the hens’ heart rate increased and eye temperature decreased. The hens also changed their behaviour, and reacted with increased alertness, decreased preening and increased vocalisations directed to their chicks.

Empathy was once thought to be a completely human trait and that the brains of mammals functioned for survival and reproduction, not for any purpose of emotional intelligence. Of course this finding has implications for the welfare of chickens in battery farms and research labs.

It also supports the theory that in humans our empathetic ability resides in the 'lower' parts of the brain, areas such as the limbic system and brain stem, which we have in common with other mammals.

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