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The Return Of The Chicken Police

Thursday, January 23, 2014

A few days ago, a friend uploaded to her Facebook page a 30-second video she had found on the Internet. It starred two hens and two rabbits. Idly, I clicked it on:

Filmed by Elizabeth Skinner in her Arizona backyard, the clip dates from 2006 and received a good bit of media attention at the time. You may well have seen it already. It's new to me, though, and I have found myself watching it numerous times.

I love the thoughtful and precise teamwork of these two hens as they break up the rabbits' interaction. I especially love how one hen assigns herself to one rabbit, and the other hen to the other rabbit, and how the hens wait patiently to ensure that the ruckus is really over.

Too often we tend to dismiss chicken intelligence (and emotion, too), preferring to credit mammals with the real animal brainpower — though research on chickens shows that we shouldn't.

We have in this clip no narrative or context to help us out with an interpretation. Skinner does discuss the clip in a separate 3-minute video. But she explains nothing about the hens and rabbits themselves. (Still, her riff on Bill O'Reilly's reaction to the video is worth a listen.)

So what are these hens up to?

I posed that question to Annie Potts, co-director of the New Zealand Centre for Animal-Human Studies at the University of Canterbury and author of the wonderful book Chicken in the Reaktion Books series on animals. Here, in part, is what Potts emailed me in response, on Tuesday:

I am also fascinated by the video you sent. It looks to me like those hens are defending their area or possibly eggs or young chicks who are nearby. It would be helpful to know whether or not there is a nest, eggs or chicks nearby, but I guess we can't know that.

I do know, from experience, that it's not unusual for hens to defend a place from smaller mammals or other birds. The commonly held belief that roosters defend and fight over territories, while hens follow roosters, is too simplistic. These kinds of ideas are, of course, heavily influenced by our very human ideas about gender and who's 'boss' or who is stronger.

I can't really comment on the behavior in that video from an ethologist's perspective, but as someone who has years of experience living with flocks of chickens, my interpretation of it would be something along the lines that those hens, who are close flockmates, did not want the rabbits coming anywhere near 'their place'; and the fast nature of the rabbits' approach would have caused them alarm too.

The breaking off of the two chickens so each could 'police' one of the rabbits is striking, and has perhaps occurred because they're such close friends (maybe even from the same sibling flock) and have worked together like this before.

So here we have two clever, double-teaming chickens. I wonder if the rabbits learned their lesson.


You can keep up with what Barbara is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

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