Barbara J. King

Friday Animal Blog

The Swimming Pool Rescue: Chickens Save One of their Own

April 15, 2011

Turns out I was wrong, wrong, wrong in last week’s post to predict a “TV minute” for my interview segment on animal odd-couple friendships. I haven’t had the heart to take a stopwatch to the situation, but my on-air time at CBS Sunday Morning on the 10th surely amounted to less than 30 seconds! Even despite preparing myself for the constraints of sound-bite-culture, that was still a surprise.

Still, I had fun doing the interview and if I had to be scooped, I’m glad it was by a deer:

Animal Friendship

One great bonus of my trip to Manhattan to do the interview was a chance to meet with a friend. Over lunch, Jeane Kraines and I naturally got to talking about animals; she described to me the joys of living with chickens. I was so captivated by her tales that I later asked her to email me some of the details.

At her home in New Jersey, she has kept as many as 14 chickens at once:

I used to open their enclosure door in the morning, Jeane wrote, and they would run around the neighborhood all day, visiting all the neighbors that would treat them to leftover cheesecake. Once I found them at a bridal shower, all the lady guests in a circle around them. In the evening they would come back and I would close the door before nightfall. 

Once, something happened that I found both completely believable—because of Jeane’s quiet, reliable, observing nature—and yet wonderfully astonishing:

One day I was in my kitchen when I heard a tremendous hullabuloo amongst my feathered friends. They were screaming and crying so loudly that the birds in the trees started chiming in.  The chickens rushed onto the deck, knocking furiously on the sliding door with their beaks.  I ran outside immediately and they rushed off with me behind, trying to keep up.  Straight to the pool we dashed.  There I saw Cloudy, everyone's favorite hen, flailing her wings in the swimming pool. I reached in and lifted her out.  Cluck cluck, sighs of relief all around.  She was only very wet: saved by the fast thinking of her loving flock. 

What caught my attention in Jeane’s account is the sequence of steps taken by the chickens. First, they recognized that a companion was in trouble; second, they knew where to seek help from the human world and how to get a human’s attention; and third, in an embodied way they directed that human immediately to the source of the trouble. It’s another matter to consider what level of cognitive mechanism was at work in the chickens’ brains as they carried out these steps: that is, whether higher-order abstractions or lower-level conditioning was at work I cannot say.

But the literature clearly shows that chickens can express empathy. Earlier this year, an article called Avian maternal response to chick distress appeared in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Written by J.L. Edgar, J.C. Lowe, E.S. Paul, and C.J. Nicol, the article describes an experiment involving domestic hens. The hens were exposed to four conditions:

*APH: A mildly aversive puff of air directed to the hens themselves at 30-second intervals
*APC:A mildly aversive puff of air directed to their chicks at 30-second intervals
*CN: The noise of an air puff at 30-second intervals
*C: A control condition in which no stimulus was presented

Edgar et al. write, “Increased heart rate and maternal vocalization occurred exclusively during the APC treatment, even though chicks produced few distress vocalizations. The pronounced and specific reaction observed indicates that adult female birds possess at least one of the essential underpinning attributes of empathy.” That underpinning, they go on to specify, “is the ability to be affected by, and share, the emotional state of another.” In plain language, the hens became upset by what they saw happening to their chicks.

I admire the authors’ inclusion of this forthright paragraph: “We used chickens as a model species because, under commercial conditions, chickens will regularly encounter conspecifics showing signs of pain or distress owing to routine husbandry practices or because of the high prevalence of conditions such as bone fractures or leg disorders.”

Jeane’s experience tells us that chickens care about what happens not only to their chicks, but also to their close companions. Here is another message from the animal world, reminding us that it matters a great deal how we treat not just big-brained mammals like primates, elephants, and cetaceans, but all creatures.


  1. April 15, 2011 3:15 PM EDT
    One thinks now about all the surplus male chicks that are thrown on a conveyor belt to be thrown into a grinder that will grind them to pulp. If mother hens really do have empathy for their chicks and even for their fellow hens, the chicken farms are in trouble, and so are we.
    - Peggy Trawick
  2. April 15, 2011 5:54 PM EDT
    What a great story from your friend, and what a smart bunch of chickens! I'm glad to have this Edgar et al. article summarized; I hope to have a couple chickens once I have a yard to put a coop in, and people often respond to this plan with assumptions that chickens are mean or stupid. It sounds like they are, in fact, sharp little animals that can be sweet pets (and breakfast providers).
    - Alix
  3. April 15, 2011 8:50 PM EDT
    Hi Peggy- I agree that we are in trouble- and so are the chickens. But the chicken farms? None of this seems to make a dent in their economic profits, so are their operations really harmed? That's what scares me. Alix, thank you! I love your chicken plan. I myself have been guilty in the past of low expectations of chickens. Doing this work beyond primates has really taught me a great deal. (As did today's guest lecture at W&M by a famed biologist on crows- fantastic!)
    - Barbara J. King
  4. April 16, 2011 12:42 AM EDT
    (Who lectured on crows!?)I wanted to say that this chicken story prompted me to revisit the Cheney and Seyfarth experiment on macaque mothers and babies, where the mothers' behavior in the presence of a "predator" did not differ whether the babies were able to see the predator or not (and in both conditions, no alarm calls, only attempts to flee themselves). Not exactly the same thing, but the chickens actually seemed to have more concern for their companions or chicks than the macaques! Moving on to apes, the first story, where the chickens went to the deck door, reminds me a little of the Binti Jua rescue of the little boy in Chicago; both Binti and the chickens knew a door to humans could be a source of aid.
    - Joanne Tanner
  5. April 16, 2011 8:31 AM EDT
    Joanne, the comparative perspective is really relevant here, (so thanks for the good examples), and exactly follows on from yesterday's crow lecture. This was by John Marzluff, of University of Washington. He's an ornithologist and ecologist, a past student of Bernd Heinrich; he was featured in a 2010 NATURE special on crows that is available online and that I think I have recommended before. Anyway, he describes crows and ravens as "feathered apes". He gave fascinating examples of how the offspring of crows his research team caught while wearing certain frightening masks respond five years later to people wearing those same masks, without having been caught themselves. Afterwards, he and I talked (he has a new book out that I asked him to sign, on living in a cabin in Maine- shades of Heinrich here! who in fact wrote the book's foreword). We talked about corvid-primate comparisons and he is sending me material on responses to death in corvids and (imagine my extreme excitement) Yellowstone bison!
    - Barbara J. King
  6. April 17, 2011 12:32 AM EDT
    Hi - I just discovered your blog/site and hope to read your book about humans' relationship with animals soon ---- saw it posted on a book blog site (I'm a new book blogger) --- I look forward to reading your blogs - I love animals!!
    I'll try to add you to one of my animal blogs (I've got 3!) one day soon, too! Best Wishes
    - Linda Lan
  7. April 18, 2011 8:11 AM EDT
    Hi Linda and thanks for your note! I'd like to read your blog(s), would you send me one of the URLs that you would most recommend?
    - Barbara J. King

Selected Works

Why are animals so irresistible to us? Why do we live with and care so deeply about them? From the famous "art caves" of ice-age Europe, to the ancient villages where animals were first domesticated, to stories of apes, whales, dogs, and cats doing fascinating things today, King weaves together a scenario about the animal-human bond that encompasses our past, present and future.
Can scientists discover a prehistory of religion just as they have traced the evolution of technology, language, and art? What does compassion in chimpanzees, or burial patterns in our human ancestors and Neanderthals, tell us about the origins of religion? In Evolving God, named a Top Ten Religion Book for 2007 by the American Library Association, Barbara King explores these questions.
How do chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas-- the African apes -- communicate using body postures and gestures? Using her many years of experience studying these apes, Barbara King answers this question in a book that offers a new perspective on the evolution of language.