The Existential Loneliness of the Chicken

Animals can count, add and subtract, it has been shown. Now groundbreaking research shows that chickens react to the void. The ladies, at least

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Birds do it, bees do it. Grasp the concept of "nothing,” that is.
Birds do it, bees do it. Grasp the concept of "nothing,” that is.Credit: luchschenF/Shutterstock.com
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Nothing. Absence. Not there. Hello darkness my old friend. With all due respect to Simon & Garfunkel’s ditty, we humans generally abhor the void.

Or at least, we refer to it. "Form is emptiness; emptiness is form": Sunyata, a state of emptiness reportedly achieved by the Buddha 2,500 years ago, eschews any and all attachment.

Is that what makes humans special, distinct from all other beings: the ability to observe and take note of absence? Or are we delusional in our superiority: can other species sense a void too?

This question bears asking, since it has become clear that animals are sentient even if they don’t speak English or some other human language. They have skills where none were suspected, like the manta rays who can add and subtract.

So, we humans can and have been arguing the void, its nature and meaning for thousands of years. We have the language skills to explore the topic. But what about, one wonders, the chicken?

Until recently, most people might have scoffed at the notion that their pets and livestock have feelings, or the ability to take note of and scream into the void. Yet it has become increasingly clear that animals – from the naked mole rat to the cat to the bat – can speak, and are aware of the other, if only to complain about them.

So, the blanket assumption that nonlinguistic creatures are confined to the here and now, and cannot comprehend an abstract not-there, bore revisiting.

Absent the ability to ask them because they don’t speak chicken, Eszter Szabó of the Central European University, Vienna, and colleagues looked into the conundrum, based on the undisputed fact that when one is a chicken, one has expectations.

Being able to note and track presence – be it of food or predators – is a basic survival skill in Animalia. But what about tracking and noting the absence of an entity?

In breakthrough work, the researchers checked whether 8-day-old chicks respond in different ways to violated expectations regarding absence or presence.

And lo, they did. The researchers observed different behavioral responses to violations of presence and absence.

I know when you're not there.Credit: Santirat Praeknokkaew / Shutterstock.com

One fish, two fish, red fish, no fish

Baby chickens can, untrained, capture information about the absence of an expected thing; and they evince – a behavior. Something. Maybe puzzlement. The chicks looked longer at the place where the thing was absent, which in the jargon means the young chickens could represent the absence of objects. They could discern the not-there when they expected it to be there. Or there when it was expected to be absent.

That in turn suggests distinct underlying mechanisms for recognizing absence, which may have far-reaching implications for human evolution. It implies that the ability to represent the absence of an entity is within the initial cognitive repertoire of vertebrate species in general, the team posits. The dawn of this ability could theoretically go back hundreds of millions of years.

“This is the first experimental study with animals showing evidence for spontaneous absence representation at a very early age without any kind of training,” explains the Cognitive Development Center at the Central European University.

How was this feat achieved? Szabó and colleagues performed a series of four experiments, presenting the 8-day-old chicks with situations in which either the presence or the absence of an imprinting object should be expected. Then they observed the babies’ reactions, including how long they looked at the scenes.

Wondrously, they also checked which eye the chicks tended to use when inspecting expected and unexpected outcomes. This is about to become relevant.

First of all, the chicks reacted differently to surprising outcomes in both cases (expected/unexpected). But crucially, there was also a difference in their responses depending on whether the object was expected to be present or absent in the first place.

When the chicks had observed an imprinting object and it left the scene, and then the chicks were exposed to an unexpected outcome (it magically reappeared), chicks – and in particular females – responded like they were seeing something new, the university explains. They preferentially used the left eye to inspect the scene, which is what they do when seeing a novel object.

But – hang in there – the object could be considered to be novel only if the animals had previously, explicitly, noted and expected its absence at that location.

“Thus, this response suggests that chicks must have formed an expectation about the absence of the imprinting object, and perceived the appearing object as a novel one, even though it looked identical to the imprinting object,” the university explains. Ta-da!

It bears adding that this ability to represent nothing in chicken circles seems to be a mainly female capacity. You are welcome to develop your own speculative theories as to why the ladies have greater ability – according to this one small experiment – to observe the absence of an expected meal, child, wolf or whatever, while the males are preoccupied with – we do not know. Not the void, it seems.

How surprising is all this? By now it’s become almost trivial to prove that animals can count: the BBC for one listed apes, rhesus, capuchin and squirrel monkeys, lemurs, dolphins, elephants, birds, salamanders and fish, and The New York Times went one better and insulted our own puny mathematical skills.

It has even been demonstrated that not only can vertebrates use zero; invertebrates (bees) can too. In 2018, a separate study demonstrated that bees can “grasp the idea of nothing.”

“The insects can not only discern that ‘nothing’ is different from ‘something’; they’re also able to place zero at the low end of a positive numerical sequence,” though bee-training may be involved, that team wrote.

Yeah. So little human kids can say “all gone” and now we know that if a chicken could speak, it might say that too. If chickens can do it in their early chickenhood, the implication is that the abilities may be common to vertebrates – and even underlie our ability to indulge in abstract thoughts such as void and zero.

We can only hope for their sake that they find it less horrifying than we do.

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