Cluck! Cluck! Chickens feel their offspring’s pain

'Mother hen' is a phrase used to describe a human mother fussing. Now we find that chickens display a similar empathy with their young. Shared evolutionary tools?

Why did the chicken cross the road? It seems the most scientifically up-to-date answer to that old joke would be… to reach a chick showing signs of distress.

Researchers at Bristol University were asked to investigate whether animals are capable of empathy, the ability to share another's emotions. By blowing small puffs of air onto some baby chicks, then monitoring the mothers' reactions, the scientists can now say that hens are affected by the distress of their offspring.

The adult chickens imitated the chicks' distress signals, showed signs of stress such as alertness and raised heart rate, stopped preening and clucked towards the chicks.

The findings could have consequences for commercial animal farms, where birds are often confronted with fellow creatures experiencing distress.

Scientists have long speculated that empathy results from a need for parents to care for and protect their young. Human babies are dependent on the mother and vulnerable to predators for a uniquely long time. So it is easy to argue that human empathy, expressed as parental protectiveness, was necessary as we evolved, in order to maximise the survival chances of our offspring.

But research such as this study of chicks and hens is forcing us to update our ideas about the importance of empathy across other species.

Rats have been recorded displaying empathy toward cage-mates but not strangers, and the apes, our closest animal relatives, display extensive capacity to share the feelings of other apes and of humans.

The fellow-feeling between dogs and their owners could once have been dismissed by non-dog lovers as sentimentality. But a couple of years ago, it was shown that dogs 'catch' a yawn in the same way humans do – a mysterious piece of 'mirroring' that is believed to relate to empathy.

The root of empathy – and yawning - could lie within the brain of humans and animals. Scans show that cells called 'mirror neurons' become active when we watch someone perform a task exactly as they do when we go through the same motions ourselves.

Taboos broken
As the neuroscience advances, it is changing the way we think about our relations with the animal world, and about human relationships and society.

'To endow animals with human emotions has long been a scientific taboo.' writes Frans de Waal, the biologist. 'But if we do not, we risk missing something fundamental, about both animals and us.'

You Decide

  1. Have you ever noticed that an animal was empathising with you, or with another animal?
  2. Empathy is not the same as sympathy or pity – discuss the differences and come up with some definitions.


  1. Compassion in World Farming has a campaign called Big Move to ensure the proposed ban on battery chicken cages across the EU goes ahead in 2012. Design a campaign poster or write a news story about the campaign. Linkhere
  2. How much do we know about the human brain? Do some research on our knowledge of neuroscience and its limits.

Some People Say...

“All animals are equal, including humans.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So this study of chicks could be far-reaching?
Well, the starting point is narrow. The researchers wanted to study hens because they were working for an animal welfare science group: they wanted to look at intensive chicken farming. 'Routine practices' or common conditions in factory farms like bone fractures or leg problems produce distress.
But the implications are wider?
Campaigners would argue that animal welfare is important in itself. But yes, the research reflects a wealth of recent discoveries about animal empathy. Which also affects our interpretation of how important this human attribute has been in evolution.
So calling an anxious mummy 'a mother hen' wasn't stupid after all?
It was spot on. But most human behaviour is more easily compared to our primate cousins.

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