Avian intelligence is a fascinating area of research that frequently spawns new discoveries that call into question our understanding of the way birds interact with their world. At the center of this conversation are the usual heavy-hitters. Crows, parrots, and their relatives are often thought of as the geniuses of the bird world, capable of solving complex puzzles, using tools, or engaging in impressive displays of social learning.
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But as time goes on, the scope of study with regards to bird cognition is widening. We are beginning, slowly but surely, to recognize that avian intelligence extends beyond these feathered prodigies. Even birds that have not traditionally been associated with superior cognition, like the humble pigeon, have been identified as having impressive pattern-recognition skills.
A recent study has added a new contender to the list of previously underestimated birds who display impressive cognitive abilities. The rooster. This study examined the ability to self-recognize in roosters using a test involving mirrors. Self-recognition is a common test of animal intelligence and the so-called “mirror test” is one of the most popular methods of testing. In the typical mirror test, a mark is placed on an animal, then the animal is presented with a mirror. If the animal reacts to the mark on their body, it is thought to indicate an understanding that the animal they see in the mirror is their own reflection.
Earlier this year, a group of wild Adelie Penguins were found to pass this version of the mirror test. It used to be thought that only humans and our closest animal relatives could recognize themselves in this way.
The “mirror test” used for the roosters in this experiment was a bit different. Instead of marking the roosters, the birds were placed in a chamber with a mirror and a see-through mesh. Roosters crow more when they encounter a threat, such as a predator or another rival rooster. The roosters were placed in the chamber with several varying conditions.
Sometimes there was just a mirror, sometimes, another rooster was placed on the other side of the see-through mesh, and sometimes a projection of a hawk was visible in the room. They were found to crow more when another rooster was present, despite the constant presence of the mirror. This indicates that the birds innately understood that the rooster in the mirror was not a rival bird or a threat. They distinguished between an image of themselves and another bird.
This is far from conclusive evidence of a rooster’s self-awareness, but it is a start. And more than that, it is proof of the evolution that our understanding of the potential intelligence of birds has undergone in just the last several years.
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