Domestic hens exhibit a “clear physiological and behavioural response” when their chicks are distressed, according to new veterinary research from the University of Bristol.

Chickens feel concern for their offspring, according to new veterinary research from the University of Bristol.

A team of scientists at Bristol‘s Animal Welfare and Behaviour research group, led by PhD student Jo Edgar, undertook a a series of controlled procedures and used a range of non-invasive monitoring techniques to show how domestic hens exhibit a physiological and behavioural response when their chicks were upset.

The study found that domestic hens responded physically and behaviourly when their chicks were upset.According to Miss Edgar, whose doctorate is in farm animal welfare, the study is the first to demonstrate how birds posses a level of empathy.

She explained: “Our research has addressed the fundamental question of whether birds have the capacity to show empathic responses.

“We found that adult female birds possess at least one of the essential underpinning attributes of ’empathy’; the ability to be affected by, and share, the emotional state of another.”

In one controlled procedure the hens reacted when their chicks were exposed to a puff of air. The mothers’ heart rates increased and they became more alert and vocal towards their offspring.

The research team specifically used chickens as a relevant sample species because they can regularly encounter other birds suffering pain or distress in a commercial farming environment. 

Miss Edgar added that the findings, relating to how far animals are affected by the stress felt by others, was highly relevant in fields of farm and laboratory animal welfare.

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