New experiment suggests Roosters may be self-aware

The results have prompted debate over animal welfare, rights and sentiency.

Matthew Barratt
20th November 2023
A new version of the classic "mark test" may have proved that Roosters can recognize their own reflection.

There are but a few species of animal that are recognized as possessing the cognitive ability of self-recognition. Among these are the great ape species' of chimpanzees, orangutans and bonobos but also Asian elephants, bottlenose dolphins and the birds species’ of Eurasian magpies and Indian crows. Roosters may now be the newest addition to this elite club according to the new study published in Plos One (2023) last October.

Mirror self-recognition (MSR) is the process used to obtain these conclusions and takes the form of a mark test in which an animal, placed in front of a mirror, is marked with a colored spot on an easily reachable part of their body. If the animal notices the mark whilst standing in the mirror and takes active interest in this anomalous colour, then this is solidified as proof of the subject’s ability to recognize their own reflection.

"These fowls were able to differentiate a conspecific from that of their own reflection"

Chickens, more specifically Roosters, are a little bit more complex when tested on using MSR. The domestic fowl exhibits a unique behavior when in the accompaniment of their conspecifics. In face of an oncoming predator, a fox for example, the rooster will exclaim to warn others around them to make an escape. When alone, however, the rooster will remain quiet, lest they expose themselves to becoming a victim of their pursuing predator.

Researchers used this behavior to their advantage and constructed a grid separated by two compartments in which two roosters were placed within each respective segment. A projection of a predator was displayed on the ceiling and scientists observed that in sight of this façade, the roosters would exhibit the warning call to their conspecific.

Then a mirror was placed between the two roosters, cordoning them off from view. When shown the predatory projection, the roosters, in view of their reflections, performed their alarm calls drastically less, thus aiding the hypothesis that these fowls were able to differentiate a conspecific from that of their own reflection.

"The study itself has important implications for the development of attitudes towards animal welfare"

These findings are not definitive proof that roosters themselves are self-aware but the evidence certainly points towards the potentiality of such. For example, the study puts forth the suggestion that some of the roosters who participated in the research may have perceived their reflection as a fellow conspecific who uncannily mimics their movements.

Nevertheless, the study itself is a valid starting point which challenges the preconceived notions about MSR, as chickens are regarded as one of the least expected candidates to respond to it. The study itself has important implications for the development of attitudes towards animal welfare, rights and the knowledge of animal cognitive intelligence.

Video Credit: YouTube @Reader's Digest
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