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New Study – Birds Show Empathy and Share the Emotional State of Others

It’s well known that birds exhibit an extraordinary degree of care and protectiveness towards their chicks…having been attacked by avian parents ranging from owls to ostriches, I can vouch for this firsthand!  As impressive as this may be, most folks tend to accept it as a matter of course – the survival of the species, after all, depends upon the new generation.  However, an amazing new study at the University of Bristol (UK) has revealed that female domestic chickens actually seem to exhibit empathy – that is, the ability to share and be affected by the emotional state of another individual.

“Mammal-Like” Qualities in Birds

Empathy, or “feeling another’s pain”, has long been thought to be the providence of humans and, according to some research, other mammals.  A recent (March, 2011) article the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, however, makes a convincing case that at least some birds also posses this trait.  The study is also the first to document that birds exhibit both physiological and behavioral changes when witnessing the distress of another individual.

In the experiment, Domestic Hens were separated from their chicks but allowed to observe that puffs of air were being directed at the youngsters.  The hens became very alert, ceased preening and began vocalizing at their chicks (behavioral responses).  They also exhibited physiological changes, including a drop in eye temperature and a rise in heart-rate…both signs of stress.

I think the most important points that distinguish this from mere protective or fear-based behavior are the facts that the hens themselves were not in any danger and that the chicks exhibited no signs of distress or fear.  The hens seemed to “view” or predict the situation as being a stressful one for the chicks, and were affected by this.

In common with many birds, Domestic Hens are also able to learn by observation and experience.  Other studies have shown that they avoid areas where other birds have been seen to cease preening and remain in an alert posture (indicating a possible threat).

Pets and Zoo Animals

The University of Bristol researchers were manly concerned with the welfare of farm and laboratory animals.  Considering the stressful conditions under which chickens and other domestic fowl are usually raised (please see photo), this is most appropriate.

However, I believe that the work has important implications for pets and zoo animals as well.  As we now know, stress weakens the immune system and is involved in an extraordinary number of diseases, parasitic infections and breeding failures…not to mention its affect on the quality of life of both pet and pet-owner.  Please see the articles below for more on reducing the stress experienced by captive parrots and finches.

Future Implications…Empathetic Reptiles?

Chickens in BarnThis new information raises the possibility that empathy, as a trait, may have evolved far earlier than was previously believed.  Its presence in birds opens the door to intriguing questions…according to one biologist, we may be looking at a 200 million year old characteristic that is rooted in reptile evolution.

Further Reading

Abstract of the Hen Empathy Article mentioned above.

Enriched Environments Speed Healing in Birds

Avian Stress: Furnished vs. Unfurnished Cages



  1. avatar

    Isn’t this interesting!

  2. avatar

    Hello Lisa, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Thanks for your interest in our blog….I agree, it really does seem to go beyond instinctual parental care. Hopefully, it may lead to new findings that will benefit wild, pet and domestic birds and bird keepers.

    Please let me know if you need any further information. Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  3. avatar

    Yesterday a Tree Sparrow ran into my window and was injured. A Mourning Dove came and sat right up next to it until dark, when it finally left. I then brought the sparrow into the house, but it died in a few minutes. Empathy? Sure seemed like it.

  4. avatar

    Hello Lahna,

    Thanks very much for the interesting observation; best, Frank

  5. avatar

    I used to feed wild rainbow lorikeets in Sydney and can give an example of these birds displaying empathy.

    One of the birds that I used to feed only had the top part of his beak. I would provide him with a soft feed mix because he could not eat apples like the others. I fed him for about 7 years. One time after not visiting for a few days he arrived with another lorriket that I had not seen before and this bird too only had half a beak. I was blown away that he was looking out for another with the same problem he had.

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I believe that I was born with an intense interest in animals, as neither I nor any of my family can recall a time when I was not fascinated by creatures large and small. One might imagine this to be an unfortunate set of circumstances for a person born and raised in the Bronx, but, in actuality, quite the opposite was true. Most importantly, my family encouraged both my interest and the extensive menagerie that sprung from it. My mother and grandmother somehow found ways to cope with the skunks, flying squirrels, octopus, caimans and countless other odd creatures that routinely arrived un-announced at our front door. Assisting in hand-feeding hatchling praying mantises and in eradicating hoards of mosquitoes (I once thought I had discovered “fresh-water brine shrimp” and stocked my tanks with thousands of mosquito larvae!) became second nature to them. My mother went on to become a serious naturalist, and has helped thousands learn about wildlife in her 16 years as a volunteer at the Bronx Zoo. My grandfather actively conspired in my zoo-buildings efforts, regularly appearing with chipmunks, boa constrictors, turtles rescued from the Fulton Fish Market and, especially, unusual marine creatures. It was his passion for seahorses that led me to write a book about them years later. Thank you very much, for a complete biography of my experience click here.
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