Selective Attention In Chickens

4 March 2015

I love the title but … What the heck is Selective Attention and who cares about it in chickens?   (Don’t worry, there’s fun at the end.)

Selective attention — the ability to focus in the midst of distractions — is something we humans do well.  For instance, we can listen to one person in a crowded noisy room and focus completely on what they’re saying, tuning out everything else.  This is useful!

Selective attention has been studied extensively in primates.  Do birds possess this skill?

Anecdotally, I’d say “Yes.”  I’ve watched red-tailed hawks keenly focused while hunting next to busy roads.  They tune out all the traffic and successfully catch their prey.  Unfortunately some are way too good at ignoring traffic and are struck and killed by vehicles.

No one had proven selective attention in birds until researchers at Stanford University’s School of Medicine gave chickens quick visual cues to see if they would peck outside the (virtual) box.  Published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2014, “The results show that chickens shift spatial attention rapidly and dynamically, following principles of stimulus selection that closely parallel those documented in primates.”

Click here to watch the chicken peck the X in the middle. Then a quick flash of light attracts his attention.  Birds and primates both inherited this cognitive skill.

And now a quiz for you:  Remember how I said we’re good at tuning out distractions?  Watch this video to test your own selective attention …

… and you’ll understand how really focused we are!

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click the caption to see the original.)

10 thoughts on “Selective Attention In Chickens

  1. I counted 15, and yes, I saw the gorilla. Maybe that’s why my husband says that I have the attention span of a cat. 🙂

  2. Isn’t there an idiom about ignoring the gorilla in the room? (I got 13, and saw the Hairy Ape!) Anne

    1. Anne, I know there’s one about the elephant in the room. ‘Gorilla’ is an interesting variation.

  3. And in a weird twist of irony I ran across a dead hawk on the sidewalk near 5th avenue with a pigeon still in its talons just a few minutes ago. I just had read this story about an hour ago. Wonder if it was a car strike. So sad for the poor thing.

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