Agroecology 3 min

Cognitive capacities of domestic hens: surprising results!

The domestic hen is capable of solving the delayed recognition test, usually reserved for corvids and primates, which are considered more intelligent. Its cognitive capacities are much more extensive than previously thought.

Published on 31 January 2023

illustration Cognitive capacities of domestic hens: surprising results!
© Fabien Cornilleau

Improving the welfare of farm animals depends on our knowledge on how they perceive and interpret their environment; the latter depends on their cognitive abilities. Hence, limited knowledge of the range of cognitive abilities of farm animals is a major concern. An effective approach to explore the cognitive range of a species is to apply automated testing devices, which are still underdeveloped in farm animals.

In screen-like studies, the uses of automated devices are few in domestic hens. We developed an original fully automated touchscreen device using digital computer-drawn colour pictures and independent sensible cells adapted for cognitive testing in domestic hens, enabling a wide range of test types from low to high complexity.

This study aimed to test the efficiency of our device using two cognitive tests. We focused on tasks related to adaptive capacities to environmental variability, such as flexibility and generalisation capacities as this is a good start to approach more complex cognitive capacities. We implemented a serial reversal learning task, categorised as a simple cognitive test, and a delayed matching-to- sample (dMTS) task on an identity concept, followed by a generalisation test, categorised as more complex.

In the serial reversal learning task, the hens performed equally for the two changing reward contingencies in only three reversal stages.

In the dMTS task, the hens increased their performance rapidly throughout the training sessions. Moreover, to the best of our knowledge, we present the first positive result of identity concept generalisation in a dMTS task in domestic hens. Our results provide additional information on the behavioural flexibility and concept understanding of domestic hens. Video below:

They also support the idea that fully automated devices would improve knowledge of farm animals’ cognition.


Sylvie André

Scientific contact

Ludovic Calandreau Reproductive Physiology and Behavior Unit



Learn more


Discovery of heritable resilience indicators in laying hens

PRESS RELEASE - As climate change advances and farming practices diversify, animals will experience less predictable rearing conditions. New research by INRAE (France), Wageningen University (the Netherlands), and the breeding company Hendrix Genetics (the Netherlands) has identified three potential indicators of animal resilience using laying data from more than 60,000 hens. These indicators are partly genetic in nature and easy to quantify. The results of this work were published on April 20 in Genetics Selection Evolution and could help inform efforts to breed more resilient laying hens.

20 April 2022


Animal welfare: when artificial intelligence translates pig vocalisations

PRESS RELEASE - Pigs express their emotions through vocalisations. Recognising these sounds, and the emotions they express, would provide the information necessary for farmers to adapt their interventions and ensure the welfare of pigs throughout their lives. This is why INRAE, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) and the University of Copenhagen have coordinated the development of a system for recognising pig vocalisations as part of the European SOUNDWEL project. Their results, published on 7 March in Scientific Reports, point to the possibility of an automatic recognition tool for vocalisations to monitor and improve pig welfare on-farm.

07 March 2022


Animal welfare: a driving concern

Eight researchers—ethologists, physiologists, neurobiologists, and geneticists—have received INRAE’s 2021 Science with an Impact Award. They represent a network of over 100 INRAE scientists whose focus is animal welfare and the treatment of animal welfare within farming systems.

25 November 2021