Avian maternal response to chick distress

J. L. Edgar, J. C. Lowe, E. S. Paul, C. J. Nicol

Abstract

The extent to which an animal is affected by the pain or distress of a conspecific will depend on its capacity for empathy. Empathy most probably evolved to facilitate parental care, so the current study assessed whether birds responded to an aversive stimulus directed at their chicks. Domestic hens were exposed to two replicates of the following conditions in a counterbalanced order: control (C; hen and chicks undisturbed), air puff to chicks (APC; air puff directed at chicks at 30 s intervals), air puff to hen (APH; air puff directed at hen at 30 s intervals) and control with noise (CN; noise of air puff at 30 s intervals). During each test, the hens' behaviour and physiology were measured throughout a 10 min pre-treatment and a 10 min treatment period. Hens responded to APH and APC treatments with increased alertness, decreased preening behaviour and a reduction in eye temperature. No such changes occurred during any control period. Increased heart rate and maternal vocalization occurred exclusively during the APC treatment, even though chicks produced few distress vocalizations. The pronounced and specific reaction observed indicates that adult female birds possess at least one of the essential underpinning attributes of empathy.

  • Received December 15, 2010.
  • Accepted February 14, 2011.
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