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A Mirror Reveals a Surprise About Bird Brains – The New York Times

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A modified version of the classic mirror test suggested that roosters recognize their reflections.
By Darren Incorvaia
The idea of a chicken running around with its head cut off, inspired by a real-life story, may make it seem like the bird doesn’t have much going on upstairs. But Sonja Hillemacher, an animal behavior researcher at the University of Bonn in Germany, always knew that chickens were more than mindless sources of wings and nuggets.
“They are way smarter than you think,” Ms. Hillemacher said.
Now, in a study published in the journal PLOS One on Wednesday, Ms. Hillemacher and her colleagues say they have found evidence that roosters can recognize themselves in mirrors. In addition to shedding new light on chicken intellect, the researchers hope that their experiment can prompt re-evaluations of the smarts of other animals.
The mirror test is a common, but contested, test of self-awareness. It was introduced by the psychologist Gordon Gallup in 1970. He housed chimpanzees with mirrors and then marked their faces with red dye. The chimps didn’t seem to notice until they could see their reflections, and then they began inspecting and touching the marked spot on their faces, suggesting that they recognized themselves in the mirror. The mirror test has since been used to assess self-recognition in many other species. But only a few — such as dolphins and elephants — have passed.
After being piloted on primates, the mirror test was “somehow sealed in a nearly magical way as sacred,” said Onur Güntürkün, a neuroscientist at Ruhr University Bochum in Germany and an author of the study who worked with Ms. Hillemacher and Inga Tiemann, also at the University of Bonn. But different cognitive processes are active in different situations, and there’s no reason to think that the mirror test is accurate for animals with vastly different sensory abilities and social systems than what chimps have.
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