The Chicken that Plays Puccini: A Question of Animal Awareness

The other day, while looking for something to watch on YouTube, I was offered up in the side-bar a series of videos of a chicken playing the piano. Intrigued, I clicked on the link and was treated to two minutes and one second of a chicken at an electric piano playing “O mio babbino caro” from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. While it’s not Kiri Te Kanawa, you can still make out the tune quite well, especially with the electronic accompaniment.

This chicken was “Jokgu of The Flockstars” a buff Brahma bantam chicken, managed and trained by “Two Creative Chicks.” They were on America’s Got Talent and you can still purchase t-shirts and greeting cards through their Facebook site. The biggest question to me is whether Jokgu knew what she was doing. Does she have a concept of music or tonality? Watching her play, it’s easy to see that she’s pecking at a light that appears within each key as it’s to be played.

Jokgu playing the piano and lighted key is clearly visible.

So at first I thought it was just a cheap trick – the bird would peck at any light and the keyboard was actually doing all the work, especially when Jokgu immediately after had a nosh at the hands of the trainer. But then I found another video on their YouTube channel. Two different chickens were pecking at a child’s piano (watch from 3:36) all by themselves with no obvious reward. Did they enjoy the music? Birds are obviously highly auditory, so perhaps it’s simply stimulating. Are they recognizing a pattern to it? Does the Lyrebird recognize the sounds it’s making when it mimics the calls of other birds and everything from chain saws to car doors?

Demonstrating whether an animal knows what it’s doing isn’t that easy. It’s so easy to project your own hopes, especially when the animal is one that is closely associated with us. To discern whether an animal is capable of ‘aim-oriented flow of ideas and associations leading to a reality-oriented conclusion’ – that is to think – it’s necessary to bring science to bear.

Bunny. Photo: Fluent Pet

This is where Bunny the sheepadoodle comes in. Her owner, Alexis Devine, has taught her well over 50 words, which Bunny vocalizes through the use of audio press-buttons on the floor. See this interview with Alexis on Mashable. Through this mechanism, garnered from the world of speech pathology, the dog can communicate her basic needs, feelings and interests (park, play, love, no). She can also form primitive sentences by using buttons in combinations. It’s very engaging to watch, as attested to by her millions of followers on TikTok and other platforms. Read more about Bunny here.

Bunny’s doing a great job at mastering the tools we present her for replicating human speech in a rudimentary fashion. Imagine how complex her communication might be if we had insight into all the modes of communication Bunny naturally has at her disposal: auditory, olfactory, visual. I’m reminded of the Douglas Adams quote from Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy. “…man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much—the wheel, New York, wars and so on—whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man—for precisely the same reasons.”

Alex the Parrot, the subject of a long-term language study.

We might all be able to accept that our dogs are intelligent, self aware, and can potentially think in a way that’s akin to humans. But Jokgu was a bird. Can non-mammalian species reach true self-awareness? Alex was an African grey parrot, the subject of a thirty-year experiment by animal psychologist Irene Pepperberg. Alex had a vocabulary of over 100 words but was remarkable for appearing understanding the meaning of what he was saying. Alex could correctly label objects with shapes, colors, and materials, as well as their position in relation to other objects (e.g. under). He understood classes of objects, like a key, which could be different in size or color. Significantly, Alex became the first and only non-human animal that has ever vocalized a question, when he asked his trainer what color he was.

Does this mean that Alex could think? In his 1976 book, The Question of Animal Awareness, Donald R. Griffin addressed this idea. He wrote “Language has generally been regarded as a unique attribute of human beings, different in kind from animal communication. But on close examination of this view… it becomes evident that one of the major criteria on which this distinction has been based is the assumption that animals lack any conscious intent to communicate, whereas men know what they are doing. The available evidence concerning communication behavior in animals suggest that there may be no qualitative difference…

Portia fimbriata. Photo: Donald Hobern, Copenhagen, Denmark, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38204872

My final example is of an unassuming group of jumping spiders that share the genus Portia. Portia species inhabit tropical Africa and Asia and specialize on hunting other spiders, often twice their size. This is a dangerous lifestyle. As a result, these spiders are remarkable for their intelligent hunting behavior, which suggests that they’re capable of learning and problem solving, traits normally associated with much larger and more complex animals. Because of this, they’re one of the best-studied groups of spiders. They are, for instance, capable of trying out a behavior to obtain feedback regarding success. They can make detours to find the best attack angle against dangerous prey and devise new techniques for subduing unfamiliar targets. They can also distinguish the webs of individuals of their own species that they’ve met before, contrasting with those who are unknown.

As life on the planet becomes more imperiled, it seems that humanity is more willing to look after the charismatic and useful species, those that look or act like us, those that can think like us (or can be made to seem so). Does the idea of a broad range of animals being capable of conscious thought perhaps shine new light on what we might come to care about, and therefore protect? What if reality were just a little closer to Charlotte’s Web than we once imagined? The horizon of biophilia just got broader.


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