Weird Science Weekly: Can chickens count soon after they hatch?

Scott Sutherland
June 28, 2013

Weird Science happens all around us, every day. In this installment of Weird Science Weekly, I gather some of past week's weirdest examples, such as crazy ants, vindictive mould and smart chickens.

Baby Chickens have the mental edge on your toddler

There may not be a market for a 'My baby chick is smarter than your honor student' bumper stickers, but a study out of the University of Bristol Verterinary School says that the baby birds can understand concepts like numeracy and self-control ages before a human child can.

After studying chickens for the past 20 years, Professor Christine Nicol, who authored the study with Robbie L'Anson-Price, concluded that chickens showed intelligence within a few hours of hatching. Among the experiments Nicol conducted were showing chicks eggs of various sizes. The little birds almost always picked the largest egg, even when the eggs were removed to different groups. Nicol claims chicks can keep track of numbers up to five.

Chicks were able to understand that when something moves out of sight, it still exists; babies don't grasp that until they're about a year old. They also determined chicks understand the concept of waiting to receive a reward; 93 per cent of the chicks tested would quickly learn to pass up an immediate meal in favor of a longer one that came later. This is something that human kiddies don't typically do until they're four.

Before you run out and hire an avian accountant, it's probably worth noting that Professor Nicol's study, The Intelligent Hen, was sponsored by The Happy Egg Co., a producer of free-range eggs in the U.K., who probably have a stake in convincing people that chickens should be treated better than they are in most big farming organizations.

Nonetheless, being respectful of our food sources is still important and humane. Especially when they might be capable of plotting against us.

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Mould threatens world's gin production

Okay, apparently moulds have something against us drinking gin. First they went after the potatoes (and they still do), but now a mould that's similar to the one responsible for the Irish potato famine of the 1800s has set its sights on UK's juniper bushes... and as go the junipers, so goes the gin, since the drink draws its distinctive taste from the plant's berries.

This fungus-like pathogen, called Phytophthora austrocedrae, is a relative newcomer to the world of plant destruction, only having been classified in 2007, although researchers feel it has been present for about 50 years in Argentina and Chile — the only other two countries to have reported it thus far. A scientist from the Research Agency of the Forest Commission in the UK told ABC News the DNA structure of the UK mould is different from its South American cousin, however, meaning that the origin of the British invader is so far unknown (cue the dramatic music).

The mould generally spreads through groundwater and streams, and attacks the roots and stems of its victims, ultimately causing it to lose all its leaves and die. The Telegraph newspaper reported last week that up to 45 per cent of Scottish junipers are currently at risk of being wiped out.

The good news for your gin and tonic is that most gin producers get their juniper supplies from continental Europe. The bad news is that researchers have thus far been unable to figure out where the fungus came from, how it got into the UK or even what to do about it, and it could already be in the process of making the jump to the mainland. It might be time to choose a new favourite cocktail, just to be on the safe-side.

Ant invaders threaten electronics

Remember Them!, the 1954 sci-fi horror movie about the giant irradiated ants? Well, we have a similar (although tinier) problem now, but we're probably going to want to find a better solution than flamethrowers (sorry, spoiler alert).

This invasive species, known as 'the tawny crazy ant' (apparently due to its colour and weird foraging patterns) has got people in the southern States sweating this summer — literally. Not only are they tough enough to drive out the dreaded fire ants, by taking over their mounds, but it appears the little invaders are targeting electronics, including air conditioners, farm equipment and home appliances, to call their homes. Unlike most ants, the crazies don't build their own burrows, they just look for somewhere cozy to nest in. Unfortunately for people in the areas they've marched into, these cozy cavities include everything down to your cellphone; the ants are less than 3 mm long, making your iPhone's insides a nice spot to camp out.

In the case of air conditioners, for instance, the ants bodies themselves can create short circuits when they bridge the gaps between components. Worse than that, when the ants get zapped, they release their alarm scent, calling MORE of the little fellas to their rescue. Cue your A/C full of angry, dying ants! Gross!

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Racing pigeon from Japan lands in Canada

The pigeon — a nameless, 1-year-old racer who set off from Sapporo, Japan, on May 10th — wound up on Vancouver Island last week after taking an 8,000 km detour on what should have been a 965 km race south.

The bird, who was skinny and exhausted after his trek, was taken to an animal hospital in Comox before being released to the Mountainaire Avian Rescue Society. His Japanese owner, Hiroyasu Takasu, told ABC News he was happy the pigeon was found alive, but declined to have him shipped back home. The pigeon will instead live with one of his rehabilitators — also a pigeon racer — and will hopefully sire a nest full of long-distance fliers.

Though their reputation is checkered in most urban areas, pigeons are the oldest domesticated bird and were used extensively as messengers before the advent of electronic communication. Modern racing pigeons are generally the descendants of these mail-delivery birds, although their range is typically 100 km to 1000 km, not the marathon that this bird took.

Still, Mr. Pigeon has a long way to go if he wants to break a record. The title for longest recorded nonstop flight is currently held by a female bar-tailed godwit, who flew from Alaska to New Zealand, and didn't even glide. Take that, pigeons.

What you eat with can influence how your food tastes

There may be more to the Campbell's Chunky Soup 'Fork or Spoon' debate than we thought. A new study in the journal Flavour reports that your brain makes judgments about what you're about to eat based on the cutlery you use. Researchers conducted three experiments with more than 100 student participants, investigating the influence of different types of cutlery on the taste of the food they served.

We've heard before that eating off of smaller plates can make you feel full faster, but apparently your brain also expects different results based on the weight, colour and shape of the cutlery you use. For instance, the study found that cheese tasted saltiest when served on a knife as opposed to spoon, fork or toothpick. Yogurt tasted denser and more expensive on a lighter spoon than a heavier one.

Scientists involved in the study were quoted by BBC News as saying "How we experience food is a multisensory experience ... Even before we put food into our mouths, our brains have made a judgment about it, which affects our overall experience."

Apart from being another glimpse into the wonderful weirdness that is our brains, neuroscience like this in the kitchen could pave the way for advances in diet aids or lead to the next big gourmet craze, like molecular gastronomy. Flight of spoons has a certain ring to it.

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Keep your eyes on the wonders of science, and if you spot anything particularly strange you'd like me to check out for next week, comment below or drop me a line on Twitter!

(Images courtesy: Wikimedia Commons, Mountainaire Avian Rescue Society, Getty)

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