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Chickens really aren't bird brains

Chickens, it seems, are faster learners than dogs. I shared this information with my dog after watching The Private Life of Chickens, the second in Jimmy Doherty's entertaining series exploring the intelligence and social habits of farmyard animals.

He wasn't in the least perturbed, to be honest. My dog, that is, not Jimmy. "Oh yeah, well bully for you and your bloody chickens," I could see him thinking with his burger-sized brain.

"Will a chicken chase a ball if you throw it? Will a chicken run over wagging its tail when you get out of bed in the morning? Dammit, chickens don't even HAVE tails!"

Mmm, he has a point. Or, at least, he would have a point if he'd actually said all of the above. Chickens can't really be that smart, can they? Jimmy didn't think so.

"When I think of chickens, the word 'birdbrain' comes to mind," he said.

But then he went and acted like a bit of a birdbrain himself by pondering aloud why it is we've found it so easy to domesticate chickens.

Well, they can't fly for a start, which makes it infinitely easier to domesticate a chicken than, say, a falcon. Falcons, of course, prey on chickens, so how does a bird that can't fly -- and indeed can't even chase a ball -- avoid being eaten?

Jimmy had a falconer release his bird to circle a farmyard. The chickens all ran for the cover of a nearby tree, which you have to say is pretty smart. Then again, unleash a fox in a farmyard and they'll all run into the chicken house and sit there, like, er, sitting ducks, waiting to be gobbled up. Which isn't smart at all.

Jimmy could hardly have a fox killing chickens in a pre-watershed slot, so instead he and a scientist friend pulled a stuffed fox on rails across the chickens' line of view.

They weren't fooled. That's because, said Jimmy, chickens see movement at twice the speed humans do, and can immediately tell the difference between a real predator and a fake one.

Another experiment, involving little compartments of corn covered with paper stars and circles, revealed chickens can be taught to learn how to recognise different shapes. After a couple of days' training, the birds knew that in order to get at the food, they had to peck through the paper stars.

Chickens, Jimmy concluded, are no dummies after all, and their social interaction is also more sophisticated than we realised.

Disputes over which bird gets to eat first aren't sorted out merely by pecking and bullying -- they frequently intimidate one another with dirty looks.

Still, an icy glare's not much use when you're roasting in an oven at 180 degrees, is it?

There was one burning question that Jimmy Doherty didn't tackle: are chickens smarter than the celebrities who appear on the hilariously sarcastic Come Dine With Me?

On the evidence of last night's gathering -- party boy and legend's son Calum Best; Jade Goody ex Jeff Brazier; former Page 3 girl-turned-popstrel Sam Fox, and self-proclaimed "world's first supermodel" Janice Dickinson -- the answer is, immeasurably.

Calum didn't know what mascarpone was, which is probably forgivable in a man who's spent most of his adult life falling out of nightclubs and into models. Yet even he has his standards.

He resolutely refused to fall into Janice, who, while she might know what mascarpone is, isn't as adept as your average chicken at interpreting negative body language and spent much of the quartet's four evenings together blatantly sniffing around a plainly unimpressed Calum (or Colin / Gollum, as she variously mistakenly called him) like a fox eyeing up a henhouse.

This was, in its own small way, landmark television: a programme that actually made you feel sorry for Calum Best.