Mar 04 2015
I love the title but … What the heck is Selective Attention and who cares about it in chickens? (Don’t worry, there’s fun at the end.)
Selective attention — the ability to focus in the midst of distractions — is something we humans do well. For instance, we can listen to one person in a crowded noisy room and focus completely on what they’re saying, tuning out everything else. This is useful!
Selective attention has been studied extensively in primates. Do birds possess this skill?
Anecdotally, I’d say “Yes.” I’ve watched red-tailed hawks keenly focused while hunting next to busy roads. They tune out all the traffic and successfully catch their prey. Unfortunately some are way too good at ignoring traffic and are struck and killed by vehicles.
No one had proven selective attention in birds until researchers at Stanford University’s School of Medicine gave chickens quick visual cues to see if they would peck outside the (virtual) box. Published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2014, “The results show that chickens shift spatial attention rapidly and dynamically, following principles of stimulus selection that closely parallel those documented in primates.”
Watch the chicken peck the X in the middle. Then a quick flash of light attracts his attention. Birds and primates both inherited this cognitive skill.
And now a quiz for you: Remember how I said red-tailed hawks are sometimes hit by cars because they’re focusing so much? Watch this video to test your own selective attention.
… and you’ll understand the red-tail’s problem.
(chicken photo by Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original.)