Did you know that chickens might be as smart as dolphins?

That’s right! A recent study concluded that our feathered friends possess self-control, self-assessment, and a basic understanding of numbers and arithmetic. They communicate in complex ways and may even be able to anticipate future events.

That’s more than you can say for a lot of us humans! Who knew there was so much to chickens?

Year of the Chicken

The new study came out just in time for the Chinese Year of the Chicken, or Year of the Rooster, which began in late January.

What better time to reevaluate our relationship with these creatures we take for granted? And what better time to take a closer look at the chicken industry?

It’s not a pretty sight. Most chickens are raised on factory farms, where they’re kept in dismal conditions. Broiler chickens on factory farms live in windowless warehouses, while their egg-laying counterparts can’t even extend their wings, because their cages are so small.

Add to that the genetic manipulation that makes many chickens’ bodies too heavy for their legs, and the inhumane ways they’re transported and slaughtered, and it all adds up to a sad situation.

The good news is that the lot of chickens is improving. The Year of the Chicken may be the year things start to get better for these fabulous fowl.

Americans care about chickens

Most people haven’t realized how bad things were for chickens. But now that the word is getting out, Americans are demanding better conditions for these animals.

A survey conducted last year by the ASPCA found that not only do most Americans care about farm animal welfare, but we’re even willing to pay more for better treatment of farm animals. It also found that most of us are confused by labels — do you know the difference between “cage-free,” “free-range,” and “grass fed”? And most of us have thought that the animals we eat were protected from cruelty. The truth is, they really haven’t been.

Because of public concern for farm animals, we’re starting to see signs of improvement in the plight of chickens.

Welfare standards for chickens

As if to usher in the Year of the Chicken, on January 19, the USDA published a rule that establishes minimum indoor and outdoor space requirements for organically raised chickens. It also sets other standards for their handling and transportation.

What will happen to that rule under the current administration remains to be seen, but a number of large food companies are taking matters into their own hands. And it’s not just happening for chickens of the organic variety.

Late last year, the Panera Bread restaurant chain announced a policy to address the issue in its supply chain. While the policy looks at farm animal welfare in general, it specifically calls out chicken treatment. Panera plans to require that its chicken suppliers improve conditions for both raising and slaughtering the animals. Panera will also require the suppliers to get animal welfare certification from the Global Animal Partnership (GAP).

Other major chains like Chipotle, Burger King, Starbucks, and Jack in the Box are joining in, and promising to ensure that chickens are treated better. With this kind of momentum, it seems that things are looking up for chickens!

Respect the chicken

Today is International Respect for Chickens Day, observed every year on May 4! Given what we now know about their intellectual capacity, we can see that there’s a lot to respect in our feathered fowl friends. And doesn’t every animal deserve to be treated kindly?

Of course, one way we can all help is to cut down on our chicken consumption and opt for a reducetarian or flexitarian diet. That will also cut down the carbon emissions of your diet, or what we call your “Carbon Foodprint.”

When you do want to enjoy some chicken, you can choose chicken-welfare-conscious options. To learn more about these, check out the ASPCA’s Shop with Your Heart site. They have guides to help you understand labels, lists of welfare-certified and plant-based foods and other products, and other tools to help you help animals.

We all have the power to make a difference — and to make life better for the creatures we share our planet with.