Farm Animal Intelligence: How Smart Are Your Cows?

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Cows interact with one another in socially complex ways, developing friendships, forming social hierarchies and even holding grudges.
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Horses make great pets because they are loyal to their owners and have a great sense of humor.
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While lambs and sheep are animals well worth raising, they may not be as interactive as other barnyard animals.
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Everyone knows goats are barnyard acrobats and geometry majors capable of escaping darn near any enclosure. And, amazingly enough, they also are experts at climbing trees.

Not to step on the toes of chipmunk lovers, but I recently saw an animal show on television that claimed a chipmunk has a memory of about three days. Chipmunks spend much of their workday finding and hiding food. However, after three days, it seems, little Alvin forgets where he stashed the groceries.

That got me to thinking about the relative intelligence of animals. Not instinctive behavior, like geese flying south for the winter or bears preparing their den for winter hibernation, but rather an animal’s ability to acquire knowledge – and put that knowledge to use.

The animal kingdom is filled with overachievers like elephants, dolphins and chimps. Elephants are legendary for recognizing humans and other elephants they haven’t seen for years, and for remembering migratory routes and water holes hundreds of miles away, as well as for using tools like logs to neutralize electric fences. Chimps can be taught sign language, and some dolphins can master far more tasks than the average dog.

Farm animal intelligence

Pig intelligence: Some folks claim pigs are among the smartest of all farm animals. Barnyard pigs can figure out how to open gates, and have been taught to identify and retrieve specific objects. A researcher at Penn State University trained pigs to use a joystick to play video games and move the cursor on a video monitor. Pigs in France have been trained to sniff out truffles, and owners of potbellied pigs say their pets can be housebroken. And don’t confuse a pig’s love of wallowing in mud with stupidity. Pigs are susceptible to sunburn, and they instinctively know that mud makes a great sunblock.

Smart horses: Horse lovers will tell you that horses are the smartest animals in the corral, capable of loyalty, emotion and the ability to make decisions. If you’ve ever watched a roping, bulldogging or cutting horse competition, you’ve seen horses make a decision in a split second. Horses can remember and understand any number of spoken or tactile commands, and can recognize horse and human friends after years of separation. Horses also can be trained to master an impressive repertoire of tricks. In the early 1900s, a horse named Beautiful Jim Key was even taught how to spell out words. Horses also have a sense of humor, and have been known to play tricks on their human friends.

Social cows: While I admire cows, I’ll admit they’re not the brightest bulbs in the ceiling. However, in their defense, cows interact with one another in socially complex ways. They develop friendships, form social hierarchies, and can hold grudges against other cows. A dairy cow in a herd of a hundred knows exactly where her place is in line at the milking parlor, and range cattle never forget where the best grazing can be found.  And if feeding time is 5 p.m., a herd of bawling cows will let you know if you’re even a few minutes late with their supper.

Sheep and goat intelligence: In addition to being barnyard acrobats, goats seem to have some understanding of geometry. Give a goat a doghouse and a 6-foot-high fence, and you can watch it calculate the angles and trajectories necessary to attain freedom. Any critter with four hooves that can climb trees has my respect.

If someone says you’re as smart as a sheep, you probably shouldn’t take it as a compliment. I have spent some time around sheep, and I can’t say I’ve ever seen one demonstrate much intelligence. Sheep will blindly stampede with the rest of the flock at the slightest provocation … say, for instance, when a leaf blows across the pen. Exactly how much of this is attributable to their strong flocking instinct and a reluctance to act independently is debatable, but the darned things can take off for no apparent reason. Trust me.  

How smart are birds?

We’ve all heard of parrots that were taught to understand and use dozens of human words, and crows that use twigs to fish tasty insects out of holes. But when it comes to domestic fowl, the term birdbrained comes to mind. There is, however, an exception to every rule, and that exception was a chicken named Ginger.

Actually, there was a whole flock of chickens named Ginger, trained to play tic-tac-toe by an Arkansas animal trainer named Bunky Boger. A few years ago, when casino folks in Atlantic City and Las Vegas caught wind of the avian wonders, they created “The Chicken Challenge – Play Tic-Tac-Toe With a Live Chicken.” Beat the chicken, and you could win $10,000.

Every day, hundreds of people would line up to match wits with Ginger. And most of the time, the chicken either won or battled its human opponent to a draw.

And that leaves me wondering just who should be calling whom birdbrained?

Jerry Schleicher lives in Parkville, Missouri, and just so happens to know a thing or two about birds and barnyard animals.

Published on Oct 6, 2011

Grit Magazine

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