An internet resource developed by
Christopher D. Green
York University, Toronto, Ontario
(Return to index)
THE INSTINCTIVE REACTIONS OF YOUNG CHICKS 
THE data to be presented in this article were obtained in the course of a series of experiments conducted in connection with the psychological laboratory of Harvard University during the year 1896-1897. About sixty chicks were used as subjects. In general their experiences were entirely under my control from birth. Where this was not true, the conditions of their life previous to the experiments were known, and were such as would have had no influence in determining the quality of their reactions in the particular experiments to which they were subjected. It is not worthwhile to recount the means taken so to regulate the chick's environment that his experience along certain lines should be in its entirety known to the observer and that consequently his inherited abilities could be surely differentiated. The nature of the experiments will, in most cases, be such that little suspicion of the influence of education by experience will be possible. In the other cases I will mention the particular means then taken to prevent such influence.
Some of my first experiments were on color vision in chicks from 18 to 30 hours old, just old enough to move about readily and to be hungry. On backgrounds of white and black cardboard were pasted pieces of colored paper about 2 mm. square. On each background there were six [p. 157] of these pieces, -- one each of yellow, red, orange, green, blue and black (on the white ground) or white (on the black). They were in a row about half an inch apart. The chicks had been in darkness for all but three or four hours of their life so far. During those few hours the incubator had been illuminated and the chicks had that much chance to learn color.
The eight chicks were put, one at a time, on the sheet of cardboard facing the colored spots. Count was kept of the number of times that they pecked at each spot and, of course, they were watched to see whether they would peck at all at random. In the experiments with the white back-ground all the colors were reacted to (i.e. pecked at) except black (but the letters on a newspaper were pecked at by the same chicks the same day). One of the chicks pecked at all five, one at four, three at three, one at two and one at yellow only. These differences are due probably to accidental position or movements. Taking the sums of the reactions to each color-spot we get the following table: --
I should attach no importance whatever to the quantitative estimate given in the table. The only fact of value so [p. 158] far is the evidence that from the first the chick reacts to all colors. In no case was there any random pecking at the white surface of the cardboard. On a black background the same chicks reacted to all the colors.
II is a table of the results.
In other experiments chicks were tried with green spots on a red ground, red spots on a green ground, yellow spots on an orange ground, green spots on a blue ground, and black spots on a white ground. All were reacted to. Thus, what is apparently a long and arduous task to the child is heredity's gift to the chick. It is conceivable, though to me incredible, that what the chick reacts to is not the color, but the very minute elevation of the spot. My spots were made so that they were only the thickness of thin paper above paste-board. Any one who cares to resort to the theory that this elevation caused the reaction can settle the case by using color-spots absolutely level with the surface.  [p. 159]
INSTINCTIVE REACTIONS TO DISTANCE, DIRECTION, SIZE, ETC.
I have purposely chosen this awkward heading rather than the simple one, Space-Perception, because I do not wish to imply that there is in the young chick such consciousness of space-facts as there is in human beings. All that will be shown here is that he reacts appropriately in the presence of space-facts, reacts in a fashion which would in the case of a man go with genuine perception of space.
If one puts a chick on top of a box in sight of his fellows below, the chick will regulate his conduct by the height of the box. To be definite, we may take the average chick of about 95 hours. If the height is less than 10 inches, he will jump down as soon as you put him up. At 16 inches he will jump in from 5 seconds to 3 or 4 minutes. At 22 inches he will still jump down, but after more hesitation. At 27 1/2 inches 6 chicks out of eight at this age jumped within 5 minutes. At 39 inches the chick will NOT jump down. The numerical values given here would, of course, vary with the health, development, hunger and degree of lonesomeness of the chick. All that they are supposed to show is that at any given age the chick without experience of heights regulates his conduct rather accurately in accord with the space-fact of distance which confronts him. The chick does not peck at objects remote from him, does not, for instance, confuse a bird a score of feet away with a fly near by, or try to get the moon inside his bill. Moreover, he reacts in pecking with considerable accuracy at the very start. Lloyd Morgan has noted that in his very first efforts the chick often fails to seize the object, though he hits it, and on this ground has denied the perfection of the instinct. But, as a matter of fact, the pecking reaction may be as perfect at birth as it is [p. 160] after 10 or 12 days' experience. It certainly is not perfect then. I took nine chicks from 10 to 14 days old and placed them one at a time on a clear surface over which were scattered grains of cracked wheat (the food they had been eating in this same way for a week) and watched the accuracy of their pecking. Out of 214 objects pecked at, 159 were seized, 55 were not. Out of the 159 that were seized, only 116 were seized on the first peck, 25 on the second, 16 on the third, and the remaining two on the fourth. Of the 55 that were not successfully seized, 31 were pecked at only once, 10 twice, 10 three times, 3 four times and 1 five times. I fancy one would find that adult fowls would show by no means a perfect record. So long as chicks with ten days' experience fail to seize on the first trial 45 per cent of the time, it is hardly fair to argue against the perfection of the instinct on the ground of failures to seize during the first day.
The chick's practical appreciation of space-facts is seen further in his attempts to escape when confined. Put chicks only twenty or thirty hours old in a box with walls three or four inches high and they will react to the perpendicularity of the confining walls by trying to jump over them. In fact, in the ways he moves, the directions he takes and the object she reacts to, the chicken has prior to experience the power of appropriate reaction to colors and facts of all three dimensions.
INSTINCTIVE MUSCULAR COÖRDINATIONS
In the acts already described we see fitting coördinations at work in the chick's reactions to space-facts. A few more samples may be given. In jumping down from heights the chick does not walk off or fall off (save rarely), but jumps off. He meets the situation "loneliness on a small eminence" by walking around the edge and peering down; he meets the [p. 161] situation "sight of fellow chicks below" by (after an amount of hesitation varying roughly with the height) jumping off, holding his stubby wings out and keeping right side up. He lands on his feet almost every time and generally very cleverly. A four days' chick will jump down a distance eight times his own height without hurting himself a bit. If one takes a chick two or three weeks old who has never had a chance to jump up or down, and puts him in a box with walls three times the height of the chick's back, he will find that the chick will jump, or rather fly, nearly, if not quite, over the wall, flapping his wings lustily and holding on to the edge with his neck while he clambers over. Chicks, one day old will, in about 57 per cent of the cases, balance themselves for five or six seconds when placed on a stiff perch. If eight or nine days old, they will, though never before on any perch or anything like one, balance perfectly, for a minute or more. The muscular coördination required is invoked immediately when the chick feels the situation "feet on a perch." The strength is lacking in the first few days. From the fifth or sixth day on chicks are also able (their ability increases with age) to balance themselves on a slowly swinging perch.
Another complex coördination is seen in the somewhat remarkable instinct of swimming. Chicks only a day or two old will, if tossed into a pond, head straight for the shore and swim rapidly to it. It is impossible to compare their movements in so doing with those of ducklings, for the chick is agitated, paddles his feet very fast and swims to get out, not for swimming's sake. Dr. Bashford Dean, of Columbia University, has suggested to me that the movements may not be those of swimming, but only of running. At all events, they are utterly different from those of an adult fowl. In the case of the adult there is no vigorous instinct to strike [p. 162] out toward the shore. The hen may try to fly back into the boat if it is dropped overboard, and whether dropped in or slung in from the shore, will float about aimlessly for a while and only very slowly reach the shore. The movements the chick makes do look to be such as trying to run in water might lead to, but it is hard to see why a hen shouldn't run to get out of cold water as well as a chick. If, on the other hand, the actions of the chick are due to a real swimming instinct, it is easy to see that, being unused, the instinct might wane as the animal grew up.
Such instinctive coördinations as these, together with the walking, running, preening of feathers, stretching out of leg backward, scratching the head, etc., noted by other observers, make the infant chick a very interesting contrast to the infant man. That the helplessness of the child is a sacrifice to plasticity, instability and consequent power to develop we all know; but one begins to realize how much of a sacrifice when one sees what twenty-one days of embryonic life do for the chick brain. And one cannot help wondering whether some of the space-perception we trace to experience, some of the coördinations which we attribute to a gradual development from random, accidentally caused movements may not be more or less definitely provided for by the child's inherited brain structure. Walking has been found to be instinctive; why not other things?
INSTINCTIVE EMOTIONAL REACTIONS
The only experiments to which I wish to refer at length under this heading are some concerning the chick's instinctive fears. Before describing them, it may be well to mention their general bearing on the results obtained by Spalding and Morgan. They corroborate Morgan's decision that no well-defined specific fears are present; that the fears of [p. 163] young chicks are of strange moving objects in general, shock in general, strange sounds in general. On the other hand, no such general disturbances of the chick's environment led to such well-marked reactions as Spalding described. And so when Morgan thinks that such behavior as Spalding witnessed on the part of the chick that heard the hawk's cry demands for its explanation nothing more than a general fear of strange sounds, my experiments do not allow me to agree with him. If Spalding really saw the conduct which he says the chick exhibited on the third day of its life in the presence of man, and later at the stimulus of the sight or sound of the hawk, there are specific reactions. For the running, crouching, silence, quivering, etc., that one gets by yelling, banging doors, tormenting a violin, throwing hats, bottles, or brushes at the chick is never anything like so pronounced and never lasts one tenth as long as it did with Spalding's chicks. But, as to the fear of man, Spalding must have been deluded. In the second, third and fourth days there is no such reaction to the sight of man as he thought he saw. Miss Battle E. Hunt, in the American Journal of Psychology, Vol. IX., No. I, asserts that there is no instinctive fear of a cat. Morgan did not find such. I myself put chicks of 2, 5, 9 and 17 days (different individuals each time, 11 in all) in the presence of a cat. They showed no fear, but went on eating as if there was nothing about. The cat was still, or only slowly moving. I further put a young kitten (eight inches long) in the pen with chicks. He felt of them with his paw, and walked around among them for five or ten minutes, yet they showed no fear (nor did he instinctively attack them). If, however, you let a cat jump at chicks in real earnest, they will not stay to be eaten, but will manifest fear -- at least chicks three to four weeks old will. I did not try this experiment with chicks [p. 164] at different ages, because it seemed rather cruel and degrading to the experimenter. When in the case of the older chicks nature happened to make the experiment, it was hard to decide whether there was more violent fear of the jumping cat than there was when one threw a basket or football into the pen. There was not very much more.
We may now proceed to a brief recital of the facts shown by the experiments in so far as they are novel. It should be remembered throughout that in every case chicks of different ages were tested so as to demonstrate transitory instincts if such existed, e.g., the presence of a fear of flame was tested with chicks 59 and 60, one day old, 30 and 32, two days old, 21 and 22, three days old, 23 and 24, seven days old, 27 and 29, nine days old, 16 and 19, eleven days old, and so on up to twenty-days-old chicks. By thus using different subjects at each trial one, of course, eliminates any influence of experience.
The first notable fact is that there develops in the first month a general fear of novel objects in motion. For four or five days there seems to be no such. You may throw a hat or slipper or shaving mug at a chick of that age, and he will do no more than get out of the way of it. But a twenty-five-days-old chick will generally chirp, run and crouch for five or ten seconds. My records show this sort of thing beginning about the tenth day, but it is about ten days more before it is very marked. In general, also, the reaction is more pronounced if many chicks are together, and is then displayed earlier (only two at a time were taken in the experiments the results of which have just been quoted). Thus the reaction is to some degree a social performance, the presence of other chicks combining with the strange object to increase the vigor of the reaction. Chicks ordinarily scatter apart when they thus run from an object. [p. 165] One witnesses a similar gradual growth of the fear of man (not as such probably, but merely as a large moving object). For four or five days you can jump at the chick, grab at it with your hands, etc., without disturbing it in the least. A chick twenty days old, however, although he has never been touched or approached by a man, and in some cases never seen one except as the daily bringer of food, and has never been in any way injured by any large moving object of any sort, will run from you if you try to catch him or even get very near him. There is, however, even then, nothing like the utter fear described by Spalding. Up to thirty days there was no fear of a mocking bird into whose cage the chicks were put, no fear of a stuffed hawk or a stuffed owl (kept stationary). Chicks try to escape from water (even though warmed to the temperature of their bodies) from the very first.
Up to forty days there appears no marked waning of the instinct. They did not show any emotional reaction to the flame produced by six candles stuck closely together. From the start they react instinctively to confinement, to loneliness, to bodily restraint, but their feeling in these cases would better be called discomfort than fear. From the 10th or 12th to the 20th day, and probably later and very possibly earlier, one notices in chicks a general avoidance of open places. Turn them out in your study and they will not go out into the middle of the room, but will cling to the edges, go under chairs, around table legs and along the walls. One sees nothing of the sort up through the fourth day. Some experiments with feeding hive bees to the chicks are interesting in connection with the following statement by Lloyd Morgan: "One of my chicks, three or four days old, snapped up a hive bee and ran off with it. Then he dropped it, shook his head much and often, and wiped his bill repeatedly. I do not think [p. 166] he had been stung: probably he tasted the poison" ('Introduction to Comparative Psychology,' p. 86). I fed seven bees apiece to three chicks from ten to twenty days old. They ate them all greedily, first smashing them down on the ground violently in a rather dexterous manner. Apparently this method of treatment is peculiar to the object. Chicks three days old did not eat the bees. Some pecked at them, but none would snap them up, and when the bee approached, they sometimes sounded the danger note.
Finally an account may be given of the reaction of chicks at different ages, up to twenty-six days, to loud sounds. These were the sounds made by clapping the hands, slamming a door, whistling sharply, banging a tin pan on the floor, mewing like a cat, playing a violin, thumping a coal scuttle with a shovel, etc. Two chicks were together in each experiment. Three fourths of the times no effect was produced. On the other occasions there was some running or crouching or, at least, starting to run or crouch; but, as was said, nothing like what Spalding reports as the reaction to the 'cheep' of the hawk. It is interesting to notice that the two most emphatic reactions were to the imitation mew. One time a chick ran wildly, chirping, and then crouched and stayed still until I had counted 105. The other time a chick crouched and stayed still until I counted 40. But the other chick with them did not; and in a dozen other cases the 'meow' had no effect.
I think that the main interest of most of these experiments is the proof they afford that instinctive reactions are not necessarily definite, perfectly appropriate and unvarying responses to accurately sensed and, so to speak, estimated stimuli. The old notion that instinct was a God-given substitute for reason left us an unhappy legacy in the shape of the tendency to think of all inherited powers of reaction as [p. 167] definite particular acts invariably done in the presence of certain equally definite situations. Such an act as the spider's web-spinning might be a stock example. Of course, there are many such instinctive reactions in which a well-defined act follows a well-defined stimulus with the regularity and precision with which the needle approaches the magnet. But our experiments show that there are acts just as truly instinctive, depending in just the same way on inherited brain-structure, but characterized by being vague, irregular, and to some extent dissimilar, reactions to vague, complex situations.
The same stimulus doesn't always produce just the same effect, doesn't produce precisely the same effect in all individuals. The chick's brain is evidently prepared in a general way to react more or less appropriately to certain stimuli, and these reactions are among the most important of its instincts or inherited functions. But yet one cannot take these and find them always and everywhere. This helps us further to realize the danger of supposing that in observation of animals you can depend on a rigid uniformity. One would never suppose because one boy twirled his thumb when asked a question that all boys of that age did. But naturalists have been ready to believe that because one young animal made a certain response to a certain stimulus, the thing was an instinct common to all in precisely that same form. But a loud sound may make one chick run, another crouch, another give the danger call, and another do nothing whatever.
In closing this article I may speak of one instinct which shows itself clearly from at least as early as the sixth day, which is preparatory to the duties of adult life and of no other use whatsoever. It is interesting in connection with the general matter of animal play. The phenomenon is as [p. 168] follows: The chicks are feeding quietly when suddenly two chicks rush at each other, face each other a moment and then go about their business. This thing keeps up and grows into the ordinary combat of roosters. It is rather a puzzle on any theory that an instinct needed so late should begin to develop so early.
 This chapter appeared originally in the Psychological Review, Vol. VI, No. 3.
 The crude experiments reported in this and the preceding paragraphs were not made to test the presence of color vision proper, that is, of differentiation of two colors of the same brightness, but only to ascertain how chicks reacted to ordinary colored objects. It was, however, almost certain from the relative frequency of the reactions that the intensity factor was not the cause of the response. For example, if it had been, black on white and yellow on black should have been pecked at oftener.