In the February issue of Scientific American biologist Carolynn “K-lynn” L. Smith of Macquarie University in Sydney and science writer Sarah Zielinski describe the surprisingly advanced cognitive abilities of the chicken. A number of recent insights into the chicken mind have come from experiments involving the use of video displays. Knowing that chickens will watch one another on screen led Smith and her collaborators to create a 3-D animated chicken, which they then used to probe how the birds display for and perceive one another. The virtual chicken also helped them figure out why roosters have wattles.

The beauty of the virtual chicken is that the researchers could test the female’s reaction to a rooster with a wattle and without one, and watch her responses to wattles of varying size and flexibility—all by altering the appendage digitally.

It turns out that the wattle serves as a sort of red flag for the hens, helping them spot a male who has food. Males signal that they have food in order to lure mates, and they do this by twitching and bobbing their heads—movements that set the wattle aflutter.