You can purchase this book in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens
All chicken breeds and varieties originated with ancient jungle fowl. In many ways modern chickens are still much like their ancestors, having retained some of their natural instincts, such as scratching the ground for food — something you’ll see chicks doing when they’re only a few hours old. In other ways they differ; some of today’s modern breeds no longer have the instinct to make a nest and hide their eggs and incubate them for 21 days until chicks appear. But chickens are like people — no two are exactly alike, and as soon as you make a statement about what all chickens do or don’t do, one comes along to prove you wrong.
Still, as soon as you get your chickens home, you will begin to notice certain distinctive characteristics that may surprise you.
Each chicken has a unique personality. Even if all your chickens are of a single breed and look nearly identical, you will easily be able to tell them apart by their individual personalities.
Your chickens communicate with each other, and with you, using sounds that convey specific meanings. Before long you’ll become adept at “talking chicken” yourself.
Each individual bird has a unique tone of voice — even with your eyes closed, you can tell precisely which one is making the sounds you hear. And, just like people, you’ll recognize that some chickens are more chatty than others.
Chickens make a lot of different sounds, and every one of them means something. Anyone who spends much time around chickens can tell by the sounds they make when they are frightened, contented, or cautious or expressing a whole range of other emotions.
Some scientists insist that the idea of chickens communicating through the sounds they make is mere anthropomorphizing — attributing human behavior to an animal. They cling to this notion because communicating through language is supposedly a major distinction between humans and animals. A few progressive scientists — most likely those who grew up with chickens — spend their lives studying the sounds chickens make and seeking to understand what they mean.
In the 1960s, a German physician named Erich Baeumer identified 30 distinct sounds made by chickens. At about the same time, Nicholas E. Collias of the University of California at Los Angeles identified 24 calls made by red jungle fowl, from which most of our chicken breeds originated. The discrepancy may be attributed to the specific sounds each man identified as being distinct from other sounds.
To use a human example of the difficulty of identifying separate words, if you put your finger in front of your mouth and softly make the sound “shh,” you communicate a request for silence. If, on the other hand, you more forcefully hiss a short “shh!” you insist on instant silence. In both cases the sound “shh” means hush, but inflection conveys important differences in meaning. Where one person might consider them to be two distinct words with different meanings, another might consider them to be the same word uttered with different intensity.
Animal behaviorist Chris Evans of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, is another researcher devoted to studying chicken communications. He points out that the conveying of information by the sounds chickens make reveals a complex and sophisticated system paralleling human language. Evans recognizes three similarities between chicken talk and human language:
- The ability to distinguish specific sounds
- The use of sounds to denote environmental events, such as the discovery of food or the approach of a predator
- The production of sounds for the benefit of others of the same species
Evans does not, however, imply that chickens have a language comparable to that of humans. For one thing, their vocabulary is extremely limited. For another, chickens don’t — as far as we know — discuss abstract concepts or past or future events, but limit their communications to the present.
A significant feature of human language is that it must be learned. A chick isolated from other chickens will grow up to make typical chicken sounds. On the other hand, chickens associating with other chickens have a richer repertoire, indicating that some degree of learning takes place.
To date, no one has developed a definitive list of all the sounds chickens make or determined with certainty what each sound means to the chickens. Still, plenty of words in the vocabulary of chicks, hens, and cocks are clearly recognizable by anyone taking time to listen.
A chick peeps even before it hatches from the egg, and shortly after hatching, it makes a number of different sounds by which you can tell if it is content or unhappy. The happy sounds tend to swing upward in pitch; the unhappy sounds descend in pitch.
Pleasure peep is a soft irregular sound chicks use to maintain contact with each other and their mother. Its meaning: “I’m right here.”
Pleasure trill is the soft, rapidly repeated sound chicks make when they’ve found food or are nestling under the hen, happy to have a warm, safe place to sleep. Its meaning: “Life is good.”
Distress peep is a loud, sharp, group of sounds chicks make when they’re cold or hungry. Its meaning: “I’m miserable.”
Panic peep is a loud, penetrating peep of a chick that’s scared or lost. The sound is similar to the distress peep but louder and more insistent. Its meaning: “Help!”
Fear trill is the sharp, rapidly repeated sound made by a chick that sees something strange or potentially threatening, such as a small unfamiliar object or a hand reaching toward it. Its meaning: “Don’t hurt me.”
Startled peep is the sharp, surprised cry of a chick that’s been grabbed abruptly. Its meaning: “Whoa!”
In communicating with chicks, make sounds that are low pitched, brief, soft, and repetitive to attract, calm, and comfort them. Sudden, high-pitched, long, and loud sounds (such as the noise made by active children and some machinery) frighten them.
Listen to Mama
When a chick starts peeping before it hatches from the egg, a setting hen will respond to the unhatched chick. Through this early communication, chicks learn to recognize the sound of their mother’s voice. After the chicks hatch, the hen uses three specific calls to keep them together, help them find food, and warn them of danger.
Cluck is a short, low-pitched repetitive sound made by a hen with chicks. Some setting hens start clucking well before their eggs are due to hatch, especially when off the nest briefly to eat or eliminate. Most setting hens start clucking when their chicks peep prior to or during the hatch. The frequent cluck of a mother hen, sometimes accompanied by the ruffling of her feathers, encourages her chicks to follow. Its meaning: “Stay close.”
Food call is a high-pitched sound repeated more rapidly than the cluck. Sometimes a clucking hen, upon encountering some tasty tidbit, will segue from clucking to the tuck-tuck-tuck food call that inspires chicks to come running and look for food, which the hen indicates by pecking the ground, picking up and
dropping bits, or breaking an item into smaller pieces the chicks can handle more easily. Once in a great while, a hen without chicks, or a chick itself, will make this sound. Its meaning: “I found something tasty to eat.”
Hush sound is a soft, vibrating sound, something like errrr, that warns chicks of potential danger and causes them to flatten to the ground and be quiet. When the chicks are young and staying close to the hen, they dive under her, and she spreads her wings to cover them. As they get older and begin to stray, they may flatten into the grass on hearing their mother sound the hush note, which she may repeat periodically if she perceives continuing danger. Its meaning: “Be still.”
Some hens are considerably more talkative than others. Hens that are free to roam around their premises are noisier, in my experience, than hens that are more closely confined, such as for breeding or exhibition. And some breeds are just naturally more talkative than others.
My hens have a huge and fascinating repertoire of sounds, not all of which I have succeeded in deciphering, mainly because they stop to look at me when I peek in to see what they’re doing. One hen occasionally repeats an unusual single-syllable sound I can best describe as a howl. It’s so loud it carries farther than a cock’s crow. She doesn’t seem to be doing anything particular while making the sound, and in decades of keeping chickens of many breeds, I’ve never heard any other chicken make that sound.
Laying cackle is a series of short, sharp sounds made by a hen after she lays an egg and is leaving the nest; therefore, it might more properly be called the nest-leaving cackle. Some hens don’t cackle at all, some cackle only briefly, and others carry on far too long. It’s tempting to think they’re bragging about having just laid an egg, but chances are the cackle is designed to scare away any predator that may have sneaked up while the hen was occupied in the nest, and to put other chickens on notice that she may need help should a predator in fact be there. Its meaning: “Danger may be near.”
Broody hiss is a hissing sound, something like the hiss of a snake, made by a setting hen that’s annoyed at having been disturbed on the nest to indicate she’s wary and has her guard up. Its meaning: “Stay away.”
Broody growl is a harsh sound, more serious and intense than a hiss, made by a disrupted hen on the nest. It may also be sounded by a hen with chicks in protest to a cock intent on mating; a low-ranking hen approached by a higher-ranking hen; or any hen on seeing a small, familiar animal such as a cat or rat. The sound is not particularly loud, but it indicates defensiveness and mistrustfulness. It is accompanied by feather ruffling to increase the intimidation and may be accompanied by a peck — for instance to a human hand reaching under the hen to retrieve a fresh egg. Its meaning: “Don’t mess with me.”
Singing is the sound of happy hens. The notes are usually rapidly repeated but are sometimes drawn out. The purpose of singing is likely self-amusement, akin to a human’s humming while doing dishes or singing in the shower. If I linger in the barn after feeding, I am sure to be serenaded by a chorus of cheerfully singing hens. Its meaning: “All is well.”
Excerpted from Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens, © by Gail Damerow, used with permission from Storey Publishing.