I am a translator. I’m interested in language and communication. Not only human language – the way animals communicate fascinates me, too. They might not be able to form words, but they definitely have language. Animal language is not only about sound, it’s also about posture, movements, smells and actions. My children have learned the hard way that when a cat swishes her tail, you should back off quickly. I learned early on in life that when a horse pushes his ears flat against his neck, it means trouble. Pretty effective communication there!!
Since I started keeping chickens, I learned so much about them and their communication system. Roosters crow and hens cluck, yes. But besides that, there is so much more, like the “egg song”, the broody purr, the food call, the alarm shout… and those are only the vocalisations. I realised that chickens actually have an extensive ‘vocabulary’ consisting of many different sounds and behaviours. I thought it could be interesting to do a little research and make a list!
This well-known call is of course the sound roosters make at sunrise. Except that they seem to do it at all times of the day, and for no apparent reason. Or is there a reason? Recent research shows that the crowing of a rooster serves different purposes, such as to claim terroritory, to establish pecking order, to announce their presence or as an alarm call. I have noticed they seem to set each other off – when one starts, they all start. They take turns and answer each other. You have to wonder what exactly they are talking about..?
2. The Egg Song
It’s called the egg song, but I wouldn’t really call it a song… More like a cacaphony of loud squawking noises. It happens after someone has laid an egg or a chicken finds another hen in the process of laying an egg. She will burst into “song”, which is then quickly picked up by other chickens. They can go on singing for ages, and it’s really loud. I have often wondered why they do this – it would make more sense to me to be really quiet after laying an egg and not to broadcast to the world where your nest is. But according to the most plausible “egg song theory”, the hens make this ruckus when they move away from their eggs, so as to attract attention to themselves and not to the nest. It does seem to work, because even though I follow the sound, I am often at a loss as to where they have laid their eggs this time…
3. The Broody Cluck
“Cluck cluck cluck cluck cluck…” coos a broody hen to her offspring. When she has eggs, she will cluck to the eggs. When the chicks have hatched, she clucks to them non-stop. This is her way of calling the chicks to follow her, to stay close, not to stray. The chicks peep in return. The clucking gets louder and faster when mummy finds a tasty treat. She clucks loudly to call the chicks over, they come running. It’s a very cute way of communication between mother and chick. I have found myself clucking like a broody hen to eggs in my incubator. And the hatching chicks answer!
4. The Dance of Love
Roosters have this funny little dance they do when they want to mate with a certain hen. They drop one wing to the ground and skip in a circle around the hen in question. Sometimes the hen lets him mate with her, other times she ignores him or runs away. It is very entertaining to watch. Another funny rooster behaviour is “tidbitting”, where he calls the hen over to something tasty he just found. He will cluck loudly, pick the treat up and drop it again, offering it to the hen. It’s similar to the Broody Cluck, but with a different function – courting behaviour.
Those are just a few of the many sounds and behaviours chickens use to communicate with each other – and us. They have a surprising range of vocalisations. Besides clucking, crowing and squawking, they can also growl in anger, purr in contentment, scream in warning or distress… Their entire social life is much more complicated than I ever thought before I had chickens.
So I will definitely be researching and posting about the interesting social life of chickens – bring on the pecking order!