Chicken Chatter

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Hens are always talking amongst themselves. All those clucks and squawks means something, and while some of the meanings are obvious – the explosive squawking of a bird running away in panic, for example – others are more subtle. Chicken talk is a fairly complex affair involving visual, vocal, olfactory and tactile senses combined to convey numerous intentions, messages and details amongst chickens.

Here are ten ways in which you can eavesdrop on the chicken chatter and brush up on the bantam banter.

1)  A calm, gently rising borrrrb

This is the sound hens make as they peck their way through the grass or chicken run, and it means two things. It indicates that the chicken is enjoying the endless search for quick snacks, and it’s also telling the other birds ‘everything is fine’. A flock of hens saying borrrb together sends out the reassuring message that there’s nothing to worry about.

2)  The cluck-cum-squawk

This brief, excited cry usually means that there has been some sort of confrontation, usually between a meek hen and a more dominant one who has muscled in to see what snacks the more timid bird has found. The sound is also used if a hen is surprised by something, such as the chicken-run door opening suddenly.

3)  The ‘squawk bomb’ 

This is when the hen clucks, gobbles and squawks in one hysterical flurry. It sounds as if the bird is about to explode in a cloud of feathers. This is the chicken’s main alarm call, expressing fear and also telling the other birds to run. The causes can be vehicles, dogs, people trying to pick up the hen, or predators.

4)  Cackling

This is the name often used for the familiar Buk-buk-buk-badaaak! call. Repeated several times, and loudly, it is the sound many hens produce after laying an egg. The hen moves away from the egg and then begins cackling. It is thought to be a way of luring potential predators away from the egg and the nest.

5)  Buk-buk-buk (but with no badaaak!)

This slightly angry and persistent sound is often made by a hen who wants to sit in her favourite nest box but finds it occupied. It’s meaning is a combination of “I’m here!” and “Get out!”

6)  Growling

If a hen is broody and doesn’t want to move from her nest box, she will make a hissing, growling sound. This simply means “Don’t touch!” and “Go away!”

7)  Chick-chat

A hen hatching eggs will mutter various gentle clucking sounds to communicate with the chicks and reassure them. Once the chicks are hatched and running around, she tells them where the good scratching and pecking places are by saying tuk-tuk! (Cockerels use this sound too, to tell the hens that they have found a good foraging spot). Mother hens also have an insistent Rrrrrr call, which is the chicks’ cue to come running if the hen senses danger.

8)  Crowing

This is cockerel territory, the classic cock-a-doodle-doo – although some hens get the crowing habit too. Crowing says several things. It means a new day has dawned, and it’s time to be up and scratching/pecking. It also tells the world that this is the cockerel’s territory, and that these hens are his. If there is more than one cockerel, the subordinate ones will only crow when the boss has crowed. Crowing usually hits 90 decibels, or even more!

9)  Help!

A hen separated from the flock will make an alarm call. The sound is similar to the ‘cackling’ that announces a new egg. It is thought to be an SOS call to the cockerel to come and save his lost hen. There will be a strong element of danger if there are predators around, so it’s a risky strategy for a lost chicken.

10)  Buzzing

First thing in the morning, with the chicken coop still locked, the hens will begin to make repetitive, buzzing clucks, which may rise in volume as the minutes pass and the doors remain shut. This sound simply means “Let us out – there’s lots of pecking and scratching to be done!”

Chickens emit two types of alarm or warning calls. Each produced in response to a specific type of danger.

Arial Alarm Calls

A series of low-intensity short narrow banded whistles or screeches

These are used when a chicken identifies a predator like a hawk approaching from overhead. They happen in the company of other chickens and often whilst the caller attempts to hide. Even when hens are played a recording of an aerial call they run for cover. Crouching and looking upward as they would in a natural environment when threatened by a hawk or overhead predator.

Ground Alarm Calls

Loud repeated and conspicuous ‘pulsed broad-band cackles"

Loud repeated and conspicuous ‘pulsed broad-band cackles' directed as much at the predator as at other chickens. These are emitted in response to threats at ground level like cats, dogs, stoats etc. When hens are confronted by a ground alarm call, they take on an unusually erect ‘alert’ posture(s). They become more active in scanning back and forth and looking for a presence of a ground predator.

Depending on the size of the treat the call is escalated, so each alarm call is meaningful rather than being just an internal response to fear. They transmit quite specific information that is understood by their receivers. It now appears that that the cognitive process involved in representational thinking in chickens are similar to those required for associative learning in humans. In other words chickens are pretty smart and we need to listen more carefully to what they are telling us! 

Chicken Talk Analysis

The German ‘fowl linguist’ Eric Baeumer suggested in 1964 that domestic chickens ‘spoke an international language made up of 30 basic sentences’ or calls. Over 60 years he recorded hours of ‘chick talk’ later isolating individual sentences and matching these to certain behaviours. Half a century on, avian specialists now accept that wild and domestic fowl produce about 30 distinct forms of vocalisation, including territorial, location, mating, laying and nesting, submission, distress, alarm and fear, food and contentment calls. It now appears that that the cognitive process involved in representational thinking in chickens are similar to those required for associative learning in humans.

There is no time like NOW to start listening to your Chickens!

With this knowledge of chook chit-chat, you will be able to tell what your girls are talking about, even if you can’t actually see them. It’s an all-day, non-stop conversation! What out for those alarm calls tho!

Thanks to Omlet for th Chicken Sounds and What They Mean - Omlet Blog 2020