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Chicken Translator at Your Service
Understanding What Your Chickens Are Saying
Humans often communicate without words: we use our eyes, gestures, facial expressions, and body language. Chickens use most of these, but they have also more than two dozen different vocalizations. These calls include ones relating to territory, mating, distress, danger, fear, happiness, discovery of food, and nesting.
Contrary to what one may hear from the industry, chickens are not mindless, simple automata but are complex behaviorally, do quite well in learning, show a rich social organization, and have a diverse repertoire of calls. Anyone who has kept barnyard chickens also recognizes their significant differences in personality.
Dr. Bernard Rollin, author of Farm Animal Welfare
It is said that if you want to really learn a language, you should move to a place where that language is spoken. To learn to communicate better with my chickens, I simply took a small stool out to the flock and perched with them, day after day, quietly paying attention and noting their interactions. Over the course of their lives, I take the time to get to know each one as an individual. Some seem to enjoy hanging out with people, while others keep to themselves unless treats are being offered, but they all "talk." I learned by emulating their coos, clucks, and squawks, paying careful attention to the intonations. It must be a bit like learning Mandarin Chinese, where different inflections give the same word or sound different meanings!
LEARNING CHICKEN LANGUAGE
I'VE ALWAYS TALKED TO MY FLOCK while doing my chicken chores. One day I realized that, interspersed with English, I was mimicking the girls. That got me thinking: Could I really speak chicken? Some folks thought I was crazy, but as I started listening more consciously, I discovered that I knew plenty of their calls — danger signals, happy calls, hellos, good nights, and even encouragement chatter. I was learning to speak chicken!
Over the next few months the entire family practiced with the flock, copying and trying to interpret their calls. Then one day my kids and I were visiting another flock. As we sat and watched, the flock ignored us and went about its usual chicken business. I decided to try something fun. Truthfully, I was a little embarrassed to share the fact that I was studying the language of the flock. I think my friend thought I was crazy, but she indulged me.
When we used chicken language to greet them, the response was astonishing. Their heads popped right up, as if to say, "Hey, is there another chicken here?" Some came over to us out of curiosity, and the rest went back to chickening. We "chatted" a bit more with them using other intonations and sounds. Then for the final test, I used the alarm call to alert them to danger coming from above. Every single chicken paused and became statuesque with one eye to the sky. Just as I thought, they understood me! That was the moment I learned that I indeed was onto something.
IN THE BEGINNING: BABY TALK
Mother hens communicate with their chicks via clucks and squawks, even when they are still nestled in their eggs. It starts with the chicks. Twenty-four hours prior to hatching, a peeping sound, also known as "clicking," is heard from within the egg. This sound serves as communication to the mother hen from the babies, as well as among the chicks. As the hen answers back, the peeps inform her how long to stay on the nest and how many babies to expect.
Once the chicks have hatched, the mother watches over her babies, teaching them where to find food and what things are good to eat. She alerts them to danger and guides them to safety. She gathers her brood into the warmth of her downy feathers with a special call.
Hens are very caring and nurturing to their young. In one study, researchers used puffs of air to "irritate" newly hatched chicks. You can imagine the mother hen's response. She was not happy! Even though she herself did not mind being puffed with the air, when her chicks were upset, she became upset as well.
BROODER VOCABULARY PRIMER
Until about 14 weeks of age, chicks have a specific language consisting of peeps, cheeps, and pleasure trills of varying tones and volume. These sounds are used only by chicks. I believe that hens understand their chicks, but they do not use or mimic sounds made by the chicks. This early language can represent feelings of happiness, danger, or comfort. Whether the chicks are hatched by their mother or in an incubator, this chick language is universal.
Pleasure Trills Chicks primarily make this contented purring noise as they fall asleep. (Think of a happy cat.)
Sweet Peeps These are the soft sounds of casual conversation as the chicks busily explore their surroundings and learn about the world.
Discovery Peeps Excited, repetitive chirps mean "Look what I found!" At the same time, the chick is probably trying to keep her siblings from stealing her find, which is usually a tasty morsel.
Distress Peeps Loud, strong, continuous peeps can indicate pain, stress, or an alert to the others that something is wrong. You'll hear them when chicks are scooped up from the brooder, separated from their flockmates, can't find their mother, or are feeling cold.
All about the Crowing
When your chicks are about eight weeks old, you might be surprised by a very pathetic sound coming from the brooder early one morning — like someone clearing his throat while trying to shout. This is the sound of a young rooster (cockerel) trying to crow for the first time. If you are lucky enough to see him, he puts every ounce into this effort, digging deep to make the sound while standing tall, puffing out his chest, and channeling the crow from the tips of his tail feathers to his vocal chords.
If there is more than one cockerel in the flock, it is common for those below the head cockerel not to crow or openly mate with the young hens (pullets). When a group of roosters are raised together, the dominant male is determined early. They coexist peacefully, with the subordinate roos "flying under the radar" (sometimes even from the keeper!). The other roosters will usually only assert themselves and show their male characteristics once the dominant rooster leaves the flock.
GROWING UP: LOOKING AT BODY LANGUAGE
In addition to having a vocabulary, chickens have nonverbal methods of communication.
Pecking The beak is the best tool that chickens have. Chickens use their beaks for the same reason we use our hands: for communication, protection, exploring, eating, grooming, and so many other day-to-day activities.
Squatting This behavior is specific to hens. They squat down and stretch out their wings. It is a submissive behavior often displayed to roosters to accept their willingness to mate, but it may also be seen when a person reaches for or picks up a hen.
Tidbitting Tidbitting is a dance that a rooster performs to attract a mate. He bobs his head up and down while picking up tiny bits of food, dropping them, and repeating. During this time the rooster's bright red comb (flesh on top of his head) and wattles (flesh under his chin) move about.
Roosters are romantics at heart. It is not uncommon to find them fluffing or sitting in the nests, sitting on eggs, or partaking in chick rearing.
TIPS FOR WATCHING YOUR FLOCK
Wear plain clothing. A word of caution — chickens love to peck at bling and dangling objects. (They'll investigate freshly manicured toes, too!)
Be quiet and stay still. Your voice and movements will distract them from behaving naturally.
Be patient. At first the chickens focus on you, but given time they'll go about their business.
Spend plenty of time. It takes many hours of observation for the flock to treat you as an honorary member.
Mornings are a good time to watch the flock as they go about their daily rituals of eating, drinking, and exploring. When it comes to taming or training individual birds, wait until the afternoon, when they are less distracted.
Watch how they behave with and without treats present.
Observe your birds in a location where they feel safe. Do not try to observe them when they are in a new place or situation. Keep potential perceived predators away, such as dogs or strangers.
Be aware of the weather. You may notice different behaviors in - different conditions and seasons.
Keep a journal with your observations and photos or sketches. Who knows, you might end up discovering something new!
Record what they are saying with your smartphone so you can play it back to refresh your memory later. This will help you interpret chicken speak!
COMMON BEHAVIORS TO LOOK FOR
Dust Bathing Chickens keep clean by wallowing in dirt and dust and working the particles down to the skin. This process helps to control pests and parasites such as mites and poultry lice. Scratching away, sometimes working collaboratively in a group, a chicken digs a hole large enough to sit in, sometimes even a bit bigger so a friend can join in. Once the dust bath is prepared, the chickens roll, stretch, and toss the dirt into the air so it falls onto their bodies. I think of them as "boneless chickens" as they contort into yoga poses.
Sunbathing Chickens love to bathe in the sun. It is not uncommon to see them lying on the ground or in their dust-bathing holes with their wings unfurled so their feathers can soak up the sun. Sometimes they relax so much that they drift off to sleep.
Preening After dust bathing, the chicken coats her feathers with oil to help repel water, keep the feathers clean, and prolong the life of each feather. With her beak, she collects a bit of oil from the uropygial gland that sits above her tail and smooths the oil along her beautiful fluff.
Beak Rubbing Chickens rub their beaks on hard objects such as logs in order to sharpen, shape, and clean them. Left unmaintained, beaks grow just like your fingernails.
Egg Laying A hen can lay an egg approximately once every 26 hours. This ability starts at around 18 to 20 weeks of age and may continue for the entire life span of the hen. The number of eggs begins to taper off at about 2 years of age. Hens require a safe place to lay their eggs, proper nutrition, and 14 hours of daylight to stimulate egg production.
Roosting Chickens go to bed at dusk. They have a natural tendency to roost off the ground, and in the absence of a coop they will take to the trees. In cold weather, you will find them snuggling together on the roosts to keep warm.
THE BROODY HEN
All hens lay eggs, but "broodiness," or the desire to hatch eggs, is a trait that has been bred out of most breeds for the simple fact that when hens are brooding, they do not lay eggs, which isn't good for profits. But some hens still have a particularly strong desire to be mothers. Silkie Bantams come to mind, as many of them are perpetually broody. I love Silkies for this reason, but I don't recommend them to folks who want to keep chickens solely for their eggs.
A broody hen will lay eggs every day but won't walk away from them like most hens do. If you are lucky enough to have a broody hen, you will quickly discover that she will happily sit on her own eggs, another hen's eggs, wooden eggs, or even no eggs. She will also go to great lengths to hide her eggs from any threat, including the chicken keeper who comes to collect them. Some hens manage to disappear for weeks, only to return to the chicken run with a line of baby chicks behind them.
Chicken eggs take approximately 21 days to hatch, and the broody hen incubates them under her downy fluff pretty much around the clock. Once she lays the "right" number for a clutch, which is typically 9, 11, or 13, she begins plucking her chest feathers to create a patch of exposed skin, called the "brood patch." She uses the feathers to line the nest, then presses her brood patch directly on the eggs. The skin contact provides the eggs with the proper temperature and humidity for chick development.
The hen sits close to her eggs, flattening her body and wings for the most coverage of the nest. She rotates the eggs with her beak in the nest to ensure proper positioning and development as well as access to the brood patch. A protective mother, she coos to the eggs but will growl at fellow flock members and even chicken keepers to warn them to stay away.
Once every 24 hours, she leaves the nest for no more than 20 minutes to eat, drink, and pass one huge, smelly broody poop. (Chickens usually poop a lot — up to 50 times a day! They even poop at night when they are sleeping.) Otherwise, day in and day out, she sits in a trance on the eggs, waiting for her babies to arrive.
MEETING DOLLY'S BABIES
DOLLY, ONE OF OUR SILKIE BANTAM HENS, was so perpetually broody that we called her the Dolly Mama. At the time we had a rooster. We knew we needed to rehome him, but before we did, we let Dolly hatch out a clutch of fertilized eggs. For three weeks, she diligently perched on her eggs, flattened out like a pancake and growling at anyone who came near her.
A couple of days before they were due to hatch, I heard peeping from the eggs! Dolly still sat on the nest, cooing to her babies and coaxing them to start pecking. I checked her frequently for the next couple of days, anxiously waiting to welcome her chicks into the world.
Finally, I saw one little baby tucked under her wing. When I gently lifted her up, I could see faint hairline cracks circling the middles of a few other eggs, carefully pecked away by the egg tooth on each baby chick. By evening, we could see three more babies under her wings, snuggled in her chest feathers. By the end of day two, eight babies had successfully hatched.
Dolly was an amazing mother. I admired her dedication as she taught her chicks all about life over the next six weeks. Once her brood was fully feathered and knew all they needed to know to survive among the flock and in the great big world, she set them on their way. Within two months, she was broody again, ready to hatch some more eggs!
CHICKEN LANGUAGE EXPLAINED
Chickens use their language to communicate about food, to warn of predators or other threats, and to converse among themselves about what's going on. This "grown-up" language, used by all chickens, starts at about 14 weeks of age.
The buh-dup greeting sound is heard among members of the flock as they come and go during the day. They also say it to humans.
When feeling threatened on her nest, a broody hen makes a sort of a yell that trails into a grumble. It sounds like a tiny dinosaur roaring!
Ur, ur, ur, UR-URRR
It is a fallacy that a rooster crows only in the morning. He will crow 24/7 to announce his presence and warn of perceived threats.
Grrrrrr, buk, buk, buk, buk, buk, buk, BUKGAW Chickens make an alert call to signal that danger is near. It starts out as a low, rolling growl and progresses in volume and intensity into a full- out yell. There are two alert calls. The low-pitched alert for a ground predator is accompanied by the chickens running for cover. The higher- pitched alert for a threat from the sky causes the chickens to pause, crouch, and look upward.
General squawking and squabbling
A burst of noisy carrying on usually means a disagreement is occurring. The flock is not getting along. Typical squabbles may involve a tasty morsel of food, a favorite roosting place, or sorting out a perceived spot in the pecking order.
Excerpted from "How to Speak Chicken"
Copyright © 2017 Melissa Caughey.
Excerpted by permission of Storey Publishing.
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