Chicken LINGO

It’s not just cockerels that make a noise. Hens can too. In fact, they have their own language …. Charlotte Popescu reports

Everyone knows that cockerels crow and their noise can cause acrimonious neighbourly disputes; however, hens can be vociferous too and sometimes this can also prove problematic if you have difficult neighbours. Many of you will decide not to have a cockerel so as not to upset those living nearby, but if you already have hens you will probably have found out that a small flock can be quite noisy. With luck, your neighbours will like the sounds of your hens contentedly clucking away as they go about their daily routines.

Hens will be at their noisiest when they want to let all the others in the flock know that they intend to lay an egg; they also create the same noise when they have laid an egg (this might mean ‘I’ve done well, I’ve laid an egg’ or might just be a cackling to regain contact with the rest of the flock). Researchers have also come up with the idea that the hen that cackles after she has laid an egg is telling the cockerel this is an unsuitable time for fertilization. She may also do this as a natural instinct if you don’t have a cockerel! In the summer your hens may start making a noise quite early; often, if one hen decides to announce that she is going to the nest box, this can start the whole flock off and, in my case, with more than 30 hens, things can get very noisy indeed. It doesn’t help when my two cockerels decide to join in as well, not with crowing, but with the same sort of noise as the girls, helping with the general announcement of egg laying. Some hens, especially the hybrids, make little or no noise when laying eggs, but I have some hens who are very vocal. I find my Appenzeller pure breed makes a real racket when she is about to lay, actually laying and in the aftermath, so this noise can sometimes last on and off for a couple of hours! Hens will also get very vocal if they want to lay and the nest box they have chosen is already being used.

In the summer you may get worried about all the early morning noise upsetting your neighbours. However, there are also a lot of wild birds out there who are hardly quiet. I find the pigeons and crows make a real racket.

Scientists used to think that only a few mammals could understand the meanings of different calls and grunts. Now research has shown that chickens have a more advanced use and understanding of language. The German scientist Dr Erich Baeumer studied chickens and their language and made a list of 30 different calls (see box). These varied from the cries of chicks separated from their mother (pieep-pieep-pieep) and their terror trills, a high pitched trr-tr to the frightened cackles of hens and cockerels when they first see danger. After danger passes, the cackling becomes full-throated, rhythmical and triumphant.

Hens make screams of distress. For example, if you accidentally step on your hen’s feet, she will yelp. If one hen pecks another, the pecked hen will let out a loud squawk. And if you have a cockerel and your hens are trying to escape his clutches there will be more squawking! The cockerel will, meanwhile, be making an enthusiastic cooing sound to entice his pretty young hens to eat some tasty morsel he has found, but unfortunately usually has an ulterior motive. Some intelligent hens will realise his plan and will disappear at speed. Cockerels will also make exciting sounds if they want to show a favourite hen a nest, either helping her check out a new nest or he might just be asking her to follow him to her nest. He might also help her announce her newly laid egg and even fly up to her nest to show her the way down. Sometimes a cockerel will make a noise about a nesting spot even when no hen is around, perhaps just to boast. Cockerels are very good at alerting the flock to flying predators. On several occasions I have heard my cockerel making a strange noise which grabs the attention of the hens. They then pipe up too with clucks of alarm, stop their foraging activities and look up. I am the last one to realise that there is a buzzard or sparrow-hawk circling above! The cockerel may sound a different alarm call if there is, say, a dog or cat prowling the garden.

Hens make delightfully contented, almost purring noises when given edible treats or when digging is going on and worms emerge or when you turn over a pile of leaves and there are a lot of grubs on offer.

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Broody hens make noises of objection if you try to move them off their nests but hens that are allowed to sit will make happy noises as they snuggle down on their eggs. There will be the odd squawk or two, accompanied by a great flapping of wings, when they come off for a break. Communication between hen and chick starts about 24 hours before the chicks hatch. If you listen carefully, you will hear the chick cheeping inside its shell and the hen will answer with a deep, soft voice. Hen and chicks can understand each other even if a chick strays a few metres away. The hen will call her chicks to get them to return to her. Hens lead their chicks to food with a gentle ‘tuck, tuck, tuck’ and call them together at bedtime. Chicks will cheep very loudly if they are separated from their mother or if they are cold and want Mum to settle down so they can get under her wings. Once under Mum’s wing, they will chirp softly demonstrating that they are warm and happy. Chicks will communicate with each other but don’t react if their brothers or sisters get lost. If I pick up one of my chicks, not only does she cheep loudly but mother hen goes crazy, clucking and tearing around her run, want to protect her chick at all costs.

Some hens are known to develop cock-like characteristics and start crowing. This is usually caused by hormonal changes which may be the result of an infected ovary. The infection will often clear up with antibiotics, or it may clear of its own accord. The hormonal change means that the testosterone levels will soar so that apart from the crowing, the hen may develop an enlarged comb, spurs and male plumage after a moult. A dominant hen living in a group with no resident cockerel, may also start crowing as a sign of her authority.

Finally chickens can make various noises when they are unwell. When one of my hens goes down with a respiratory infection, she makes a very distinct growling noise because breathing is difficult. Sick hens will also be picked on by other hens often having their combs pecked and will make feeble squawks so will need to be isolated.

Chicken behaviour is not too different from human behaviour nor is the chicken language!