If I could talk to the (animals) birds Part 1 - An overview of the research.

Many years ago, my mother who is one of the least fanciful people I know remarked; "Listen to your chicken, she is talking to you". Needless to say my mother was right and I've spent the last sixteen years listening to what my poultry have to tell me. It has made our life with them both a lot easier and a great deal more interesting. This will be an on-going article of the more subtle and unusual sound bites I've heard from my flock.

Golden Polish crested and bearded hen

I've just had three small hatches, as this year I have been careful to collect all the eggs from the garden and so not end up with the four dozen or so chicks we had last season. However, what I have noticed and which is very pertinent to this subject, is how strikingly differently each mother has reacted towards us, her chicks, the garden and its denizens. This she has done with both body language and comportment but also importantly with the voice. With these three mother hens the differences have been engendered both by personality and circumstances. Before however I go into specifics I will, in this article dip into the perceived knowledge and academic studies in re; what are chickens talking about?

Squawk talk - The History and the Argument

organically raised chickThe first question to ask is why would humans, apart from those of us who find it a fascinating subject, want to know what chickens are saying. The answer is to do with money. Thus with the ever increasing advances made in robotics, it is the people behind industrial, automated and computerised 'farming', who are funding the greater proportion of what has become known by the media as 'Squawk talk'. It seems to me to be totally simplistic but no doubt an easy concept to sell; this inference that a domestic hen has a very limited way of expressing herself. The extrapolation being that by replicating various conditions of stress and recording the poultry's vocal responses, these can then be used for the identification of problems in a computerised farming system. Thus a bird's environment and 'needs' can be controlled by its own vocal responses in a system, which can then basically run itself, without recourse to manual labour. The idea that, when left hungry or cold, without enough air, or feeling seedy, a chicken will always make the same identical noises, seems a little too pat to us who hear our chickens communicating daily. However, maybe it fits snugly into a system that demands conformity in zeros and ones. It seems to me to be a horrible irony that a study of a hen's own response to treatment in captivity by humans is set to further add to her burden of misery.

Mottled Polish Crested chick

This question becomes particularly poignant when one starts to look at the body of research built upon the work of Christopher S. Evans at the University of California into domestic chickens' alarm calls. He was one of the first to identify the difference between two forms of distinct avian predator alarm cries; those from a predator potentially attacking from overhead and those from one coming from along the ground;

'When recordings of [such] calls are played to a bird in the laboratory, [the bird] takes the appropriate evasive action (crouching if it hears the aerial alarm call, and [in an attempt to drive off or deter the predator] standing straight up and vocalizing loudly if it hears the ground-predator alarm call..' ¹

Mottled Cochin alarm call
Interestingly enough later research by David R. Wilson and Christopher S. Evans² with Sebrights, showed that it was necessary for another bird to be present for the bird to make an alarm call in response to the predator threat. In other words, that the reason for making the call in the first place, was not an automatic response to the fear of a predator but was made with the intention to warn others in the group that a predator was near. Furthermore, in my own experience this goes beyond the group or even species as I have on several occasions seen my birds respond to an alarm call from blackbirds and the latter rush to the aid of a young thrush, where its parents were calling out the alarm.

Black-capped chickadee
In his research into the calls of black-capped chickadees published in 2006, Christopher Templeton studied  the vocal response to 15 different species of live predators. He noted that although the chickadees produce two different alarm calls which refer to either a flying or stationary/perched threat, these cries were in fact just the starting point. Extra syllables could be added to each of these two alarms to denote size, thus an indication of species and perceived levels of threat.³ In fact, if you look at this body of research and I've just scratched the surface here of one facet of a bird's life, you will begin to understand the complexities of the subject of communication. The very reason my pigeons were attacked successfully by a cat was because birds learn like ourselves to become blasé over time and particularly with repeated outcomes. Thus on the first occasion the cat came into the garden, the birds all cried out and loudly but when they perceived it just walked through and maybe also saw it being chased by me, the level of the threat and thus the alert was lowered. The next time the cat came, although the birds made a noise it was not with any great volume or sense of urgency. By the time my pigeons were killed, there was not even enough of a vocalisation to fetch me out of the kitchen. 

Fantail pigeons in flight

So how does a computer cope with these nuances? This apart from the variations on a theme, from a casual; "Where's our food", to an urgent plea of; "I'm starving to death". If the self-regulatory system actually fed the birds the first time they were hungry, what's the odds that the next time, the birds' vocal response to lack of food is; "Don't worry, this happened yesterday, the food will be along soon.." This is also without the consideration of accents, the BBC and the Daily Telegraph in 2011 and 2013 respectively, were writing of 'recent research' into regional dialects in song birds. Whereas Charles Hartshorne was already postulating this in Volume 73 of The Auk in 1956 and a large body of work was carried out on this same subject in the 1980s. 

It seems to me that the great problem with any kind of mainstream acceptance
that domestic, or in fact any kind of birds, have a complex system of communication, albeit supported by academic research, lies at the very heart of how we farm and how we view ourselves in relation to the rest of the 'animal kingdom'. In fact it informs upon how we have so easily persuaded decades of consumers into accepting our present industrial method of producing 'cheap' food. There are already calls for changes in the law relating to animals in the light of further findings into both language and how animals exhibit and feel pain and loss. It will be ironic indeed if further studies into using language as an additional tool in intensive and computerised farming leads to its very downfall. 

Rooster crowing organic forest garden
Next time I will look in detail at my own flock, starting with Mother hens and some interesting vocalisations and/or non-typical voice responses to situations.

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All the very best,


If I could talk to the (animals) birds Part 2

Mother hens communicating distress, distrust and urgency and how understanding language helps solve potential problems. Plus the amazing pigeons...read more

¹ Christopher S. Evans et al., On the Meaning of Alarm Calls: Functional Reference in an Avian Vocal System, 46 Animal Behaviour 23, 23–28 (1993)

²  David R. Wilson , Christopher S. Evans, Fowl communicate the size, speed and proximity of avian stimuli through graded structure in referential alarm calls, 46 Animal Behaviour 83, 535–544 (2012)

³ Christopher N. Templeton et al., Allometry of Alarm Calls: Black-Capped Chickadees Encode Information about Predator Size, 308 Science 1934-1935 (2005)

Black-capped Chickadee from Pinterest - Manu Keller

©  Sue Cross 2016

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