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How the Hen House Turns: Talking to Birds

on July 10, 2014 - 7:20am
How the Hen House Turns:
Talking to Birds
Column by Carolyn A. (Cary) Neeper, Ph. D.
Los Alamos

After 12 years with Lucy goose and the miniature mallards, Kiebler and Ms. Ritz (Joy Drake named them since they were quackers - I think I told you that some months ago), I’m convinced that talking to birds is a matter of listening to them.

When I turn on the water to fill their dishes every morning, Ms. Ritz and Bobbi let out their loud quack quack quack and honk honk honk, respectively (always three in a row), which means “Hurry up and let us out of here.” They are locked in at night with latches secured with carabineers, so raccoons and bears can’t get a finger-hold and tear open the door to the Hen House and nest boxes.

Those ear-splitting statements are unmistakable from the quiet mack mack (two, never three) when they spot me in the window and I say, “How doin’ sweetheart?” I get the same quiet acknowledgement when I pass them in the yard. Only recently, have I realized that Gwendolyn chicken greets me with a similar quiet two-syllable sound. It happens when I pass her, but she also initiates the conversation when she has my attention.

With chickens, the conversation can go on for some minutes. Gwendolyn will answer whatever I say with a variety of quiet sounds that have a higher pitch. I’m not sure how to imitate it with letters. In different countries and in different languages, animal sounds are represented very differently--oddly, I would say in some cases. “That isn’t right, etc.”

I have recognized in my birds only a few of the many sounds that serious students of avian vocalizations claim. The crows and ravens have a huge vocabulary, and chickens have 20 or so, they say. A chickens cackle after laying an egg is easy to recognize. “Bawk bawk bawkbawkbawk—look what I’ve just done!” The meaning is clear. As is the screech when they are alarmed or attacked.

My geese, who lay enormous eggs with unbelievably tough shells, stay quiet after their amazing effort and hunker down to sit on them. I have to pull them off and steal the egg or they will set for four weeks and expect me to get them a baby at the feed store. When Bobbi goose misses her mother Lucy, her call is very loud and different, almost like a pig’s “OINK OINK OINK OINk” (four of them in a row).

However, when I am in the pen doing the daily chores, they serenade me with a steady loud HONK HONKHONK, and if a friend stops by, they include a rude sticking out of their long necks. Yes, they’re good guard dogs, but, raised with kindness, they have never attacked anyone with their nipping beaks. They do “lord it over” the other birds with gentle beak pecks that say, “my turn at the trough or the pond.”

It might be useful to note that the birds I’ve known are very good at understanding English, especially when it is accented with body language, but I’ll save that discussion for the next column.

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