Chickens may sport a small beak, but they use it well. Lately, all too well. With egg-laying ramping up for Spring (getting 1-2 a day now), there is much discussion about time in the nesting boxes. Mabel is upset that Marge is in there, Marge is upset that Mabel isn’t, and Goldie generally just follows the flock. Some days, I’m hearing a complete chicken a cappella choir in my backyard. Whereupon I fly out the back door and attempt to quiet the herd in any way that works. (All efforts are usually rewarded with a small window of quiet, but it never lasts long. If there is egg-laying on the horizon, one must bite the bullet and let the chickens chat.)
Which brings me to the next subject: the meaning of chicken chat. Let me start by assuring you that virtually all chicken chat has a purpose. Oh yes, there’s always a general satisfied clucking and songbird-like chirping that accompanies daily foraging around the yard. But the real action comes when a predator enters the yard. Spot, they recognize, and other than Marge’s rapid 3-beat “bok-bok-bok” that signifies his arrival, they pay him no heed. (Though if he gets too close or poses a paw too playfully at a dustbath-burrowing Goldie, Mabel has been known to deliver a series of sharp-beaked pecks to his spotted hide before he runs for the hills.) When a clearly NOT-Spot creature enters the premises, there’s an immediate chorus of loud, sharp “bok-bok-bok-BOK!!” that erupts through the neighborhood. It’s the Alert Call. No matter what I’m doing, it’s time to fly out the back door to quiet the herd. You see, the Alert Call is virtually indistinguishable from the egg-laying announcements. So it’s wise to check on them. One way or another, I’m going to have to act on it. Either I scare away a curious neighbor cat or I come back with an egg.
Another interesting call is the “I got one!!” call. You only hear this one when one of the girls has stumbled on a really delectable treat. And–uncontrollably–her excitement overrides her better judgment and she gives up her secret with a rapid series of short melodic squeals (a lot like a guinea pig, for those of you who’ve had the pleasure). Too quickly, she realizes her mistake as the others come barreling down the runway, and she loses said delicacy (usually a cockroach or an unfortunate lizard). A 3-ring circus of flying feathers ensues until the treat is gulped down by the luckiest finder. (Chickens can run FAST.) Yesterday, something very unusual happened: Mabel discovered an unclaimed worm and instead of gulping it down, she looked pointedly at Marge and sang her little “I got one!” chirp, waiting for Marge to come galloping over to claim it. She gave it up without argument. Amazing. It was not unlike a mother hen catching a treat for her chick.
Sometimes it’s what chickens don’t say that brings on fits of laughter. It can be the 3-at-once neck-stretched head-turning-to-the-sky reaction of a crow in flight nearby, like a synchronized swimming team. It can be Mabel’s glaring look at me from under the coop during a downpour of rain. Or Marguerite’s crazy widebody-737 gallop down the runway when I open the door to the run. Or Goldie’s squat-drop-and-freeze stance at my feet when she wants to be picked up.
Chickens are pretty communicative little creatures, aren’t they? Think of that next time you order that KFC bucket to go.