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Did you know that chickens are not really bird brains? They have a complex system of communication that uses both body language and vocalizations. It’s all described in Melissa Caughey’s new book — How to Speak Chicken: Why Your Chickens Do What They Do and Say What They Say.
She starts out giving you advice on how you can better learn to listen to your own chickens. She suggests sitting with them quietly and watching, which is what she did initially. She says that at first they’ll stop their usual activities while they check you out, but if you hang around long enough, they’ll forget about and go about their routine — and start chatting with each other. By watching her chickens, she learned what all of their different sounds meant, and amazingly enough, when she repeated those sounds, her chickens understood her. She even tried repeating their aerial warning cry, and the chickens all stopped what they were doing and looked towards the sky. When chicken watching, it’s best that you not be wearing any shiny jewelry that they might want to peck at, and if you’ve recently had a pedicure, you might want to wear close-toed shoes, so they’re not tempted to investigate (and peck at) your bright shiny toenails.
Melissa starts out with baby talk — how chicks start chirping in the eggs before hatch and how the mama hen talks to her chicks. Then she moves on to talk about adult vocabulary, as well as differences between hens and roosters. I was surprised at what a good job she did at spelling out the various chicken “words.” For example, the alert sound is “Grrrrr, buk, buk, buk, buk, buk, buk, buk, BUKGAW” and egg on the way is “bwah, bwah, bwah, bwah,” which should not be confused with the egg song, which goes, “buh-gaw-gawk, buh-gaw-gawk, buh-gaw-gawk.” As I read each of those and others, I could totally hear chickens in my head making those sounds.
You’ll also learn about henhouse etiquette, pecking order in the brooder and the flock, bullying, aggressive roosters, and romantic roosters. My favorite chapter was, “Hey, I’m No Birdbrain!” in which Melissa talks about a variety of chicken studies, as well as her own experience. She said that one researcher would talk about his “research subjects” at a conference, listing all of their attributes, and many people would assume he was talking about monkeys because the list of characteristics seemed so advanced, such as — they are social animals that live in a hierarchy, recognize one another, form relationships, communicate, “solve problems, learn from experience, and teach one another.” Did you know that chickens can learn to do things by watching other chickens on a video? They do have some math and geometry skills, and they can be taught tricks. The whole chapter had me wide-eyed and constantly saying, “Wow!”
Whether you’re looking for the perfect gift for your favorite chicken keeper or you simply want to understand your chickens better, this book fits the bill. Bonus — although it’s written for adults, it would be great for reading to children in the early elementary grades as it contains so many little random chicken facts, and it is filled with beautiful color photographs. I can see myself flipping through this book in years to come, simply to admire the photos. (Please don’t tell me I’m the only one who looks at poultry catalogs when I have no plans to buy any poultry.) Melissa is also the author of A Kid’s Guide to Keeping Chickens, if you’re looking for another children’s gift this month.