Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Learn a second language

Any time Gene and I watch a movie and there are chickens in the background, we always chuckle about how noisy the movie chickens are.  It's such a cliche.  Watch any western or medieval movie/tv show and invariably there's a loud clucking flock of chickens somewhere, bawk bawking like the entire flock is laying eggs at the same time: buck buck baw-KAWK!

We got our first batch of three chicks Memorial Day weekend in 2008.  Coincidentally, that's also when I met my good friend, Dena.  The law in our county states that you must buy a minimum of six chicks at once from feed stores.  It's meant to prevent people from buying cute baby animals they can't care for and will eventually kill due to neglect.  Dena was advertising on Craigslist to split a 6-pack of chicks.  I responded and we've been friends ever since, both of our flocks growing as well.  Though Tacoma has about 200,000 residents, Dena and I have found over the years that we know a number of people in common.  Small town, indeed.

I digress.

Of that starter flock, Gwen and Nugget are still with us.  We now have nine hens and I can tell you that hens are fairly low on the noise spectrum, making far less noise than the neighbor's dogs that never stop barking.  Ever.  The exception in our flock is the screechy Polish Crested named Beaker.  That neurotic bird can make a ton of noise when she's feeling insecure or the others are picking on her.

Last weekend I headed for the front yard to do some weeding and get my veggie garden started.  I took the dog - who at some point rolled in something horrific and later required a bath - and allowed the hens to come with us.  It takes them a while to build up enough confidence to stray very far from the bushes against the house but invariably a few always do.  This time I looked up and saw Gwen and Croquette scratching in the dirt where I'd just weeded.  Later in the day Miss Piggy, Curry, and even Dozer joined the dog and me on the parking strip.

I enjoyed the company of the animals while I weeded.  The dog kept watch (when she wasn't rolling in stinky compost somewhere) while the hens aerated the soil and did their best to reduce the various bug populations.  As I worked I listened to them and realized that I can recognize each individual just by her unique "voice".  It reminded me ot an article I'd read some time back that a researcher had discovered that chickens make about 24 different vocalizations. 

Without seeing the girls, I can tell you when Animal is getting picked on, when Croquette has found a black beetle (she's the only bird of the whole flock who makes that particular noise for that particular bug), when a broody Beaker has ventured out of the nest, when Dozer is watching the others, when Curry wants to be picked up, when Nugget is alarmed by the dog, and when Gwen is frustrated that I'm moving her away from where I'm swinging a hand tool.

From inside the house we know when an egg has been laid and when the girls are stressed or scared, such as when a falcon is parked on the telephone wire above the yard.  In the morning we can hear them in the coop, softly clucking their discontent at being locked up while daylight's burning.

Not only does each situation have a unique sound assigned to it, but each bird has a distinct voice.  When Curry wanders into the house we always know when it's her because of her deep "braaaaawkk".  Croquette is our little chatty Cathy, constantly cooing and blucking to us.  Dozer is also chatty but in slightly different situations.

If you have chickens, spend some time learning their language.  You'll come to understand them better and enjoy them that much more.  Besides, it's fun to listen to them and know what they're doing just by the sounds they make.  I'm not sure I could identify the 24 unique sounds, but I could probably come close.

As I was wrapping up my yardwork chores, my neighbor drove up, rolled down his window, and started to chuckle.  I looked up to see what was going on when he said, "you look like Doctor Doolittle with all those animals in the yard with you." 

I looked up to see Rosemary at the top of the little slope, surveying the domain.  Five hens were tilling the soil of the slope right beneath Rosemary, fluffy butts on full display.  And Mira, my 14-year-old black cat, was sitting primly on the stairs, eyeing the hens warily (she hates the chickens with a passion).

The sight warmed my heart and me chuckle, too.

Here are some sample chicken noises:
A broody hen
Hen showing her chicks where food is
The "egg song"
Content hens (eating)
Dust-bathing hens (and this, my friends, is what destroys your yard)


  1. I am definitely going to have to listen to the hens at Ross' preschool more carefully. I have heard the "egg song" from them though.

  2. Can I just tell you how much I love your chicken names!!! I'm planning my first flock and names are Potpie, Tetrazzini (Tetra) and either Nugget or Stu (which is a weird name for a girl, but whatever!).

  3. Thanks, Faith! We've decided the next batch -whenever that happens - will all have vacuum cleaner names: Hoover, Dyson, Kirby, etc. The last batch all got Jim Henson names, and the batches before that were foods (except Gwen).

  4. Hi! I've been following your blog for awhile. I'm in Tacoma, too, and you're doing all the things I want to do! Could you tell me where you found the requirement about buying 6 chicks? I have read all the city code on chickens and never saw anything like that. Not that I would mind having six! Is there an upper limit of how many we can keep in the city limits? Thanks!