So, a university study has won a prize for finding out that chickens have a language. I could have told you that. In fact, mine are bilingual trilingual. They have an understanding of goat-ese and ducky.
Two Macquarie University researchers have won an Australian Museum Eureka Prize for research establishing that chooks use sound and gesture to communicate with each other and, moreover, that their communication is so sophisticated that they change their language according to who is listening. Dr K-lynn Smith and Professor Chris Evans developed a process using 3D animation to show that chickens share precise information about food and predators, and one particular value in this finding that chickens are social, intelligent animals is, they say, that it strengthens the case against cruel farming practices.
They were able to show that chooks have different calls for predators in the sky and on the ground and for different types of food. I have kept chooks for many years and, while I’ve not noticed a difference in a rooster’s alarm for ground or aerial predators, his behaviour is definitely different. For a ground predator, perhaps an unfamiliar dog, he issues an alarm, which entails calling and a stomping dance, and ushers the hens that come running to a safe spot before, usually, he goes to confront the threat. For an air-borne threat, perhaps a hawk, he calls and stomps for the hens to come to him under a tree or roof – in my backyard it is always under the lime tree – and he runs out to scold and muster any wayward hens.
A rooster calling hens to a patch of food is a wonderful sight. He issues a torrent of cascading calls while stomp dancing and dropping his head repeatedly to the ground to mimic feeding. As well he tosses pieces of the food into the air. The hens come running and, of course, he may well take that opportunity to have his wicked way.
Dr Smith and Professor Evans made an interesting discovery when they observed subordinate roosters calling hens to a patch of food. The dominant rooster would react aggressively, chasing the calling rooster away and, sometimes, issuing the call himself, the obvious point being that hens prefer roosters who produce food. But sometimes a subordinate rooster would summons hens to food by sending the visual signals without the audible call, apparently hoping to avoid alerting the chief rooster.