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Hen House: No Vacancy

May 23, 2010

A pterodactyl sneaked into the chicken house the other day. The sound it made was horrid. It sounded like a chicken being strangled. Even from the deck, some 100-feet away, I could hear it very clearly, and it was such an unexpected noise, I had to drop my window-box herb planting and head over to investigate. I brought my video camera along to document the phenomenon. Here is what I heard… and saw.

Keeping chickens, ducks, goats, and pigs trains the ear to the unique languages of those species, and to the specific intonations of individuals. There is a goat who yells “MAMA” in a low, loud voice when she wants to be let out to browse. Her stablemate, who has horns, will let out a wild cry if her head becomes stuck in the fence. The excited vocalizations they use when grain is on its way into the shed are very different.The pigs, too, have their own style of vocal communication, and I will never forget the first moonlit night I heard a five-month-old pig go into heat. Her “whhheeeeeeee, whhhheeeeeeee” was a crazed, desperate sound that peeled through the woods late into the night.

The fowl, however, win the award for continuous, expressive vocalization, which makes sense because they are birds. I haven’t heard “Polly want a cracker,” but the feed chuckle that duck hunters, and duck shoot-at-ers like myself, try to emulate on their calls is heard daily from both the ducks and the chickens. One would think the bird would want to keep its food discovery to itself, rather than call in the competition with excited feed chuckling, but feeding time is dangerous. Feeding chickens are less alert than usual; bent over, heads down, they peck at ground-level presenting a golden opportunity for a predator to strike. Maybe chuckling in reinforcements provides an additional degree of safety.

The ducks’ chatter seems to accompany their every move, from taking a bath in their pool to foraging in the forest. The Mallard-like Rouen barks a hilariously stereotypical “QUACK, QUACK, QUACK” during the day – usually timed perfectly to coincide with my tripping over something or getting on the wrong end of the two-year-old and the garden hose. I think of that Rouen as my laugh track, and it makes all my goofy moves much more professional. Cleverly, the ducks only stop ‘talking’ when they perceive a threat, such as a large bird in the sky or our daily visit from the coyote (at exactly ten minutes to 11 a.m.) Then they grow mute and still, tilting their heads slightly to get a better view.

Chickens make a great number of noises, including angry warnings to dim-witted hens who dare to invade an occupied nest box, as in the video above. I did think it was a dinosaur bird, but I was proven to be mistaken. I had never heard that sound before – the low, extended growl. It did sound a little like a broody hen unwilling to leave her clutch of eggs, but the volume was turned up to max and that hen was not broody. She clearly was defending her nesting spot, and the interloper wasn’t getting the message. The Kuhl conventional nesting box we have installed in the gypsy wagon we call the hen house is a ten-hole number, providing what should be ample space for 20-something hens. The ladies take turns, and not all the hens want to lay at the same time of day. Every once in a while a hen will decide to lay on the ground, although that hasn’t happened yet with this particular flock of layers.

The hens seemed to have finally sorted out their real estate issues. I don’t know if they had to call in a third party mediator or chicken negotiator. I’m pretty well immersed in chicken culture, but there are some aspects of that world I will never know or understand. While I continue to improve my chicken-as-a-second-language, there are, thankfully, still challenges cropping up on a regular basis.

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