Reflections of a ground predator

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What noise does a chicken make?

Some people might go for the classic “cockadoodle dooo!” of an rooster at the crack of dawn.

But many people probably come up with something like this: “Buck buck buck buck” (here’s a video example).  That’s what chickens sound like to most of us.

In fact, this is a specific type of chicken alarm call.  It means “Ground predator! Watch out!“.   In this video, there’s a cat on the prowl.  However, this call sounds so familiar to us humans, even those of us who are not chicken obsessives, because we are ground predators.  So what we think of as “normal chicken sounds” say less about what chickens normally do, and more about the fact that we’re there, and they’re keeping an eye on us.

Chickens make at more than twenty four different calls (check out some of them on this very interesting video), which are not only referential (“aerial predator” “food” and so on) but are uttered differently depending on who’s listening and what’s going on.  In fact, they can be quite machiavellian, deliberately “lying” (for instance, some males make a food call to attract females when there’s no food to be had – though since chickens can recognise and remember up to 100 individuals, this is not a good long term strategy!)  They are pretty cunning too.  In a recent article in Scientific American K-Lynn Smith and Sarah Zielinski explain how researchers resolved a problem: why do roosters frequently call out a warning about a passing hawk even when this might attract the hawk’s attention and put the rooster himself at risk.  They found that roosters are very strategic.  For instance, they observe that “a male calls more often if he is safe under a bush and his rival is out in the open, at risk of being picked off by a swooping predator. If the rooster is lucky, he will protect his girl, and another guy will suffer the consequences”.

To sum up, chickens are smarter than humans usually think (if not always nice), and humans… well, humans are ground predators.