As an English tutor to small children, I’ve developed a pretty good vocabulary of sounds for describing animals. And for the chicken, the standard ‘BAWK!’ with a healthy flapping of my arms, never fails to connect. The kids always seem to know what animal goes with this one sound. But…for those of us who actually raise chickens, we know that there is a little more to a chicken’s vocabulary.
Excluding roosters and their cacophony of calls, your basic hen will have four categories of sounds; the I Like Call, the I Don’t Like Call, the I’m Scared Sound, and Mindless Chatter. Each of these categories can have multiple expressions, but for ease of understanding, we will review the sounds in the categories they are associated with.
Chickens: The ‘I Like’ Call
Some sounds associated with ‘I Like’ are pretty easy to distinguish once you’ve experienced them, others…not so much. Here are two of the most common sounds a chicken will make when they’re happy.
- I have something awesome – This is probably my favorite call. When a chick finds something in the brooder, let’s say you tossed a small cricket it and someone snatched it up, they will immediately let out this single syllable high pitched sound. And they don’t just do it once, they keep making it, usually as they’re running frantically around the brooder with the rest of the flock in hot pursuit.
And chickens don’t stop making this sound when they get older. Yesterday, in fact, I listened to a 13 week old Easter Egger make this sound as she dashed here and there trying to choke down a grasshopper before one of her sisters could steal it.
- I laid an egg – Even now, this call is difficult for me to differentiate. It starts out with a loud single syllable followed by a repetition of half volume muttering. Honestly, I’m not entirely convinced that my girls are happy when they make this call. It kind of sounds like they just endured something really difficult and ‘by golly you’re going to hear about it!’ At any rate, this call coincides with laying an egg, which for me, falls into the ‘I Like’ category.
Chickens: The ‘I DON’T Like’ Call
Interestingly enough, this is the category of chicken sounds that I have found to be the most diverse. There are many sounds that a hen will make to express her unhappiness.
- You’re in my nest – While the sounds for this call may vary from bird to bird, the general tone of frustration is easy to pick up. Somebody is mad! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to run out to the coop and try and make peace. We have ample nesting boxes for our flock, but chickens can be bizarre in their behavior. It’s not unusual for the entire flock to try and use the same nesting box while completely ignoring all of the rest. (Sometimes placing fake eggs in all of the boxes will reduce this behavior.)
- This is mine – This particular sound is usually sharper and shorter than most of the other sounds you will hear. While being a sort of protest, it doesn’t signal a definite confrontation. I just means that someone is standing up for themselves. This is probably the most common sound I hear during the course of a day. It can be related to almost anything, including a spot on the roost.
- Back off! – The ‘back off’ call is longer and louder than the ‘this is mine’ call but definitely shorter than the ‘your in my nest’ call. And this particular noise is worthy of your attention as it is usually accompanied with an angry snap of the beak. Chickens will fight, especially when it’s hot. And if a smaller bird is cornered by a bigger bird that is intent on fighting, then someone going to get hurt.
- Danger – You would think this call would be overly loud, but I have found it to be lower in volume than the ‘back off’ call. What’s interesting though, is despite it being quieter, every single bird in the yard will immediately drop they are doing. No sound will resonate with your flock faster than the ‘danger’ call.
Chickens: I’m scared!
These could technically be in the ‘I don’t like’ section but I’ve chosen to identify them differently as they are unique. And if you’ve ever witnessed these calls, you’ll understand why I have chosen to do so.
- I’m all alone/help me! – A few seasons back, we had a batch of meat birds (chicks) that we were raising for the freezer. Almost immediately, I noticed that one of the chicks was not growing. (This is a rare, but not unheard of issue – generally having to do with an inability to absorb nutrients.)
At 4 weeks of age, the chick was almost the same size as when it had come out of the box. Its brothers and sisters, however, were growing just fine and towered over their little sibling. With my brooder close in the garage, I went out one day to hear the runt calling and calling in distress. It was hiding under the hanging waterer, afraid to be near the giants that towered over it.
- Where are you? – While a chick has the ‘I’m all alone’ call a mature hen will give the ‘where is everyone’ call. Chickens are a flock animal and as such they need to be together. Point of fact, if you look out and find a member of your flock off by themselves, then you would do well to investigate.
The one time that it is acceptable for a chicken to be by themselves is when a hen is laying her egg. Unfortunately, sometimes the flock will move when one hen is off doing her business. This can cause problems as the lone hen will freak out! If you don’t have a rooster, then it would be to you and your lost hen’s advantage to help her find the rest of the flock. Chickens are easily stressed out and the constant calling of a lost hen is sure to attract the attention of a predator.
- BAAAWWWKK!!! – This call is the full on panic call and it is as loud as it is unmistakeable. It is almost always accompanied by an explosion of feathers that is sure to scare the wits out of you. Worse yet, when it happens, it usually isn’t just one bird that does it. Let’s say you’re watching a scary movie in the dark and someone screams. Their vocalization exacerbates your fear. Chickens are the same way. If one of them gets startled and freaks out, then someone else in the flock, who is undoubtedly close by, is sure to freak out too. In the end, what you end up with a group of neurotic birds that have probably lost a few feathers in their escape of whatever it was that started it all.
Chickens: Mindless Chatter
In a situation where your flock feels safe and secure, this is what you should hear most of the time. For chicks, it’s your basic gentle chirping of contentment. However, somewhere around 12 week mark, this gentle chirping will morph into something more. Sometimes it’s a gentle ‘cluck’ while other times it’s sounds like a ‘grrr’.
The frequency and the style of this ‘mindless chatter’ will change according to the mood of the flock. The vocalization will be much more active when the birds are happier or excited. For example, first thing in the morning when they come out of the coop, my girls will be very chatty. Later in the day, however, they’ll be bedded down for an afternoon of quiet preening.
As to what, if any, purpose there is for these sounds, I couldn’t tell you. But what I can tell you is that a chicken will make these sounds when in the company of someone/something that it is connected to. In other words, an animal or even a person, that is seen as a member of the flock.
A few summers back, we had an Australorp we named ‘Bitch’n Betty’. With her size and demeanor, she was at the top of the pecking order for a flock of 10. Incredibly though, she was also the most social and interactive when it came to people. That girl would follow you everywhere! In the garden, in the garage, on the patio – anywhere you went, she was sure to find you. And all the while she was with you, she would ‘grrr’ as if to share her opinion on what you were doing.
I’ve said it before, but it’s definitely worth repeating…chickens are a blast!