Buk-buk-buk! What Do Those Chicken Noises Mean?
Deciphering Intention and Emotion in Chicken Language
Reading Time: 7 minutes
Chickens are extremely chatty. As highly social beings, they rely on body language and vocal calls to communicate information about their environment and their emotions to one another. Chicken noises and displays enable them to maintain a cohesive group, and maximize their safety and reproduction, while reinforcing their hierarchy.
Anyone who owns chickens will be able to identify certain distinctive calls. The motivation behind some of these chicken noises is somewhat less clear. We need to think back to our chickens’ origins to hazard a guess at why they advertise themselves so vocally.
Domestic chickens descended from Red Jungle Fowl in Southeast Asia. As prey animals they needed to stay together for safety in numbers. Foraging became a communal task. In the thick undergrowth, their quiet burbling chatter enabled them to keep in contact and communicate their findings even when their vision was obscured. As a rooster can inseminate many hens, it made sense for him to protect his flock and give warnings of danger, as well as finding them food that would nourish his future progeny. From a hen’s perspective, it made sense for her to choose the best rooster, who would make the effort to protect and feed her, before allowing him to father her offspring.
Indeed, chickens’ calls and behavior are still very similar to that of their wild cousins. Researchers have studied the calls of both domestic and wild fowl and identified 24–30 different calls and their apparent functions. Firstly, the features of these calls are molded by the emotions experienced by the caller. Secondly, there are intentional signals that poultry give according to which other chickens are in earshot.
Tell-Tale Features of Chicken Noises
For a rough guide to how your birds are feeling and what their intentions are, you can listen out for certain qualities in chicken noises. Brief, quiet, low notes are generally used for contented, communal calls, while loud, long, high pitches indicate fear, danger, or distress. In this way, group chatter remains private to the flock, avoiding eavesdropping by predators, while warnings are heard by the whole flock, even though the caller, usually the rooster, puts himself in some danger by giving the call. Rising pitches generally indicate pleasure, whereas falling pitches signal distress, especially in chicks, whose calls alert their mother to attend to their needs. Urgency or excitement is portrayed by the rapidity and irregularity of repetition. A sudden explosion of sound also indicates urgency. Wavering notes signal disturbance or distress. White noise is designed to repel or warn. In fact, these vocal qualities are common to many animal species’ calls, and they can help us to form an instinctive feeling for what these chicken noises mean.
Although there are probably many subtle signals we have not identified yet, most flocks appear to typify the following calls.
In the nest, unhatched chicks make clicking sounds to synchronize development and hatching. When a broody hen hatches chicks she makes quiet, low rumbles, which may help chicks to identify her after they hatch. These communications keep chicks together with the parent that will protect and care for them.
As a mother or broody hen walks, she rhythmically clucks with soft, brief, repetitive notes: cluck-cluck-cluck. This call appears to rally the chicks safely at her side. As the mother hen settles, she purrs to attract the chicks to settle with her. Chicks will peep with a falling tone if they are apart from her, to which she responds immediately. Chicks’ peeps have a rising tone when happily feeding. Their regular chatter is a dipping and rising peep which serves to keep them together. Their peeps escalate into rising trills when excited and falling trills when frightened. Fear calls are high pitched and quavering.
Mother hens advertise a suitable food source with a rapid kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk while picking up and dropping food pieces. Chicks instinctively get the message and run in peeping excitedly.
The Sweet Nothings of Chicken Noises
The rooster gives a similar call and display when finding food if there is a hen in the vicinity but some distance away. The better the food, the more excited his call. When she is nearby, his call is lower and more rapid: gog-gog-gog-gog-gog. He uses this low call to court a hen, while he drops his wing and encircles her. It is often followed by a low moan. The feeding display is part of his courtship routine, to demonstrate his value as a provider. He will also court her by calling her to potential nest sites. He uses a low-pitched, repetitive call tsuk-tsuk-tsuk or a purr for this purpose.
The rapid kuk-kuk-kuk food call has been shown in experimental conditions to be made when anticipating a food treat or access to a dust bath, another highly valued resource. It is also made by hens in adult company, so perhaps can be interpreted as a call to share a precious finding. Hens are interested in sharing with their flockmates, as foraging in groups provides protection from predators.
Sounding the Alarm
Roosters also display their worth by protecting the flock from chicken predators, mainly by keeping an eye out for danger and sounding a warning when appropriate. A sudden alert call baak-bak-bak-bak warns of possible danger, without being so loud as to attract a predator. A more urgent threat from the ground or the trees is signaled by sharp cut-cut-cut noises followed by a loud, high-pitched squawk. A predator in the air is signaled by a very loud, high-pitched scream. These calls are moderated by the amount of protection the caller has and which chickens are in earshot. The rooster makes more calls when close to cover and in the presence of females. His audience understands the different calls and act appropriately: hiding under cover from an aerial predator; and standing tall and alert for a ground predator.
Chickens that are captured emit long, loud, repeated squawks of distress: perhaps of warning, or as a cry for help. If a rooster pays unwanted attention to an unwilling hen, she only gives the distress call if a dominant rooster is present to obstruct his advances.
Chicken Noises Reveal Emotions
These chicken noises demonstrate how chickens use sounds to convey meaning and intention. As a social species, their emotions invoke calls that are helpful for negotiating cooperation or hierarchy. Warning hisses and growls are issued by broody hens that are protecting eggs and want to be left undisturbed. An unreceptive hen may growl if approached by a male. Both males and females issue quiet, low growls of warning when in competition with each other, preceding a peck. A roosters’ defensive scream may also contain a lower-pitched element of threat.
Instinctively, we may recognize some vocal expressions. For example, pain is expressed by a quick, sharp squawk. Frustration is intoned by whining and a long wavering moan, called “gakel”. These notes may be heard if a chicken is penned in, cannot access feed or her favorite nest site, or is prevented from performing essential behavior routines.
In contrast, the contented chicken noises of a community of foragers are characterized by soft, low, tuneful gurgles and grunts.
The Language of Laying
As she searches for a nest and prepares to lay, a hen may emit soft gurgles and purrs. Too many hens trying to lay at the same time may set up a chorus of gakels. Disturbance from the nest may set off a round of cackling. However, once she has successfully laid, she gives a distinctive buk-buk-buk-cackle that we all know well. Many have pondered the purpose of this loud call, a seeming giveaway to local predators. The most biologically meaningful explanations include attracting potential predators away from the nest through distraction and indicating fertility status to males. In my experience, our rooster always comes running to find the caller and then leads her back to the flock. I would suggest that she may be calling him to reunite her with the flock.
The Magnificent Crowing Rooster
This brings me to the well-known and much-loved crow. This flamboyant call is developed gradually by the rooster from his adolescence into adulthood. Do you wonder what roosters are crowing about? His call contains notes of identity and hierarchy and is used for defining and defending his territory. High-ranking roosters perch up high and crow in the direction of audible neighboring roosters. In such a way a crow-off can ensue without any need for aggressive rooster behavior. The rooster will crow throughout the day, reinforcing his presence and dominance. I expect that hens also find this sound beacon useful to locate him if they have strayed from the flock.
Have you ever asked yourself, “are chickens smart”? Try listening to your flocks’ repertoire. It can open up a new respect and fascination for this amazing species. What calls have you heard from your flock?
Collias, N.E., 1987. The vocal repertoire of the red junglefowl: a spectrographic classification and the code of communication. Condor, 510-524.
Garnham, L. and Løvlie, H. 2018. Sophisticated fowl: the complex behaviour and cognitive skills of chickens and red junglefowl. Behavioral Sciences, 8(1), 13.
Marino, L. 2017. Thinking chickens: a review of cognition, emotion, and behavior in the domestic chicken. Animal Cognition, 20(2), 127–147. Marino, L. and Colvin, C. White Paper.
**McGrath, N., Dunlop, R., Dwyer, C., Burman, O. and Phillips, C.J., 2017. Hens vary their vocal repertoire and structure when anticipating different types of reward. Animal Behaviour, 130, 79–96.
Lead photo by Thijs van Exel/Flickr CC BY 2.0*.
Originally published in the June/July 2019 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.