SG597: How to Speak Chicken with Melissa Caughey

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Guten Tag. Ola. Bonjour. Bur-dup?

That’s the official greeting of the world's most abundant domestic animal - chickens. Today we’re learning How to Speak Chicken with expert chicken translator Melissa Caughey of the blog Tilly’s Nest and the new book with the intriguing and quirky title, How to Speak Chicken.  I’ve done lots of interviews over the years - and I guarantee you, this is one that I will personally never forget.

You may think that studying chicken behavior and communication sounds silly or even ridiculous. But, if you’re raising chickens, you probably know that this kind of information is exactly the subject of many discussions and threads in chicken forums. Once you get over the novelty of the topic, people generally discover that Melissa’s information is very useful and interesting. In fact, feedback on Melissa’s book and her presentations on the topic of How to Speak Chicken - where she covers How to Discover the Language, Emotions, Etiquette, and Smarts of the Flock - show that folks want to understand their chickens better and her book allows people to connect with them.

People have been living with chickens for at least 6,000 years, and the world-wide domesticated chicken population now exceeds 19 billion. Despite hanging out together for as long as we have, few people have given serious consideration to the potential meaning of chicken vocalizations.

Turns out, chickens are loquacious creatures and chicken owners generally grow accustomed to hearing their patterns of speech.  In one article I read recently, a chicken farmer found his chicken house oddly quiet one morning (a time which is pretty chatty and noisy for chickens.)  Instead, the birds were murmuring and lethargic. He soon discovered his lighting system had failed and the lights had not switched off the night before; the chickens hadn’t got much sleep and were sleep-deprived from their all-nighter. If the farmer had been able to eavesdrop on the flock, he might have known much sooner that his flock needed help.

I like to call Melissa a Chicken Translator - something I thought would be a one-of-a-kind job. As it happens, she’s keeping good company; there are scientists at the University of Georgia University and Georgia Institute of Technology that have been studying chicken "language” in an effort to help poultry farmers with the ability to monitor and modify lighting, temperature, ventilation, feeding systems and health. For instance, the Artificial Intelligence (AI) monitors can tell when birds are feeling heat stress just from the sounds they are making. It also alerts when the birds have a respiratory infection because of the sound they make when mucus clogs their airways.

In addition, a recent study published in Springer’s Journal of Animal Cognition by senior scientist Lori Marino, reviewed the latest research about the psychology, behavior and emotions. The result? She found that chicken intelligence has been majorly underestimated. Furthermore, research has shown that chicken communication consists of at least 24 distinct vocalizations - as well as different visual displays. Roosters will sound distinct alarm calls for different kinds of predators. Recent findings reveal that chicken communication is pretty complex and that suggests that chickens have cognitive awareness, and even more sophisticated capacities such as perspective-taking and deception.

Melissa’s work would get a stamp of approval from Wallace Berry, a poultry scientist at Auburn University’s College of Agriculture. Berry recently said, “Some farmers tell me that despite all the gadgets, their most important piece of technology (for understanding chickens) is a five-gallon bucket. They turn it over and sit on it, and watch the birds for hours. They learn what a normal house looks and sounds like. If the chickens are content, there is a certain way they sound. If they are cold or hot, there are certain sounds they make. This is what (the researchers) are trying to do in an automated way. It makes perfect sense.”

Melissa begins her book by sharing how you can better learn to listen to your own chickens. She suggests sitting with them quietly and watching. Just chill with your chickens until they forget about you sitting there and start chatting with each other. By watching her flock, Melissa learned their sounds, and amazingly, when she repeated those sounds, her chickens understood!  One time, she repeated their aerial warning cry, and the chickens freaked: they stopped in their tracks and looked up at the sky. It’s kind of like in the movie Arrival - one of my favorites - when Amy Adams character figures out a way to talk to the aliens.  Talk about a breakthrough!

In all seriousness though, in today’s episode, you’ll hear Melissa speak chicken. (And, can I just say that she surprised me to death when she asked me to give it a try, too!)  Our whole conversation had me in a constant state of fascination and amazement.  So if you’re a chicken geek looking to understand your chickens better, check out Melissa’s book How to Speak Chicken.  It’s the perfect gift for your favorite chicken keeper. And, if you have kids, don’t miss Melissa’s award-winning book, A Kid’s Guide to Keeping Chickens. Alright - I hope you’re ready to have some fun, to push the boundaries of what you think of when it comes to chickens, let’s learn How to Speak Chicken with the Queen of Chicken Speak - the Chicken Translator - (and a jack of many trades as you are about to discover) - the talented and insightful Melissa Caughey.  

Thanks for Listening!

Still Growing,

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Jennifer Ebeling
Jennifer Ebeling is a proud Minnesotan and U of MN alumni. Gooooooo Gophers! Each week, Jennifer produces and hosts Still Growing - a gardening podcast dedicated to helping you and your garden grow. The show is an in-depth interview format. Guests featured on the show share a passion for gardening and include authors, bloggers, professional gardeners, etc. Listeners and guests of the show can join the Still Growing community on Facebook. It's a place to ask questions, share garden stories, interact with great guests featured on the show, and continue to grow and learn. Jennifer and her husband Philip have four children, a big golden lab named Sonny, and live in lovely Maple Grove, Minnesota. P.S. When she's not teaching her four kids a new card game - or teaching them how to drive a car - Jennifer loves inspiring individuals and groups to maximize and personalize their home & garden.
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