Chicken Speak: Birds pass test for fancy communication

A chicken going “tck, tck, tck” as it pecks is announcing the presence of food. That clucking makes the chicken the first animal other than primates that’s been shown to make sounds that, like words, represent something in the environment, researchers say.

Older studies have hinted at this chicken power, notes Chris Evans of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. For example, he and his colleagues have shown that the particular clucks that chickens give when they find food inspire other chickens to search for it.

The old tests, however, left a nagging possibility that the clucks just trigger a reflex to search for food, Evans says. Now, he and Linda Evans, also of Macquarie University, have used a different approach that’s “given us confidence,” he says, to label the chicken clucks as representational signals.

Various researchers have linked various kinds of vocalizations to particular responses. The Evans lab, for example, found that chickens give different alarm calls depending on whether a scary intruder flies in or approaches along the ground. Other chickens look in the appropriate direction after each of those calls.

For the new tests, the Evanses went back to food calls. For example, males go “tck, tck, tck” upon discovering anything edible (To hear an audio clip, click here). Hens then stalk over to investigate. They take a tidbit from a male’s beak or stare intently at the ground. “They look like people who’ve lost their glasses,” says Chris Evans.

In half the tests, the researchers scattered a few kernels of corn onto the floor. That’s enough food for a hen to notice, but nowhere near enough to satisfy its craving. The hens ate the corn before hearing a male’s clucks. In the other half of the tests, hens encountered no food.

After each hen heard a recording of a male’s food call, those that had already received corn spent less than 3 seconds peering at the ground. But birds that hadn’t been fed searched, on average, for 7.5 seconds.

The difference in response times reflected whether a bird already knew that food was available, so the call isn’t an automatic trigger for some reflex to search the ground, the researchers argue. In contrast, a rooster’s ground-intruder call didn’t evoke different responses from the fed and unfed groups, the Evanses say in a paper available online and in the Feb. 22 Biology Letters.

Primatologist Klaus Zuberbühler of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland compares the results to those from his own test with monkeys. Once those animals heard monkey calls indicating one kind of predator, they responded with less commotion to recordings of that predator than to recordings of a different attacker. So, Zuberbühler argues, these monkey alarm calls are likewise not just triggers of an automatic response.

Finding a similar effect in chickens’ food calls is “wonderful,” he says.

Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.

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