Learn How to Speak Chicken

Meet Creative Genius Melissa Caughey, she’s a nurse practitioner, a mom, an author, beekeeper, regular HGTV.com contributor — but her most impressive talent? — she's fluent in chicken!

By: Jacquelyn McGilvray
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Melissa is not only one of our favorite contributors, she is a chicken translator. She has been a chicken keeper for over seven years, during that time she and her family have spent countless hours observing and studying their flock’s daily activities. They’ve learned the chickens’ social dynamics, mothering inclinations, body language, problem-solving abilities and how they talk to one another.

Melissa noticed that at certain times and in certain situations the flock made a particular sound, coo or cluck. She started to repeat their sounds, and to her delight, many of the chickens stopped what they were doing, cocked their head like an inquisitive dog and stared at her, and some even repeated the sounds back to her. 

Melissa with her children and a couple of members of their flock.

Melissa with her children and a couple of members of their flock.

Research has shown that chickens are not birdbrains. They have cognitive learning abilities and living in stable groups with a definitive hierarchy results in their own system of communication. Melissa has taken note of their language and written a new book called “How to Speak Chicken.”  Melissa is also the author of the award-winning book “A Kid’s Guide to Keeping Chickens.” Both of her books are full of interesting tidbits about chickens, tips about raising a backyard flock and insights to how they interact.

Here are a few code breakers that Melissa discovered:

- Baby chicks purr just like kittens when they’re content and happy. 

- “Bud-dup” is a friendly greeting among the flock.

- “SCREEE-oop-oop-oop” is a yell that turns into a grumble when a chicken feels threatened. 

- “Bwah, Bwah, Bwah, Bwah” is what a hen says when she is laying an egg. 

- “Doh, doh, doh” is a soft airy sound the flock makes just before they go to sleep at night. It's their way of saying goodnight to one another (Walton’s style).

We asked Melissa a few questions and to share a few tips about communicating with chickens. 

How long have you been raising chickens?

We started keeping chickens in 2010. We started with a flock of six and ordered them to ship to our home through the mail.  

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678832117

It takes 21 days for a chick to grow inside the egg and hatch.

Photo by: BŽatrice Schuler / EyeEm

BŽatrice Schuler / EyeEm

It takes 21 days for a chick to grow inside the egg and hatch.

How old were your kids when you got your first chickens? Did they take to them easily or were they scared?

The kids were six and three. It was the perfect age and because they were day-old chicks they were so tiny and sweet. The chickens and the kids have grown up together and it is has been so incredible. They have learned all about responsibility, respect for animals, how to care for the flock and any pet really. They also have come to appreciate the fresh eggs and chicken friendships over the years too.

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105207437

The average hen lays 265 eggs per year.

Photo by: Walter B. McKenzie

Walter B. McKenzie

The average hen lays 265 eggs per year.

What are some things a casual observer should watch for when encountering chickens?

I think neat things that a casual observer can look for is dust bathing; it’s how chickens naturally remove bugs, parasites and clean their feathers. It is really fun to watch. They dig a big hole, climb in and then roll around tossing dirt up onto themselves. I also would highly recommend watching chickens wander in the yard and garden. It is great fun to watch them investigate and explore. Sometimes, they even get sneaky and hide a nest of eggs on you in the bushes.

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138707629

It's hard to outrun a chicken. They can run 9 mph, whereas humans only run 8 mph.

Photo by: Granefelt, Lena

Granefelt, Lena

It's hard to outrun a chicken. They can run 9 mph, whereas humans only run 8 mph.

Did it take a long time to figure out your hen’s pecking order and the social dynamic of the flock?

I think if you watch them, you can figure out the gist of the pecking order from the time they are in the brooder. They begin to sort it out rather quickly because having the pecking order hierarchy used to be essential to their survival in the wild. The pecking order can change, such as when you introduce new chickens, chickens pass away or simply some become too old to lead.  Everyone has a place.

What surprised you most about raising chickens?

I feel terrible saying this, but I was surprised that they experienced emotions to such deep degrees. I guess you could say, I was ignorant. It was a big life lesson, an aha moment. It was one of those times when you realize that you need to find some things out for yourself and sometimes, you can't trust what others have said or done that went before you. Science is now delving into all species and finding out things that we never thought possible. It's kind of a renaissance in the way that we think. Humans kind of let their egos get in the way all these years.

What made you want to write this book?

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659129449

This rooster is tidbitting, which is a dance he does to impress the hens. Don't you think he sort of resembles a tyrannosaurus rex? That's because genetically chickens are closely related to the t-rex.

Photo by: Jason Nastaszewski / EyeEm

Jason Nastaszewski / EyeEm

This rooster is tidbitting, which is a dance he does to impress the hens. Don't you think he sort of resembles a tyrannosaurus rex? That's because genetically chickens are closely related to the t-rex.

I wanted to write this book partly because I have become passionate about chickens and have come to appreciate how amazing they truly are. If someone had told me even 10 years ago, that I would actually love a chicken like I would a dog or cat, I would have called them crazy. I guess, I just want people to be able to connect and appreciate all living beings for what they are and how incredible they can be. I had the opportunity to be their voice and that makes me proud. 

Have you ever studies other animals with such depth?

Ha, if you call people animals, then I guess the answer would be yes. I am a nurse practitioner and have spent almost the past 20 years learning about people inside and out from the mind to the body. When I was working at UCLA I was involved in being part of the medical research team that focused on studies in nursing as well as medicine. Looking back, it was those early years in my career that lent themselves for me to be able to write this book.

You mention a chicken name Oyster Cracker in your book – do the rest of your chickens have such fun names?

Yes, they all have names: Tilly, Fifi, Cuddles, Lucy, Fluffy, Chocolate, Percy Peepers, Dottie Speckles, Storey, Panko (my hubby named her), Sunshine, and Dolly.

Dottie Speckles, one of Melissa's more memorable hens.

Dottie Speckles, one of Melissa's more memorable hens.

How to Speak Chicken is from Storey Publishing. If you're even remotely thinking about raising chickens, or you know someone who is getting into a chicken keeping, get this book, you’ll learn so much about flock keeping.  Check out more of Melissa's sage gardening and homesteading advice >>

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