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How The Hen House Turns: Animal Verbiage

on February 13, 2019 - 7:30am
Mama lifeguard watches over her babies. Courtesy photo
Formerly of Los Alamos
In the chapter “What’s in a Name”, Sy Montgomery summarizes in her book “Tamed and Untamed Close Encounters of the Animal Kind” (by Sy Montgomery and Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, Vermont, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2017) what is known about animal language.
The alert calls of prairie dogs specify which flying hunter is in the sky or who is hunting on the ground. Prairie dogs even describe human characteristics. They make up “words” for unfamiliar objects (according to Slobolchikoff, cited in Sy’s book). He has also noted that prairie dogs have names for hawks, as well as cats, badgers, ferrets and humans. Cows and pronghorns induce a safety signal.
In earlier columns here I have described how our Los Alamos chickens usually greeted me with a quiet “mrrp” as I passed by on the path behind our house.
Also, our duck’s quiet body language impressed me when Mrs. Campbell (a duck) would approach, catch my eye, lead me to my trowel, then direct me to wet mud so I could dig up the worms gathered there. Mr. Campbell didn’t join in, for some reason I can’t imagine.
You are probably familiar with the study (aired on TV) that filmed crows’ (and even their chicks’) recognizing and loudly scolding human faces (masked) of people who had caused them trouble.
Big brained dolphins have names for each other, as we do. They call out for individuals by name. Studies have been done in Scotland, South Africa and Florida. Wild parrots also use names for each other (Karl Erg, 2008)
But chickens? Do they have a spoken language? My meager observations have been expanded by authors like Sy Montgomery. Chickens are known to have sounds for familiar humans and for other species--their speed and size and the direction of predators (Macquarial University, Australia).
In Melissa Cougley’s book “A Kid’s Guide to Keeping chickens,”  she describes “conducting serious science” when she realized her flock of 10 chickens had a name for her: “ba-Ba-BA-BAA.” It was aimed at her in a different chicken voice--not “Bup Brup” for “hello” or “Bwah Bwah” for “about to lay an egg.” She realized that more than one hen said her “ba-Ba-BA-BAA” name whenever they first saw her.
It’s hard to deny, given all this recent evidence: animals--even chickens--are “smarter than we give them credit for.” Evidence is accumulating, and fish may provide the next surprise.