How The Hen House Turns: The Mind Of Chickens

Cary Neeper. Courtesy photo
Formerly of Los Alamos
As our girls were growing up in our ¾ acres above Walnut Canyon, we came to know many chickens.  The first hen, Peeky, hatched an only child, Peeper. He became a sensitive gentle person, a lovely gamecock whose caring behavior echoed his upbringing.
He also was a patient playmate for our youngest daughter. She carried him, 3-inch spurs and all, in her arms and dressed him up for the pet parade with no struggle. His quiet acceptance spoke volumes about trust between species. Peeper, our beloved game cock, called frequently to the hens with a distinctive “bock, bock,” promising food for favors.
The hens we encountered in the yard always had a quiet greeting for us as we passed by. Studies have reported two dozen different vocalizations. Last January the Washington Post reported that archaeologists had found a whole chicken skeleton, carefully buried by Iron Age humans. Those people were probably new to England in those days, hence respectful of the colorful, responsive birds they encountered and probably tamed. In any case the birds were apparently given half a chance and some measure of consideration for their generous contribution of edible eggs.
Recently, the Arts and Humanities Research Council of Great Britain reported the results of a three-year, $3 million study of our relationship to chickens. They mention a review of chicken cognition, sociology and emotion by Lori Marino that makes clear what we suspected in our 40-plus years with various chickens—they have all three.
Chickens startle easily—for good reason, given their meaty attraction. They operate according to what they see (WYSIWYG), as mentioned by Temple Grandin in her analysis of autism, but they do have a sense of numbers. They understand the relative sizes of objects, and they have a complex social hierarchy.
The pecking order is famous, and can have tragic consequences. I had to isolate one chicken when she was pecked hard enough to bleed. She perked up, grew back her feathers, and happily started laying eggs again. Resilient critter.
We experienced the different sounds hens make, from a firm command to the dogs, a proud announcement of egg laying, to a terrified squawk when danger threatened. We recognized subtle sounds as the birds sorted out their pecking order, and expressed their fear of visiting skunks. Their protective protest when crows settled on their fence, their annoyance at thoughtless geese antics, and their peaceful murmuring as they snuggled under a human arm for a nap.
For some reason the memory that comes most often to mind is the quiet “Brk brk” as I passed by the hens in the yard. It was only in the later years in Los Alamos that I came to recognize the quiet greeting as a friendly and consistent greeting. It echoed the noisier “Honk honk” that Lucy the goose gave me whenever I said, “Good morning” on passing her in the yard.
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