JULIA BAYLY

Chicken speak — is it in the ear of the beholder?

Julia Bayly
Julia Bayly
Posted April 03, 2014, at 7:19 p.m.

FORT KENT, Maine — Years ago, when I attended the first family gathering with my French-speaking inlaws, I admit it was hard to shake the feeling they were talking about me in a language I did not understand.

Over time, I not only learned enough French to understand those conversations, but I also came to realize those initial insecurities were unfounded and that my inlaws had far more interesting things to talk about.

But now those insecurities are back, right here on Rusty Metal Farm, where, apparently, there is more to the Rusty Metal chickens than meets the ear.

A recent perusal of one of my favorite fowl blogs, “The Chicken Chick,” revealed the notion of a complex chicken language made up of recognizable words, sentences and syntax.

The blog’s author, Kathy Shea Mormino, who has a backyard flock of 50 or so laying hens at her Connecticut home, was referencing the German “fowl linguist” Dr. Erich Baeumer, who has apparently been studying chickens since 1954, which I guess makes him the Jane Goodall of the barnyard.

Naturally, I Googled Dr. Baeumer and, while not finding a direct link to his study, there were plenty of other links to articles, blogs and essays referencing that study.

Perhaps if I had Googled in chicken-speak, I could have found his actual study.

Regardless, those who cited Baeumer referenced his accomplishment of listing 30 sentences which are part of an international chicken language.

According to one online article, “Baeumer was only eight when he realised that he could understand the chickens around his house. ‘It was an intuitive understanding, I could actually tell what they were saying. I began to spend hours with them; they became brothers and sisters to me,’ he says. He learned to imitate their sounds so well that he was accepted as a full-fledged member of the flock.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but growing up in a city, in the absence of chickens, I had to make do with imaginary friends.

But at least we all spoke the same language.

I contacted Mormino — the Chicken Chick — this week and, while she is uncertain of the extent of her flock’s vocabulary, she has little doubt they do communicate.

“People ask me if they understand their names,” Mormino said. “I don’t think they do, but I do think they have a form of communication [and] their vocalizations are a form of communication.”

For example, Mormino said when her flock spots her carrying a bucket of treats, they make specific sounds directed at her.

“We can certainly learn to understand them,” she said. “Can they understand what we say to them? That I don’t know.”

Baeumer certainly felt it was a two-way, interactive conversation going on and further claimed chickens around the world speak the same language, be it an Indian Jungle fowl, a Russian Orloff rooster, an Italian Leghorn, a Cornish cock or a New Hampshire Red.

It was only when his voice changed that the chickens broke off communication with him, according to one article.

If so, chickens may all speak a unified language, but they are apparently easily offended.

This “universal” language did get me to thinking — if I were somehow able to crack the fowlish Rosetta Stone, could I then bring a chicken with me when traveling to a foreign country as a sort of on-the-fly poultry translator?

Assuming, of course I limited my travel to destinations which had native chickens readily available, and limited my discourse to those 30 sentences.

I have to think Baeumer would think so, given his claims that “chicken behavior is not too different from human behavior [and] nor is the chicken language.”

Based on some of the governmental meetings I have covered over the years, I may just have to agree with him on that one.

But does that mean my Rusty Metal chickens are out there, right now, organizing oral debates and lining up speaking engagements?

Could those docile “gluck, gluck, glucks” I hear actually be well-thought-out verbal plots ready to be hatched against me?

I may never know, and in the end, according to Mormino, should we really care?

“They make us happy,” she said. “And we do our jobs to make them comfortable and happy, so I’m not really sure if understanding a chicken language matters.”

I tend to agree.

Now, if I could just shake that feeling they were talking about me.

Julia Bayly of Fort Kent is an award-winning writer and photographer who writes part time for Bangor Daily News. Her column appears here every other Friday. She can be reached by email at jbayly@bangordailynews.com.

 

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