It suits battery farms for the general public to think of chickens as mindless egg-laying machines, but anyone who keeps backyard chickens can tell you that they have distinct personalities and will let you know their likes and dislikes. There's basically a feathery soap opera unfolding each day down in the run as they sort out whose turn it is in the good nesting box. In How To Speak Chicken Melissa Caughey talks to other chicken owners about their hens, with their various quirks and foibles. She writes about how much you can learn about them as individuals by spending time patiently observing them, and how rewarding this can be. She also provides some fascinating information about their biology, such as the ways bird brains work differently from ours. It's an insightful book, complete with full-colour photos and references.
Melissa Caughey has a background in anthropology, which informed her approach to getting to know her hens. Like humans, chickens communicate without words, using body language and facial expressions, but they also have over 20 different vocalisations, to do with territory, food, nesting, mating, happiness, fear and distress. Melissa decided to listen carefully to her hens and get to know their "language", even learning to repeat back the sounds they made and see how they reacted. This appealed to me as both a keeper of backyard chickens and a language nerd, so I have actually tested out some of the sounds in this book on my girls, and found that they do indeed greet me with the the "hello" noise when they see me, and stop what they are doing to look up at the sky if I make the "look out, there's a hawk!" sound (though I won't do that one again, as it seems a bit cruel).
One of my hens, Speckles, on hearing that Love Actually is better Christmas movie than Die Hard.
Even for those who don't have chooks of their own to talk to, the book has some fascinating facts about chicken biology.
Did you know that chickens blink upwards and sideways instead of down like humans?
Seriously, they do. They have an inner eyelid that moves sideways across the eye to clear out any debris as the lower lid moves up to meet the top lid. Also, they can sleep with one eye open, with only the half of their brain attached to the closed eye asleep, while the half attached to the open eye remains awake. Try as I might I was never able to perfect this skill myself during university lectures but chickens have it down pat.
How to Speak Chicken is a fascinating, insightful book about creatures many of us take for granted and assume we know all there is to know about. It will appeal to keepers of backyard hens, but also to animal lovers and anyone with an interest in the differences in the ways that humans and other animals perceive the world around us.
Published: 28 November 2017
Disclaimer: I was given a complimentary copy of this book by Storey Publishing, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.