How to Speak Chicken

Why Your Chickens Do What They Do & Say What They Say


By Melissa Caughey

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Best-selling author Melissa Caughey knows that backyard chickens are like any favorite pet — fun to spend time with and fascinating to observe. Her hours among the flock have resulted in this quirky, irresistible guide packed with firsthand insights into how chickens communicate and interact, use their senses to understand the world around them, and establish pecking order and roles within the flock. Combining her up-close observations with scientific findings and interviews with other chicken enthusiasts, Caughey answers unexpected questions such as Do chickens have names for each other? How do their eyes work? and How do chickens learn?

Foreword INDIES Silver Award Winner


This book is dedicated to my husband, Peter, who is continually encouraging me to spread my wings.



1. Chicken Translator at Your Service Understanding What Your Chickens Are Saying

2. How to Behave in the Henhouse Rules, Etiquette, and Social Graces

3. What Makes a Chicken Tick? Looking Past the Feathers

4. Hey, I am no Birdbrain! Understanding Chicken Smarts

5. How Do You Feel? The Emotional Life of Chickens

For Further Reading


Image Credits

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Share Your Experience!


The things you are passionate about are not random, they are your calling.

Fabienne Frederickson, author of Embrace Your Magnificence

What started out as a journey to teach my children about sustainability and responsibility, while providing our family with fresh eggs from our own backyard, has turned into something magical. If you are a backyard chicken keeper like me, you absolutely love your flock. We spend countless hours outside with our girls and can't wait to get home from work and school to be with them. Over the years, I have tried to see my flock through both the heart of a mother and the magnifying glass of a scientist. In that time, I have developed such close bonds with my chickens that I believe I have been accepted into their fascinating world.

Long before I dreamed of owning chickens, I trained as a nurse practitioner, studying sociology, anthropology, psychology, and biology. Learning about interpersonal relationships, culture, language, and societal roles in the melting pot of Los Angeles opened my eyes to the world. At the age of 20, I had no idea that my skills in understanding cultures and my respect for those who are different from me would come in handy in a chicken coop on Cape Cod.

Scientists use many tools and methods to research flock dynamics, including vocalization playbacks, video recordings, 3D animation, wireless backpack microphones worn by chickens as they interact, and even robotic chickens! I don't have any of these sophisticated research tools, but with an open mind and an open heart, I have come to many of the same conclusions as the scientists simply by spending time with my flock and paying close attention to them. And I might have an advantage over the scientists in knowing my hens so well — I believe they have made me an honorary flock member.

This book is a culmination of my experiences in keeping chickens, which have allowed me to gain insight into their communication, body language, intelligence, social interactions, emotions, and problem-solving abilities. I am here to tell you that they are clearly not "birdbrains," and I invite you on a journey to explore how their minds, bodies, and emotions work. Their world is pretty amazing!

I encourage you to take the time to watch and listen to your chickens chattering as things are happening. Repeat what you hear back to them and watch their response. At first some will stop in their tracks, and like dogs, cock their heads from side to side as they stare at you with their intense chicken eyes. They're surprised that you can speak chicken! Keep on copying them. Repeat the sounds they make as you open the coop, listen to what they say when you throw out scratch, follow them around the yard as they explore, and even follow them into the coop to say good night. Repeat the coos and clucks and buk-gaws, and before you know it, you too will be fluent in chicken speak. Who knows, you might even find out that you have a chicken name!


Chicken Translator at Your Service

Understanding What Your Chickens Are Saying

Humans often communicate without words: we use our eyes, ­gestures, facial expressions, and body language. Chickens use most of these, but they have also more than two dozen different vocalizations. These calls include ones relating to territory, mating, distress, danger, fear, happiness, discovery of food, and nesting.

Contrary to what one may hear from the industry, chickens are not mindless, simple automata but are complex behaviorally, do quite well in learning, show a rich social organization, and have a diverse repertoire of calls. Anyone who has kept barnyard chickens also recognizes their significant differences in personality.

Dr. Bernard Rollin, author of Farm Animal Welfare

It is said that if you want to really learn a language, you should move to a place where that language is spoken. To learn to communicate better with my chickens, I simply took a small stool out to the flock and perched with them, day after day, quietly paying attention and noting their interactions. Over the course of their lives, I take the time to get to know each one as an individual. Some seem to enjoy hanging out with people, while others keep to themselves unless treats are being offered, but they all "talk." I learned by emulating their coos, clucks, and squawks, paying careful attention to the intonations. It must be a bit like learning Mandarin Chinese, where different inflections give the same word or sound different meanings!

Animals speak volumes if you take the time to listen.

Learning Chicken Language

I've always talked to my flock while doing my chicken chores. One day I realized that, interspersed with English, I was mimicking the girls. That got me thinking: Could I really speak chicken? Some folks thought I was crazy, but as I started listening more consciously, I discovered that I knew plenty of their calls — danger signals, happy calls, hellos, good nights, and even encouragement chatter. I was learning to speak chicken!

Over the next few months the entire family practiced with the flock, copying and trying to interpret their calls. Then one day my kids and I were visiting another flock. As we sat and watched, the flock ignored us and went about its usual chicken business. I decided to try something fun. Truthfully, I was a little embarrassed to share the fact that I was studying the language of the flock. I think my friend thought I was crazy, but she indulged me.

When we used chicken language to greet them, the response was astonishing. Their heads popped right up, as if to say, "Hey, is there another chicken here?" Some came over to us out of curiosity, and the rest went back to chickening. We "chatted" a bit more with them using other intonations and sounds. Then for the final test, I used the alarm call to alert them to danger coming from above. Every single chicken paused and became statuesque with one eye to the sky. Just as I thought, they understood me! That was the moment I learned that I indeed was onto something.

In the Beginning: Baby Talk

Mother hens communicate with their chicks via clucks and squawks, even when they are still nestled in their eggs. It starts with the chicks. Twenty-four hours prior to hatching, a peeping sound, also known as "clicking," is heard from within the egg. This sound serves as communication to the mother hen from the babies, as well as among the chicks. As the hen answers back, the peeps inform her how long to stay on the nest and how many babies to expect.

Once the chicks have hatched, the mother watches over her babies, teaching them where to find food and what things are good to eat. She alerts them to danger and guides them to safety. She gathers her brood into the warmth of her downy feathers with a special call.

Hens are very caring and nurturing to their young. In one study, researchers used puffs of air to "irritate" newly hatched chicks. You can imagine the mother hen's response. She was not happy! Even though she herself did not mind being puffed with the air, when her chicks were upset, she became upset as well.

While the chicks are still nestled in their eggs, the broody mother talks to them. I can only imagine she is bonding with them via her quiet coos, clucks, and mutterings. She is their first cheerleader in life.

Brooder Vocabulary Primer

Until about 14 weeks of age, chicks have a specific language consisting of peeps, cheeps, and pleasure trills of varying tones and volume. These sounds are used only by chicks. I believe that hens understand their chicks, but they do not use or mimic sounds made by the chicks. This early language can represent feelings of happiness, danger, or comfort. Whether the chicks are hatched by their mother or in an incubator, this chick language is universal.

  1. Pleasure TrillsChicks primarily make this contented purring noise as they fall asleep. (Think of a happy cat.)
  2. Sweet PeepsThese are the soft sounds of casual conversation as the chicks busily explore their surroundings and learn about the world.
  3. Discovery PeepsExcited, repetitive chirps mean "Look what I found!" At the same time, the chick is probably trying to keep her siblings from stealing her find, which is usually a tasty morsel.
  4. Distress PeepsLoud, strong, continuous peeps can indicate pain, stress, or an alert to the others that something is wrong. You'll hear them when chicks are scooped up from the brooder, separated from their flockmates, can't find their mother, or are feeling cold.

All about the Crowing

When your chicks are about eight weeks old, you might be surprised by a very pathetic sound coming from the brooder early one morning — like someone clearing his throat while trying to shout. This is the sound of a young rooster (cockerel) trying to crow for the first time. If you are lucky enough to see him, he puts every ounce into this effort, digging deep to make the sound while standing tall, puffing out his chest, and channeling the crow from the tips of his tail feathers to his vocal chords.

If there is more than one cockerel in the flock, it is common for those below the head cockerel not to crow or openly mate with the young hens (pullets). When a group of roosters are raised together, the dominant male is determined early. They coexist peacefully, with the subordinate roos "flying under the radar" (sometimes even from the keeper!). The other roosters will usually only assert themselves and show their male characteristics once the dominant rooster leaves the flock.

As I always tell fellow chicken keepers, you cannot fully determine if a chicken is a rooster or hen until he crows or she lays an egg. Some breeds are trickier than others.

Growing Up: Looking at Body Language

In addition to having a vocabulary, chickens have nonverbal methods of communication.

  1. PeckingThe beak is the best tool that chickens have. Chickens use their beaks for the same reason we use our hands: for communication, protection, exploring, eating, grooming, and so many other day-to-day activities.

Peck first, ask questions later.


  • “From decoding squawks to mapping out flock hierarchies and dealing with squabbles in the henhouse, How to Speak Chicken is the ultimate guide to keeping all of your ducks – make that chickens – in a row.” — Country Living 

    “Get to know what all the different 'bawks' mean and how to make your hens the most comfortable with a little help from this book.” —

    “A new spin on chickenese ready to drive any urban farming linguist mad as a wet hen with joy.” — Library Journal

    “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.” —

    “A true delight that is filled with love and plenty of gorgeous illustrations.” —

    “Prepare to be surprised, delighted and humbled.” — Sy Montgomery, author of Birdology 
    “A delightfully refreshing look at the backyard flock that transcends the basics of food, water, health, and shelter. Learn to listen to your chickens to know how they are doing. Learn their language, and you just might catch them talking about you!” — Hank Will, Editor-in-Chief, Mother Earth News

    “Melissa's enthusiasm for chickens, like my own, knows no bounds. Chickens are both amusing and practical and, as you'll find out, they are also intelligent communicators ... if you are willing to learn their language! This book provides fascinating insight and practical tips for fowl fanciers everywhere.” — P. Allen Smith, television host, writer, and professional gardener

    “I loved How to Speak Chicken.” — Temple Grandin, author of Animals in Translation

On Sale
Nov 28, 2017
Page Count
144 pages

Melissa Caughey

About the Author

Melissa Caughey is the author of Chicken Wisdom Frame-Ups and the best-selling books How to Speak Chicken and A Kid’s Guide to Keeping Chickens. She is a backyard chicken keeper, beekeeper, master gardener, and freelancer who writes the award-winning blog Tilly’s Nest. Caughey has been featured in many national publications and can be found speaking on an array of topics at events across the country. She lives on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. 

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