There are 19 billion chickens on the planet, and they exist at our pleasure. Yet we don’t really understand them. Perhaps the wisdom of the chicken isn’t something the world needs to hear, but on the other hand, as factory farming techniques proliferate around the world, and the risk of diseases intensifies, any information chickens can communicate is valuable.
Engineers and poultry scientists at The University of Georgia and Georgia Institute of Technology are collaborating with farmers to interpret the chicken language to monitor flock and farm conditions. They’ve developed software that can listen in chicken facilities and alert farmers to problems with temperature, air quality, illness, or other stressors.
Researchers and attentive farmers say that chickens can let us know when something is wrong with their health or environment — we just need to listen to what they are saying. Chicken talk includes a variety of seemingly crazy and nonsensical sounds, including tweets, shrieks, clucks, coos and alarm calls. While it might be a stretch to call it genius, these communications represent a very basic intelligence.
Between the 1950s and 1980s, University of California ornithologists Nicholas and Elsie Collias catalogued more than 24 distinct chicken vocalizations. Chickens can communicate with each other using these sounds, to announce the production of eggs, complain about poor conditions, or warn each other about danger. They use a specific sound to warn the rest of the flock about ground predators and another for aerial predators, for example. They may stop making sounds altogether when sick. If farmers learn to interpret chicken talk, they can pick up valuable information about the wellbeing of the flock.
“A lot of poultry farmers we have worked with say they can hear when something is wrong with a flock, but they can’t tell us exactly how they know that,” said Georgia Tech research engineer Wayne Daley. “There’s a lot of subtlety. We’re learning that there are changes in the frequency of the sounds and the levels—the amplitude or loudness—that the machines can pick up on.”
Such software could make it easier for intensive farming operations to keep flocks safe in an era of decreasing health and safety regulations. The Trump administration has reversed Obama-era regulations that impacted the chicken industry, including a rule that would limit poultry plant inspections to 140 birds per minute. The poultry industry lobbied to increase that to 175 birds per minute, a production speed that critics worry would allow more diseased animals to pass through the system undetected, as well as expose workers to more risks.
"USDA wanted to raise the maximum line speed, but OSHA was very concerned that it would result in more workers being injured," said David Michaels, Obama’s former head of OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. "We had support (from White House officials) who agreed that we didn't want thousands of workers to have their arms destroyed by having to cut up chickens at 175 birds per minute."
The Trump administration has also nixed Obama-era rules that required that poultry that is labeled as organic must be housed in spaces that allow that birds to move freely, stretch their wings, stand normally, and engage in natural behaviors. “This is, in fact, what consumers already expect from the organic poultry and eggs they buy in stores,” said Cameron Harsh, the Center for Food Safety’s senior manager for organic and animal policy. “But the largest poultry producers have so far been able to consider small, cement, fenced-in areas as outdoor access and have not been required to abide by specific spacing limitations.”
Intensive chicken operations rely on battery cages, which confine the animals to a space too small to stand up or turn around in. In addition, they are subjected to de-beaking and overfed to promote rapid growth, which causes deformities and body stress. Philip Lymbery, chief executive of Compassion in World Farming, says that intensively reared chicken is three times higher in fat, one third lower in protein, and lower in beneficial omega-3 fatty acids now than it was in the 1970s. “Keeping chickens in cruel conditions produces a poorer product,” he said.
Keeping animals in cruel conditions also leads to dangers for humans. Large quantities of antibiotics are mixed into the chicken’s feed to limit the progress of deadly diseases such as campylobacter and salmonella, which can spread rapidly in overcrowded farms. The more antibiotics that are used in farming, the less well they work for humans. Diseases like avian flu can race through crowded bird farms and pose a threat to humans. Outbreaks of bird flu impacted the poultry industry in the Philippines, India, Saudi Arabia and Iran in late 2017 and early 2018.
Poultry producers implement factory farming techniques to produce more chickens and eggs at a lower cost. But when these techniques lead to disease, the cost to public health as well as business and governments are high. New estimates find that the 2015 outbreak cost the US $1.3 billion in lost exports. In our search for better ways to feed a growing planet, maybe we should listen to what the birds have to say.