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.
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