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Talking to animals

by Sydney Smith
January 28, 2024 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 102, Issue 3


A close-up of a brown hen, mouth agape. Her orange eyes stare straight into the camera.
Credit: Shutterstock
Chatty chickens: There's more in a "bok bok" than we knew.

What’s clucking?

Why did the chicken cross the road? We may never truly know, but we can probably figure out its mood if it comes back.

Most people can sense chickens’ emotions, according to a study published this month (R. Soc. Open Sci., DOI: 10.1098/rsos.231284). Specifically, humans can decipher how a chicken (Gallus gallus) is feeling, including whether the bird got a treat, based on its clucks. Study participants listened to 16 chicken calls and rated the pleasure or pique they thought the bird was expressing.

The scientists didn’t have to start from scratch; the chicken chatter had been recorded as part of a previous experiment, during which a flock of hens underwent Pavlovian training. After hearing a signal, a hen might receive a goody: delicious mealworms, an extra helping of regular food, or a relaxing dust bath. Other times, it would hear a signal—or silence—and receive no treat. Those times, the hen may have thought this whole training thing wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

For 15 s after the signal, the hen’s vocalizations—fowl ones and all—were recorded as it awaited its reward or lamented its absence.

We’ve all heard the rooster’s cock-a- doodle-do, but chicken speech spans up to 25 calls. They have a lot to say. Researchers used 4 of these calls in the participant study. When anticipating a reward, the hens tended to make the food call and the fast cluck. The food call is a cute, repeated chirpy sound. The fast cluck is similar but less consistent.

When there was no treat, the hens made a whine, a long, high-pitched twirly sound, and the gakel call, a drawn-out “bok bok.” These two harsher-sounding calls were the lengthiest. Like people sometimes do, the chickens found they had more to say when complaining.

Overall, 69% of the 194 participants accurately assessed whether the chicken was happily expecting a reward or ruffled about not getting one. This result, straight from the henhouse, supports evidence that people can “perceive the emotional context of vocalizations made by different species,” study author and veterinary epidemiologist Joerg Henning says in a press release.

And it’s a good thing that we can sort of understand chickens. The birds are nearly ubiquitous —there are about four times as many chickens on Earth as humans!


Whale whispering

A humpback whale fluke sticking up out of the water at Frederick Sound, Alaska. A speech bubble beside the tail says, "Whup whup!"
Credit: Bruce Whittington
/Happy Whale/Will Ludwig/C&EN
Whupping whales: Scientists spoke to one in her own language.

We can sense the chicken’s internal state, but if we’re after a more reciprocal animal interaction, we should try the whale.

A recent PeerJ publication shares a chat between scientists and an Alaskan humpback whale named Twain (2023, DOI: 10.7717/peerj.16349).

The team believes the interaction was “the first such communicative exchange between humans and humpback whales in the humpback ‘language,’ ” lead author and research behaviorist Brenda McCowan says in a press release.

Aboard a boat fitted with an underwater speaker and hydrophones, the team happened upon and recorded a group of gabbing whales in Southeast Alaska. Twain was one of them.

When the researchers encountered Twain again the following day, they played back a single whup—an otherworldly whale greeting—from the recording. Over 20 min, the speaker sounded the whup 38 times, to which Twain replied 36 times. Does this constitute a conversation?

Credit: PeerJ
“Hello” in whale: This celestial sound is the whup call the researchers played for a whale named Twain.

To answer that, the scientists analyzed her behavior and call structure. They calculated her response times to the speaker playback as well as her response times to the whale group chat the day before. And they found that Twain replied faster to the speaker than she did to the other whales.


Near the beginning of the interaction, she approached the boat, circling it. She responded the fastest during this phase, and her response times even synced up with the playback intervals. This interval matching suggests that Twain was engaged in turn taking, an essential feature of conversation.

She later became agitated and swam away, as anyone might if someone said hi to them 38 times in a row.

The team hopes this practice chat with an aquatic terrestrial will provide useful data for a potential extraterrestrial contact.

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