April 20, 2007

Chick talk

Regular readers will know what I think of reports of linguistic behavior among our arboreal, quadrupedal, avian, and cetacean friends — monkeys, dogs, parrots, dolphins, and so on. But you're not going to believe this next example of loopy barnyard empathy, which Stephen Jones came across in The Island, a Sri Lankan newspaper. Check this out. It's now chickens that have a language. You heard me. I said chickens.

Fowl linguist

Scientist Dr. Erich Baeumer of Wiedenau, Germany, who has been studying chickens since 1954, says that he has made a list of 30 sentences which are part of a spoken international chicken language, be it an Indian Jungle fowl, a Russian Orloff rooster, an Italian Leghorn, a Cornish cock or a New Hampshire Red. Baeumer was only eight when he realised that he could understand the chickens around his house.

"It was an intuitive understanding, I could actually tell what they were saying. I began to spend hours with them; they became brothers and sisters to me," he says. He learned to imitate their sounds so well that he was accepted as a full-fledged member of the flock. Only when his voice changed did the chickens break off communication with him.

In 1954, he started working with Professor Erich von Hoist at the Institute of Behaviour Physiology near Munich. Chickens were photographed and recorded repeatedly . After recording hours of chicken talk, Dr. Baeumer selected examples of clear-cut chicken "sentences" that could be related to records or photographs of specific actions.

Dr. Baeumer’s chick-talk tapes have been played at universities in many countries. He knows the loneliness cries of young chicks separated from their mother ("Pieep-pieep-pieep") and their terror trills, a high-pitched "Trr-trr."

Both sexes make "frightened" cackles when first they sense danger. After the danger passes, their cackling is full-throated and rhythmical, as if they had triumphed. Hens make a cackle when they have laid an egg, but Dr. Baeumer does not think they are boasting or saying, "Thank heaven that’s over." He believes that it all goes back to the days when wild hens laid eggs in hidden nests. After each delivery, the hen gave a loud cackle to regain contact with the rest of the flock.

Chickens make screams of distress; they have battle cries and calls for privacy. Hens lead their chicks to food with a gentle "Tuck-tuck-tuck," and roosters entice pretty young hens with soft cooing. "Chicken behaviour is not too different from human behaviour," says Dr. Baeumer, "Nor is the chicken language."

The chicken language, not too different from human language. Can you see why I get a little bit short-tempered around these gullible animal sentimentalists and the dim-wittedly credulous journalists who write up their stories? Can you?

I wish I thought this had been published on April 1, but I don't think so. I think Dr Baeumer — his chick-talk tapes have been played at universities in many countries, you know — actually believes chickens have sentences and — although they have understandably broken off communication with him now that his voice is so deep ("What's wrong with Erich? His voice sounds like a foghorn now! Let's refuse to speak to him!") — they can say things like "Could I have some privacy, please, so I can do my cooing thing with this pretty young chick?".

Steve says you can see the article here, but it's a pay site — $1 a month or $10 a year. I've decided to hold on to my dollar, actually.

Next week: learn how cockroaches actually have a language with subjunctive subordinate clauses, and they can say "Let us swiftly return to underneath the refrigerator lest he see us now that the light is on."

Footnote: I don't know if it seemed odd to you that this German chicken linguist had been at it since 1954. It did strike me as odd. That is 53 years ago, so if he started as a first-year graduate student he would be at least 75 now, which would make it remarkable that he is still busily putting out press releases for gullible journalists to reproduce. Well, Language Log readers have been busy during the (California) night. James Byers, Philip Spaelti, and Michael Mann (to name but three) have found out some more. Says Byers:

The article about chicken language you quoted in a recent Language Log post appears to have been lifted almost verbatim from this article which was apparently printed in TIME magazine in 1964.

Do the press releases take a bit longer to reach Sri Lanka? About forty years longer? It turns out the answer is no. Stephen Jones has found out a bit more overnight:

I've found the source the Indian lady used for her Lanka article, and it's free and no less an authority than "Time" itself, from 1964! "Dr. Baeumer's chick-talk tapes, which are considered classics in animal-behavior circles, have been played at universities in many countries and broadcast over BBC." http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,875688-1,00.html.

It appears that Dr. Bauemer has long left this mortal barnyard and has now substituted woo--woo, for cluck-cluck. It might be fun to dig out more about this long-forgotten researcher who has rerisen, in true avian fashion, like the phoenix.

Does say something for animal rights activists that they are prepared to quote sixties research verbatim. The writer in the Island was not a journalist but an animal rights campaigner, one Ms. Gandhi, opposed to the increase in meat-eating in once vegetarian countries. The following statement is at the end of The Island article: Anyone desirous of joining the Animal Welfare Movement can contact Smt Gandhi at 14 Ashoka Road, New Delhi 110001 or gandhim@parlis.nic.in

Now we're getting closer to the real story. It's not science journalists at all. It's vegetarians!

The BBC science news section will probably pick it up and give it another spin, though; these tales of birds talking and cow dialects and so on die hard. Scientific results have a lifespan of a few days in the media, but myths live on forever.

By the way, I am of course being deluged with mail from people who insist that chickens can communicate. Some of them even point me to sites featuring the work of serious scientists on this point, such as Chris Evans in Australia. Of course birds communicate fear, solidarity, warning, lust, etc. What I'm trying (utterly in vain) to draw people's attention to is the fact that there is a common misconception that this means they have language in the sense that humans have it — i.e., that humans are not much more than chickens with ballpoint pens. The really deep offense here is not so much the pathetic gullibility of the sentimentalists who anthropomorphize the animals they love, and over-attribute intelligence and verbality to them, but rather the insult to humans. See my Starlings, darlings for some brief comments about double standards in judging two sorts of animal, namely songbirds and Harvard undergraduates.

Toenote: Some marine biologists who read this site seem to think that the word "pinnipedal" was mistakenly used in the first paragraph above instead of "cetacean". Not so. Look back and you'll see. A qualified language specialist such as I would never confuse the adjective meaning "of or pertaining to seals and sealions" with the adjective meaning "of or pertaining to whales and dolphins". I am astonished that anyone would even imagine me capable of such a lexical slip. I wish I knew how these rumors get started.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at April 20, 2007 02:10 AM