Breaking News Bar
posted: 1/16/2017 12:56 PM

Squawk, cackles, whoops all part of bird communication

Success - Article sent! close
  • This golden Polish chicken with distinctive fanned head feathers make its home at Cosley Zoo in Wheaton.

    This golden Polish chicken with distinctive fanned head feathers make its home at Cosley Zoo in Wheaton.
    Courtesy of Cosley Zoo

  • A male Ancona chicken at Cosley Zoo in Wheaton.

    A male Ancona chicken at Cosley Zoo in Wheaton.
    Courtesy of Cosley Zoo


"Why do chickens cluck?," asked a young patron at the Vernon Area Library's Science Explorers. The library is in Lincolnshire.

Booms, cackles, whines and whoops are sweet bird calls from male prairie chickens to woo female prairie chickens.

Another way these guys try to attract the chicks is to cluck and cock-a-doodle-do when they see good food.

Jackie Karnstedt, educator and teen specialist at the Cosley Zoo in Wheaton, said bird songs are brimming with bird messages.

"For most birds, including chickens, making sounds, or vocalizing, is their main way of communicating with one another. Vocalizations can be complex," Karnstedt said.

Squawk is a standard call when a hen lays an egg, perhaps to lead predators away from her brood. Male chickens also use body language like chest puffing and wing flapping when they want to prove who's boss.

Pecking order isn't just a commonly used expression, there really is a hierarchy in the hen house. A peck to the neck puts a chicken in its place. The chicken-in-charge keeps the flock safe and trains lower level chickens to seek out food supplies and defend the group.

Cosley Zoo is home to 32 species of birds, including chickens, ducks, owls and more. Karnstedt is in charge of Marley, a great horned owl whose vocabulary is more varied than who-whooo.

"Marley is generally pretty quiet during the day, although she does make a chittering sound when receiving food and a clicking noise with her beak when keepers are getting too close to her or something she feels territorial over. If at the zoo late enough in the evening, it's pretty common to hear her hooting," Karnstedt said.

Karnstedt's favorite bird call is the Blue Jay's.

"Not only do Blue Jays have calls and songs that are specific to their species, but they are experts at mimicking the calls of other species of birds and can even mimic some man-made sounds," she said. "They often copy the calls of hawks to trick other species in to thinking that a hawk is nearby."

Almost all birds have vocalizations produced through the syrinx, which can result in one or two sounds at a time.

"Birds have vocalizations to use for just about every situation, including attracting a mate, claiming or establishing territory, identifying members of their own species, holding a flock together and intimidating predators," Karnstedt said of the complexity of the songs. "Each species of bird has a different language of sounds. Birds of the same species that live in different regions can even have unique dialects; where they're singing the same songs or making the same calls, they just sound slightly different."

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has amassed a vast catalog of online bird information called the Macaulay Library that provides bird images paired with audio and video. Website visitors are encouraged to upload bird photographs, videos and song recordings at

Every year, the Cornell Lab and Audubon Society invite the public to go outside and count the birds for the Great Backyard Bird Count, to be held this year from Friday, Feb. 17 through Monday, Feb. 20. Last year's contributors provided the largest ever accounting of birds from around the world for the online bird data collection.

Cosley Zoo is offering a Great Backyard Bird Count training session the weekend before the event. Families and individuals interested in participating in the prep course, to be held Saturday, Feb. 11, from 2 to 4 p.m., should contact Natasha at

Cosley's program is best suited for families with kids 8 years and older, but all ages will be welcome. The training session fee is $7 per person or $20 per household or group.

Article Comments ()
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.