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Archive for Saturday, June 20, 2009

Researcher tries to decode squawk talk

June 20, 2009

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Ebenezer Otu-Nyarko, a doctoral student in the Animal Sciences Department at University of Connecticut in Storrs, Conn., is studying chicken vocalizations. The object of the research is to figure out from their language when the birds are distressed, so caretakers can make them more comfortable, leading to better egg production.

Ebenezer Otu-Nyarko, a doctoral student in the Animal Sciences Department at University of Connecticut in Storrs, Conn., is studying chicken vocalizations. The object of the research is to figure out from their language when the birds are distressed, so caretakers can make them more comfortable, leading to better egg production.

— For hundreds of hours, Ebenezer Otu-Nyarko has been studying “pok-cluck-cluck,” “cluck-bawk-bawk” and “cluck-cluck-cluck.”

It might earn him an advanced degree.

Otu-Nyarko, a doctoral candidate at the University of Connecticut, has focused his research inside the poultry barn at the University of Connecticut, where microphones hang from the ceiling and every cluck, bawk and pok is recorded. He and professor Michael Darre are trying to understand the language of chickens.

“This is not ‘let’s translate chicken to English,”’ Darre said. “We are trying to find out their language and what their vocalizations mean.”

There’s a purpose behind this research with great implications for the welfare of America’s chickens. The ultimate goal is to create a “black box” of chicken linguistics that would monitor chatter in the hen house. Every bawk and cluck would be sampled and compared to a recorded library of chicken sounds. Cries that match known stress vocalizations would trigger an alarm, getting a farmer out of bed, if necessary, to right whatever was wrong.

“Every farmer has one goal, which is to maximize egg production or putting on meat,” said Otu-Nyarko. “The earlier we see stress and remove it, the better.”

Research shows chickens have about 24 different vocalizations.

Otu-Nyarko, a soft-spoken man with an easy laugh, is devoting his dissertation to determine just what these cries and calls mean.

His interest in chickens grew out of a collaborative study UConn participated in called “The Dr. Doolittle Project,” which examined the vocalizations of tigers, elephants, beluga whales, chickens and dogs.

In a pen in UConn’s chicken house, Otu-Nyarko has spent hundreds of hours recording the birds. He uses sound engineering software to analyze the recordings, the pitch, loudness, and intensity of the cries, and takes notes of what was going on in the pen at the time.

Background noises are edited out, such as the moo of a passing cow and nonvocal chicken noises, such as the flapping of wings. What is emerging, the researchers say, is evidence that chickens have different vocalizations for different situations.

“When they are heat-stressed, they give a specific pattern of vocalizations,” said Otu-Nyarko. “And they also give a specific vocalization that, when recorded over time, taught us that when they are crowded ... they also let it out.”

The UConn researchers say the creation of a black box for chickens is perhaps five years off. Questions remain, such as whether chicken squawk is different among different breeds or whether vocalizations might provide early warning of a disease such as bird flu.

The researchers also say their work could help settle the dispute between animal-rights supporters and large-scale animal farmers over housing chickens in small cages.

In courtrooms, state legislatures and corporate boardrooms nationwide, the Humane Society of the United States is fighting to ban “battery cages,” small enclosures that don’t let the chicken stand or flap its wings. The society was a major sponsor of California’s Proposition 2 ballot measure, approved by a landslide in November 2008, which will ban small hen cages at California egg farms by 2015.

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