Adopted chicks – fascinating peek into poultry communication

I heard a lost chick today next to the shop in the tall weeds.  The piercing “peep peep peep” told me this chick was calling to Mom so I gathered my courage (there can be snakes in tall weeds!) and started poking around looking for the lost chick.  To my surprise what I found was a turkey hen sitting on a nest filled with both turkey and chicken eggs.  She was “talking” to this lost chick in “turkey” – all the clucks and purrs were what a turkey hen uses with turkey poults (baby turkeys).  The chick was responding with “chick talk” – all the peeps and chirps that a chicken chick uses to communicate with its Mom.  Both species are very vocal and use sound to bond and keep track of each other as they forage and travel.  I decided to leave the pair alone to see what happened.

Later in the day I heard a ruckus of feathers and angry turkey calls – I ran to the front of the shop to find the turkey hen fighting with two of my juvenile peacocks.  They jumped into the air and battered each other with legs and wings.  Apparently the year old peacocks thought the newborn chick would be a great meal.  The turkey hen was defending her baby with all her might but she was weak and worn out from being on the nest so long.  I was able to gather up the chick and hen and took them to a coop where other turkey hens are raising their young poults. 

Once in the coop Mom and baby calmed down and were able to get a bit of food and water.  I watched them fascinated.  When the hen found a bit of food she held it in her beak and called – using turkey language – to the chick to come take.  Which the chick did!  When the hen found water and was purring with delight the chick came running.  Turkeys purr – chickens do not use that sound but the chick knew it meant something good.  When the chick wandered too far from the hen it called – using chicken language – to find Mom.  She responded.  I was amazed – the chick was speaking “chicken” and the turkey was speaking “turkey” but they understood each other completely.  How is that possible?

Do some species of poultry understand each others’ language?  Can poultry “learn” a language?  Was the chick learning “turkey” as it sat next to the hen calling and listening to her responses?  Does my hen know “chicken” because she lives with chickens?  Many times have I seen a rooster give a warning call for a large hawk and the turkeys respond.  I have also seen roosters give a warning for a small hawk (like a sparrow hawk) and the turkeys completely ignore him.  Maybe birds have an innate ability to understand different sounds – different languages.  While parrots demonstrate their understanding in mimicry maybe other birds understand just as well but don’t have the gift of being able to recreate those sounds. 

I find these questions fascinating – there really is more to birds (and all animals) than our modern philosophy allows. 

For those of you wondering about the hen’s nest – I took the rest of the eggs from the nest and put them in the incubator.  One of the downsides of chickens and turkeys sharing a nest is that the chicks hatch at 21 days while the turkeys take 28 days. If the hen leaves with the chicks – as this one did – the turkey poults will die.  But I found the nest soon enough and the eggs were still warm.  In about a week this hen’s true offspring will hatch and, with luck, I will be able to introduce them to her as well.