August 21, 2017
Vieques, Puerto Rico
Today was a solar eclipse. From what I understand, many people across the US were able to witness this incredible phenomenon. Posts were prolific across all the social media platforms and news stations almost made it a holiday. As long as nobody glared directly at it, it was a really big deal. We tried to join the worldwide merriment, but basically, here on Vieques, the sky got a little darker and the roosters stopped crowing.
So it got me to thinking about how marvelously tuned in with the universe the feathered friends that share our yard actually are. They knew something cosmically weird was going on and they shut up. So today, rather than laud the wonder of the galaxy (which was not very visible from our current dot on the planet) I thought I’d hoop it up and paint a written poultry portrait of the incredible chicken.
While the peacock may be flamboyant, roadrunners speedy, mockingbirds sarcastic and vultures downright scary, there is no other feathered member of the planet that beats the chicken when it comes to world domination.
Actually, it didn’t start out that way. Back in the early days (like about 8000 years ago) chickens were exotic, rare and a gift for kings. In 1492 BC, chickens were paid as a tribute by Babylonian princes. And, even as late as the 19th century, rare Asian chickens were gifted to Queen Victoria and the progeny of these royal birds became all the rage for the elite of Europe.
Our next door neighbor here on Vieques raises chickens. Some of them like to be super friendly and fly over the fence into our yard. Others use trees and fence perches to catapult over. The lazier and baby birds have dug tunnels and squeeze under the chain links. Thus, at any given time we have an abundance of clucking and crowing critters of all sizes sharing our space.
On the main “drag” of the island (PR Hwy 200) sits a large orange barn-like building with images of colorful roosters painted on the walls. We’ve been told that cock fights go on there and even though we don’t condone it, it’s legal here in Puerto Rico.
On this island, chickens are definitely a big deal – right up there with horses.
What has fascinated us most about these incredible birds is the crowing patterns of the roosters. Along with a dog’s bark, a cat’s meow, and a cow’s moo, the crow of the rooster is one of the most recognizable sounds in the animal kingdom, especially around 4:30 in the morning around here.
Growing up as a city kid, I used to think that roosters were only allowed to sing when announcing a new day each and every morning. Wrong! Thanks to a lot of research done in Japan, here are the main reasons roosters are compelled to shout it out and share their wonderful vocal ability with the rest of us.
Roosters, like all birds have an internal alarm clock that is triggered by circadian rhythms that roughly follows the cycles of night and day. They anticipate sunrise and give a shout out to jump start a day of food foraging and territory marking.
When a rooster crows he can also be marking his territory. Often the “alpha” rooster will find a vantage point above his territory and crow as a warning to others not to mess with his space. Just like a rock star performing a concert, these marvelous creatures seem to know that a higher performance “stage” will help to amplify what they have to say. Brilliant, huh?
The roosters’ female counterparts aren’t exactly silent either. When a hen spots a life threatening critter, like a chicken hawk (I always am reminded of LooneyTunes Foghorn Leghorn and his diminutive nemesis Henery Hawk) she will let out a soprano version of the rooster crow. When there is something less threatening around, like humans, she just cackles.
Bird nerds (ornithologists) tell us that there are other things that spur rooster shouts. Sometimes the crow is done to communicate with other chickens, or to brag about “getting lucky.” Obviously a man thing. Go figure.
When were in Seoul, South Korea, John took me to a restaurant that served only chicken called Chir Chir Chicken. On the walls were beautifully painted images of all sorts of colorful chicken varieties. And, in English, beside each image it said, “Chir chir…” I asked John about this and he explained that in Korea chickens don’t cluck, cackle or crow, they “chir.” Hmmm, interesting.
So I thought that I’d explore how other languages hear and interpret the English version of “Cock-a-doodle-doo.” Here’s what I found:
Swahili: KokoRikoo koo
On many travel sites a common tourist complaint about Vieques is that the sound of the roosters is constant, which I guess is hard for many people to get used to. But, we’ve found that there are certain times when our neighborhood is “crowless.” We’ve learned to be wary of silence more so than the noise. Here’s when our roosters are mum:
At night, rarely do we hear them between midnight and 4:30 am.
Right before a rain it gets eerily quiet. It’s a better prediction of impending thunderstorms than a weather map.
During rain I guess our roosters are, uh, roosting, hunkering down and trying to stay dry because they are completely silent.
And then, we know firsthand that the crowing stops during an eclipse. We figure that this is nature really messing with the chicken world, or maybe just giving them a chance to reset their circadian alarm clocks every 18 months, like changing the batteries on a smoke detector during daylight savings time.
Whatever the explanation, we’ve grown to appreciate, admire, and even depend on our chanticleer alarm clocks…no batteries required!