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Lottie Hedley

What does a happy chicken sound like? How about a hangry one? Researchers in Australia have found that most humans are actually pretty good at clocking the mood a chicken is in—simply by listening. “We believe this demonstrates some intuitive ability in humans to recognise the emotional state of another species based on the sound they make. It’s something inherent,” says veterinary epidemiologist Joerg Henning, of the University of Queensland. “This was the biggest surprise.” (For more on chickens and their people, see feature page 50.)

The study involved recruiting around 170 people online, then sending them recordings of four different types of call. Some were made by excited chickens that knew they were about to get yummy mealworms or a dust bath. Other chickens weren’t getting any treat-incoming signals—it’s fair to say they were feeling a bit flat. Around two-thirds of the time, the humans gauged the chickens’ moods correctly. Henning hopes the research might be applicable to industrial chicken farming: that one day, AI systems might be able to monitor the birds’ welfare via their vocalisations.

Henning keeps chickens in his own backyard. He swears he doesn’t talk to them. But he does understand them. “I know when a goanna is near because [the chickens] make distress sounds. I try to rush there and get the eggs before the goanna eats them.”