Even though Mom used to warn against women who laughed too loudly, my cousin Monica and I cultivated our “cackles” and had fun doing it. It could be pretty noisy with the two of us in the same room if there was fun to be had. For awhile there, I quit laughing loudly altogether, because I was trying to be more lady-like. But, it wasn't as enjoyable remaining nearly mute, stifling my funny bone. After watching Monica blow milk out her nose a few times trying to stop the noise, I liberated my laugh.
As rural kids, for a few hours' entertainment, we'd catch the neighbor's loose chickens (now known as “free-range”) and line them up with their beaks on the scored line separating each section of concrete sidewalk. The chickens, predictably, would stare down the straight line as we gingerly held them in place. After half a minute, they had hypnotized themselves into a state of full-body paralysis. We'd take pictures and time each other to see who kept the most chickens in a hypnotic state the longest. They'd just lay there until one would snap out of it, scaring all the others back into reality, they'd all get up and run away after a minute or so.
Recently, I made friends with a gallant Boonvillian named LeRoy, whose small brood I help tend. He's the rooster to six hens currently contributing their green and brown eggs to our tiny organic egg industry. Foxes are numerous this year in Boonville proper, and have considerably thinned LeRoy's harem.
LeRoy has a definite language he speaks with his hens. He's a big beautiful tall multi-colored Dorking of about three years with seriously sturdy 2-inch leg-horn-spurs poking out from his thick ankles. He came with a clutch of pullets – the only male volunteer, and he is grand! LeRoy's breed is one of the best-looking displays of pretty feathers going. Once a hat-maker's dream, his various distinct feathers, are vastly different in shape, drape, structure and color. The Dorking is also rated as having the tastiest meat. Fortunately for LeRoy, his purpose is to make eggs. Among the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) standards for chicken breeds, LeRoy the Dorking is listed as endangered – probably because of his handsome feathers and tastiness. The ALBC is actively trying to keep breeding populations of heritage breeds like LeRoy, thriving. Hallmarks of the Dorking are “friendliest, oldest history, docile, very very rare, adaptable, good winter layers, superlative delicate white meat.”.
The Dorking is one of the few breeds with red ear lobes that produce white, or lightly tinted egg shells. It's legs and skin are also white meat. The Dorking has another oddity peculiar to its ancient breed: five toes on each foot.
Some believe that Dorkings originated in Italy during the period of the Roman Empire and were introduced to Britain at the time of the Roman Conquest. During the reign of Julius Caesar, the Roman ag author, Columella, wrote about five-toed Dorkings which were already in Britain during the invasions of 55-54 bc. This ancient breed was then developed in Dorking, England as a landrace in the area of Kent, Sussex and Surrey Counties. Representations of the beauty and magnificence of the Dorking rooster appeared in art and hats all over Europe. It wasn't until 1840 that the Dorking came to the US. It appeared in the first British poultry show of 1849. By 1904 it was the most popular chicken on the market in America, dead or alive.
I imitate noises made by the flock and wonder curiously what they say to one another. Peep, chirp, chortle, cluck, coo, crow, hum, trill, squawk, squall and clatter are all chicken-terms descriptive of their languages and sounds. Much of the time it's not difficult to see what's going on with their group interactions. The two hens who are the apparent primary layers currently, raise a daily ruckus (clatter) when they need the loitering pullets to clear away, to stop lingering in the laying bins.
The pullets have kicked apart the laying bins altogether. With another dozen birds coming on-line, and to encourage co-existence as a flock, individuated laying bins will be required. As the two hens go inside to lay now, feathers fly as they boot out the pullets (squawk and squall) to recover the only remaining nest. One hen lays, while the other laying hen keeps the pullets at bay. Between the two of them, we get about one to three eggs daily; some days, not one egg.
As I watched a few film clips on YouTube about chickens, up came a familiar vintage Warner Brothers cartoon of an egg-laying “factory,” complete with the exaggeratedly loud song sung by the accordion and elastic-necked cartoon laying hens, backed-up by a great orchestral music score by Alfred Newman. A committed mimic of hens myself, I remember the cartoon well; with musical instruments, Newman aced the egg-laying song of a chicken flock.
LeRoy's brood's daily discussions include this distinct egg-laying song. I've been trying to find one word that best describes it, that specific sound I hear the hens make when they lay eggs from 11am to 1pm on their good egg days. I looked it up on the Internet a few times, and even asked Donna Stornetta, a retired teacher and well-known farmer, and now one of our helpful librarians in Point Arena, if she knew the specifics. But I couldn't find the one exact word that described the egg-laying song until our South Coast Librarian, Julia, organized the words a few different ways on the search engine, and came up with the word “cackle.”
And so it is: the sound that hens make when laying an egg is specifically described as a “cackle.” (Miriam-Webster: 1. to make the sharp broken noise or cry characteristic of a hen especially after laying; 2, to laugh especially in a harsh or sharp manner.)
Louder, more repetitive and different from other expressions made by chickens, a cackle is making the sounds of the “birth” of an egg. And the entire flock cackles in group song when an egg is laid. Especially LeRoy the leg-horned Plymouth Rock, as he proudly puffs up, beating his wings to his chest, crowing along with his cackling hens, heralding the continuation of their flock. Each new egg is a collective celebration of song for them all.