The Egg song, it’s not about the egg; it’s an escort call.

By Shadrach · Sep 23, 2018 · ·
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  1. Shadrach
    In the normal course of events free range chickens move around their territory as a group. The focal point of these groups is the senior rooster and the hens keep within earshot of the rooster in order to hear any warning calls he may give. There are occasions when a hen may leave this group. The most common reasons for a hen to leave the group is to lay an egg.

    I have between five and three separate groups here which I call tribes. Each tribe comprises a senior rooster, four or five hens and possibly pullets and cockerels.

    Like many people when I first heard the egg song I mistook it for an alarm call and would crash through the undergrowth alongside the hens rooster in an attempt to avert some imagined disaster.
    Watching one particular long established pair, (Harold and Blue Spot) it became apparent that when Blue Spot made egg song call, Harold would rush to Blue Spots location with his wings outspread making making hysterical calls. As soon as Harold arrived at Blue Spots location Blue Spot would go quiet and the pair would often mate.

    The Theory Through Observations
    In a free range setting there are numerous possible egg laying sites. Here the tribes tend to roam over four acres so it’s quite possible for a hen to choose an egg laying site some distance from the tribe’s coop, or the current location of her tribe.

    When a hen wants to lay an egg, she indicates this to the senior rooster and then starts to make a particular call (the escort call) that lets the rooster know she wants escorting to a laying site. The rooster then moves the tribe to a safe location and accompanies the hen to an egg laying site. If the egg laying site is already established the rooster escorts the hen to that site and then returns to the tribe. If it’s a new site, the rooster may accompany the hen to various locations, often suggesting a suitable site by scratching the ground and making nesting sounds and sitting in the site until the hen settles. Sometimes the rooster will hustle a hen off a particular site, I’ve assumed because he doesn't think the site is safe. Choosing a new site can take some hours and I’ve watched these pairs travel round various locations testing one site after another.
    Once a site has been chosen and the hen settled the rooster normally returns to his tribe.

    There have been occasions when the hen hasn’t settled at any of the sites the pair have visited and the hen runs out of time and lays the egg wherever the pair can find a site quickly. The rooster sits on top of the hen in such cases until the egg had been laid.

    Once the hen has laid the egg in order to rejoin the tribe safely she calls for her rooster to escort her back to the tribes location. While the hen has been laying the egg the tribe may have moved to another location. Often the hen will move a short distance away from her egg laying site before she makes the escort call in order to make the egg site more difficult for predators to locate.

    The best roosters I’ve known here respond to their hens escort call immediately, firstly by answering her call to let her know he’s heard her and secondly by making their way to the hens location quickly.

    Once an egg site has been established given a hen is in a stable tribe, they don’t always call to be escorted to the egg laying site; but call to be collected from it.

    Given the vulnerability of a single hen either laying an egg, or returning from an egg laying site, to advertise to any watching predators that she will be sitting unprotected possibly with a pile of eggs seems a suicidal strategy. Most of the hens that have been killed by predators here have been returning from an egg site unaccompanied, either because the rooster hasn’t responded to the hens call, or because she’s inexperienced and has moved from the egg site and the rooster hasn’t been able to find her.


    Why This Works
    The primary role of the rooster is to further his genes. Escorting his hen to her egg laying site means he knows where the hen is. When the hen gives the escort call it’s in his interest to mate with the hen at the earliest opportunity in order to fertilise the next egg and to guard the hen from other roosters who also want to further their genes. All the roosters here know what the escort call means and which hen is making the call. Rogue roosters have often used this opportunity of an unguarded hen to mate. My belief is it has little to do with guarding the hen from predators. The roosters motives are purely selfish and that may be why the system works.

    The Tests
    I have a nest box in my house which all of the hens in Tribe 1 use and this gave me an ideal opportunity to test my theory.

    1) Fat Bird, senior hen in Tribe 1 was the first hen to use this nest box. At that time Tribe 1 didn’t have a rooster. Once she had laid the egg she made the escort call. It took a few attempts but eventually she accepted me as the escort and when I arrived the call stopped and I would accompany her back to the other hens in her tribe.

    2) Ruffles (Tribe 1 senior hen) uses this egg box and arrived with Tribe 1’s rooster Cillin to lay an egg.
    I shut the door so Cillin couldn’t return to the tribe (he was fine) and when Ruffles had laid the egg there was no escort call. I’ve repeated this experiment with 6 hens now and if the rooster is within sight the hens don’t make the escort call.
    This is Ruffles being protected by Cillin while she lays an egg. While this wasn't a new site, Ruffles hadn't laid here for a while because she had hatched chicks recently. The chick is still with her.
    Cillin protecting Ruffles while she lays an egg.JPG

    This is Cillin protecting Ruffles in a temporary nest site. Fat Bird was in the permenant site that day.
    Cillin protecting Ruffles in a temporary egg box.JPG


    3) I carried Fat Bird to a location away from her Tribe and left her in a safe location but kept close enough to watch her. After a while she made the escort call and Cillin the tribes rooster responded vocally and then arrived and escorted Fat Bird back to her tribe.

    4) Tribe 3 has a junior hen called Myth. Myth lays her eggs in the tribe coop. Because she is junior and not a favorite Notch Tribe 3’s rooster sometimes doesn’t answer her escort call. I waited for Myth to lay an egg and by closing the run under the coop, prevented her from leaving the egg laying site. She gave the escort call incessantly. I found Notch and carried him to Myth. Myth stopped making the escort call.

    5) I removed Mel, hen from Tribe 1 to another location and after she had emptied my pockets of walnuts she gave the escort call. Cillin (Tribe 1’s rooster) was three hundred yards away with the rest of Tribe 1. It took him 57 seconds to reach Mel. Mel stopped calling when Cillin came into sight.

    Through numerous such tests, with various tribe members, I believe that the egg song is in reality a call for a rooster.

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Recent User Reviews

  1. The Golden Egg5
    "Wow! The egg song mystery has been solved!"
    5/5, 5 out of 5, reviewed Feb 14, 2019 at 9:36 PM
    Great article! I had always assumed the hens we just having a little victory song after they laid, or possibly announcing to the other hens about their accomplishment! This makes much more sense. This also answers why sometimes the hens sing the song, and other times they don’t. Thank you for the information and the great read! :clap
    Egg - Static likes this.
  2. Anonymous
    "Explains a LOT"
    5/5, 5 out of 5, reviewed Feb 14, 2019 at 11:08 AM
    This certainly explains certain behaviors, however, Im curious as to why my girls still give the call while enclosed for the winter in a 12x9 coop with the rooster. Is it possible that my hens do not like my rooster? And if so, are they hoping to attract a different roo?
    Egg - Static and Shadrach like this.
    1. Shadrach
      I really don't know much about how much of the behavior I see with free range multiple groups of chickens translates to those kept in a coop and run.
      Here, it's the response of nay rooster that satisfies the hen, it has to be her rooster. When I've had father and sons here if the hen is one of the fathers favorites and as often the case one of the sons shows up, the hen keeps calling until the father arrives. There are complexities to do with keeping arrangements and rooster/cockerel numbers.
  3. shessowitte
    "Mystery Unraveled!"
    5/5, 5 out of 5, reviewed Feb 13, 2019
    Great article and so fun to observe now that I understand what’s going on. Thank you!
    Egg - Static and Shadrach like this.
    1. Shadrach
      I take it you have seen similar behavior?

Comments

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  1. breege
    Thank you for your reply. I'm looking forward to your next article.
    FYI, we've never seen any of the hens try mounting any of the others. One of our friends who is well into her 80's & has had poultry most of her life had told us to watch for it.
  2. breege
    I really liked your article - It corroborates what we've noticed here.

    We too free range early spring through early winter, but we have a temporary run come winter so we don't run them over when plowing the snow. The hens all use the nest boxes to lay, so that's a constant winter/summer

    I currently have 27 hens - 8 of which are 3 yrs old who have split themselves into 2 groups, and 3 roosters, all hatched at different times, but all under 1 yr old, the youngest just 7 mo. Last year we had 20 hens & 2 roosters who had hatched & grown up with the older hens. We had to dispatch the backup when he turned on hen & human alike & sold the dominant, so we have their sons now.

    What we've noticed here is that winter or summer, the roosters very closely guard their favourite hens while they're laying. They even sometimes "pre-warm" the nest box they want her to use, especially if more than one of their favourites want to lay around the same time. They seem to line them up so they can keep an eye on them all at the same time.

    Here's the wrinkle. The older hens ignore the roosters but beat them up should any of them try to mount them. However, we noticed last fall that when one of the hens from either group sends out her "song", the dominant hen from that group goes running to check on them & chase off the middle rooster who tends to hang around the pop door(s). They never did that with the other roosters
      Ranchwithaview and Shadrach like this.
    1. Shadrach
      First, thank you for the response and writing what you’ve observed.
      I think I can explain at least some of what you’ve seen, or at least write what I see here under similar conditions.
      The older hens here won’t mate with the cockerels, even if there isn’t a senior male. Each cockerel here that has been accepted by a tribe has had to learn how to get the senior hens to accept him as the tribes rooster. For some it’s been easier than for others. I’m writing an article atm about how this learning process evolves. So ime the refusal of your senior hens to crouch for a cockerel is not at all unusual and has an explanation.
      The important point about the escort call is it’s a call for a particular rooster, not just any rooster. The rooster that the hen calls for is usually the senior rooster in the tribe. She’s not interested in mating with an unproven cockerel. Yep, they are that discriminating.
      I would bet that once your cockerels have matured the senior hens will accept them. Also, how the groups are related makes a difference here.
      I have never seen a senior hen answer another hens escort call but I can see why this might happen when there are only unproven cockerels to respond. Better not to mate at all than to mate with unknown, unproven genetics.
      Here the tribes are smaller, very close to the jungle fowl arrangement.
      Also the tribes live in separate coops as close to the separate roosting arrangements of the jungle fowl. So how the chickens are kept has an influence on their behavior as one can imagine.
      breege likes this.
  3. lonniedeohio
    I have not had a rooster, and I always thought the egg call was the girls fighting over the nest box. Thanks for the insight, I will be more observant from now on.
  4. GossChicks
    If you have only hens, and she makes the call after laying an egg, are the other hens expected to escort her?
      Shadrach likes this.
    1. Shadrach
      No. There is no benefit in a hen escorting another. The rooster responds so he is first to fertilize the next egg and to prevent any other rooster from doing it.
      It's purely selfish and about furthering genes.
      Ranchwithaview likes this.
  5. Ranchwithaview
    Good read. This makes a lot of sense from what I have seen with my hens and roosters.
      Shadrach likes this.
    1. Shadrach
      I'm glad it makes sense. I think lots of chicken keepers see this behavior but haven't understood its significance.
      Ranchwithaview likes this.
  6. Henrik Petersson
    My god, look at the comb of that rooster.
      Shadrach likes this.
  7. CaliforniaPeeping
    Anecdotal, but yesterday I had left the nestbox/roostbox big door open for cleaning and then I wandered off to talk to my husband. When I heard one of my ladies clucking like mad, I recalled your article and went back. Closed the big door and she went inside the chicken door and laid her egg.
      Shadrach and Ginmary like this.
  8. Apocalypse
    I enjoyed this, thankyou.
      Shadrach likes this.
    1. Shadrach
      I'm glad you enjoyed the article; I like writing them.
  9. yaldnif
    Very interesting! I only have hens and wondered why they don't always "sing." Maybe if they can see the other hens after coming out of the coop they don't feel the need too. I will have to watch for this.
      Shadrach likes this.
    1. Shadrach
      I've been told that some hens still make the call whether there is a rooster there or not.
  10. ChemicalchiCkns
    I wish to bank Roll this; where do I send the research Grant?
      Shadrach likes this.
    1. Shadrach
      Unfortunately all the research possible under my current arrangements has been done. You could buy a copy of the book when its finished. ;)
      ChemicalchiCkns likes this.
  11. ChicKat
    What a nice theory, and interesting test cases documented. Thanks for sharing your view. :jumpy
      Shadrach likes this.
    1. Shadrach
      Thank you for reading the article. There are studies on the protective roles for jungle fowl which have found much the same.
      stefzbiz and ChicKat like this.
  12. Keeperofmunchkins
    This is so interesting because I have a few hens and one rooster outside with them and any time of one them makes the 'egg song' call the rooster starts off with his terrible sounding response call which is twice as loud as the hen. I have always wondered why he has to make so much noise when the hens are laying!
    I have not observed them enough but know that he is always near the nests when this happens. I will have to watch more closely to see if he follows the hens there before they lay then escorts them out again. However my small flock tend to follow the roo everywhere he goes so when he goes into the coop with the one laying the others will all follow, and more often than not this results in several of them all joining in with the chorus of neighbour-riling noise. :he
    Why exactly does the rooster make his response noises when he is already near the laying hen though?
      Shadrach likes this.
    1. Shadrach
      Thank you for reading the article.
      That terrible hysterical sound your rooster makes is letting the hen know he’s heard her escort call. If your chickens are in a run and coop it’s not easy to see the sequence. The rooster knows the hen isn’t far and unless there are other roosters, he has no motivation to escort her.
      Keeperofmunchkins likes this.
  13. aesch
    That makes total sense. My hens have recently gone from free range to an enclosed pasture where the dominant rooster is often in plain site. They have almost completely stopped calling.

    I have also noticed that Foghorn is seldom away from the nesting boxes when they are in use.
    1. Keeperofmunchkins
  14. townchicks
    This makes total sense to me. I don't have a rooster, so have no practical experience to confirm or refute this, but I always wondered about the "egg song". It made no sense to me, that a prey animal would announce to the world, her location and where her nest is. My 2 EEs don't make a sound after laying, but all three hens scream bloody murder if someones already in "the" box when they want it. My RIR makes the same sound when she's sitting at the gate wanting ( I'm guessing) me to come and give her treats, that she makes after she lays. She doesn't always do the "egg song" after she lays, either, she is more prone to do it if I am out in the yard. I've read a little about wild jungle fowl, and they are very elusive and don't make a lot of noise. Maybe over the several centuries chickens have been domesticated, humans have selected for noisier hens, so they can find the eggs.
  15. Fields Mountain Farm
    Makes a lot of sense! I've seen my roosters come to the coop when a hen gives the call.. i had assumed, as many others have, that he was just sort of cheering her on and applauding her efforts.. but after reading your test results.. the original theory seems quite silly..lol
      Shadrach likes this.

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