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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Chicken Monitor

Air Date: Week of

Living on Earth commentator Sy Montgomery enjoys living in rural New Hampshire. She also gets a lot of pleasure from listening….to her chickens.


CURWOOD: Writer and Living on Earth commentator Sy Montgomery has a computer. It's one of the few high-tech gadgets she tolerates. Sy tries to live the simple life in rural New Hampshire, but she's found that turning on one modern convenience has had an unexpectedly pleasant result.

MONTGOMERY: I don't have a cell phone. I don't have a microwave. I don't have a dishwasher. I don't even have a crock pot. And I don't have a baby. But I do have a baby monitor. I use it to listen to chickens.

(Chickens cluck through a speaker)

MONTGOMERY: It's a dangerous job being a chicken in rural New Hampshire. An entire flock I once had was wiped out by a mink. In the three years since I've had this new flock, one was killed by a neighbor's dog, another felled by a hawk. And that's the reason for the baby monitor down by the barn. If anything goes wrong, I'll immediately hear it over the speaker in my office and can rush to the rescue.

(A door slams; bells tinkle)

MONTGOMERY: (Yells) Fox be gone!

But I found this chicken monitor to be a gift of unexpected pleasures.

(Chickens cluck through speaker)

MONTGOMERY: Chickens voices, you see, are wonderful to write by.

(Clucking continues)

MONTGOMERY: When hens are calm, there's nothing more comforting than their clucks of contentment. In the past, when I've been sad or frustrated or lonely, I'd go stand in the coop with them and let their coos and clucks wash over me like a mantra. Sometimes I let them sit on my head. But listening to them remotely is far better for my hair. And who knows? Surrounded by their voices, perhaps my writing will experience something like the Mozart effect. You know, like how people taking standardized tests score higher when classical music is piped in.

(Mozart plays; fade to clucks)

MONTGOMERY: On the other hand, this might mean I end up writing books composed entirely of the letter Y. Or give up touch-typing for hunt and peck.


MONTGOMERY: Or I could end up making some astonishing new scientific discovery. Some of the world's great naturalists have productively spent time decoding the language of birds. Niko Tinbergen decoded seagulls' talk. Larry Kilham and Bernd Heindrichs have translated the calls of crows. What are the chickens trying to tell us?


MONTGOMERY: So, I listen carefully, especially when they're particularly animated. Has somebody just laid an egg? Did somebody just unearth a particularly juicy worm? Or maybe they're onto something far bigger. Maybe my chickens are really brilliant. Maybe they're the Manhattan Project of the poultry world! Maybe, I said to my husband, they're holding discussions of profound import, revelations that perhaps I could share. If only I could understand.


MONTGOMERY: One morning, I could swear I could almost make out what they were saying.

(Clucking: "E equals MC squared...E equals MC squared...")

MONTGOMERY: It was my husband squawking into the baby monitor. All right. Maybe it's just that the chickens found that cabbage in the compost pile.

(Clucking; fade to Mozart up and under)

CURWOOD: Commentator Sy Montgomery lives with her husband Howard and their chickens in Hancock, New Hampshire.



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