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Cocks crowing

It’s 3 in the morning and I can hear cocks crowing. I’m not writing in some idyllic rustic setting but in the middle of Metro Manila, close to a national road with trucks rushing by.

Why, I’ve asked myself many times, can’t roosters be more civilized, like the other birds that greet the real dawn with soft chirping, picking up with a chorus as more light appears?

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I’ve been taunted by foreign friends about how, in the Philippines, no one seems to know the right time, and this includes roosters who crow way before the sun rises. I share that thought, often being awakened in the middle of the night by fighting cocks raised by neighbors.

An aside here from linguistics.  “Rooster” is apparently a term used more often by Americans to refer to a male chicken, a term associated with “roosting,” which is the way a male chicken watches over its hen, usually perched from a higher altitude.

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I prefer using “rooster” over “cock,” which is an older term and still preferred in Britain, but the use of which can be awkward because it has also become a slang term for the penis. There is, in fact, powerful phallic imagery around roosters in many cultures, particularly so when you get to fighting cocks and the way a  sabungero  (a man who engages in cockfights) strokes his bird (sorry!), and the taboo on women touching the bird (oops!) or the cock (sorry again, oh, for heaven’s sake, I give up!) before a cockfight.

But let’s get back to the mystery of the cocks crowing at 3 a.m.

 

Anticipatory crowing

I checked the Internet and found that last year, two researchers at Nagoya University—Tsuyoshi Shimmura and Takashi Yoshimura—made it to the international news because of their study of roosters crowing, and their conclusion that these birds do have a circadian clock, an internal biological rhythm. The study was published in the journal Current Biology in March 2013.

The researchers had one group of roosters that were exposed to 12 hours of bright light and then 12 hours of dim light for 14 days. They found that the roosters would crow about two hours before the onset of light. This is called anticipatory predawn crowing, and it was already observed in the 1960s in a study of red jungle fowl in India.

Another group of birds were kept in dim light conditions all day long for 14 days. The researchers found that the birds would crow roughly 24 hours (actually 23.8 hours) apart, which led them to conclude that there was an internal clock at work—meaning with or without the light, the birds would crow at regular intervals.

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However, the researchers also found that after the two weeks, the cocks’ crowing became more irregular, occurring at any time of the day.  It seemed then that even with an internal clock working, light played some role in getting the cocks to crow.

Now the researchers also manipulated some of the stimuli, such as using sudden flashes of light, or playing the sound of crowing. When they did this, they found that light could induce crowing, but this was more likely to happen if the light occurred around dawn, meaning there was still an internal clock operating.

Similarly, it was found that the sound of crowing stimulated other birds to follow, but the likelihood was stronger during the morning. All it took was one rooster starting it, and here the Japanese researchers found that there was a male hierarchy at work. Crowing, it turned out, was a way of making territorial claims, a way to warn potential intruders to keep out. So the crowing started with the highest ranking bird, which then allowed the lower ranks to follow with their crowing.

How might we interpret this in terms of our local roosters disrupting human rhythms?

First, let’s look at this anticipatory predawn crowing that occurs roughly two hours before dawn. If our sunrise is at about 5:30, then 3:30 should be reasonable predawn crowing, right? So maybe our roosters aren’t too much off the mark.

It also looks like the roosters are more likely to begin crowing in the morning hours if they are suddenly exposed to light. Since they are already predisposed to the anticipatory predawn crowing, you can imagine how our city roosters are more prone to advancing their predawn crowing because there are cars and trucks with glaring headlights passing by.

Maybe, too, the chaotic chorus at 3 a.m. comes about because there are so many sabungeros  crowded into small areas in cities, so one dominant rooster calling out leads to hundreds of others following.

 

Other mysteries

The crowing of roosters has intrigued people across cultures, exemplified in the way we have terms to refer to it. What’s so intriguing is that the terms tend to be onomatopoeic, meaning imitative of the sound, and yet vary from one culture to another. The Japanese researchers gave examples. In English it’s “cock-a-doodle-doo,” which does capture the cadence of crowing. In German it’s “ki-ke-ri-ki”—not bad, too.  In Japanese it’s “ko-ke-kok-koh,” which seems more like a hybrid between cocks crowing and hens clucking.

And in Filipino? It’s “tilaok.” The “ok” part is, well, ok, but as a word,  tilaok  needs a bit of a stretch of the imagination. I tried repeating syllables to see if it came close to cock-a-doodle-doo, and it didn’t work out, at least not in the sound. But, oh, dear, repeating the first syllable did bring back the phallic angle. Sigh.

Let’s get back to the Japanese research. Some of you might ask: Why bother getting into all this research?

The mysteries around circadian rhythms can help us deal with insomnia, and with the problems that people grapple with when they work on night shifts, as so many Filipinos do now in call centers—yes, the guys who leave work at dawn, bleary-eyed, amid roosters crowing.

I thought, too, of our own anticipatory pre-alarm mechanisms, the way we wake up right before the alarm clock goes off. And, if you were wondering what I was doing awake at 3 a.m., it wasn’t because of the cocks crowing. I woke up suddenly at around 2:30 a.m., sensing that something was wrong, and indeed, my son was very softly whimpering because of a stomach ache. My fellow parents would have similar stories. There’s a kind of synchronization of rhythms: If roosters set other roosters crowing, maybe our kids’ disrupted rhythms send parents’ rhythms awry as well.

One last mystery: why these bird sounds are so sticky. As I was writing this column, I suddenly thought of “ku-ku-ru-ku-ku,” which isn’t cocks crowing. That’s what can be so infuriating with the cock-a-doodle-doo and  tilaok: You hear some and then suddenly your brain is replaying them, long after the infernal cocks go back to sleep.

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E-mail: [email protected]

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TAGS: animals, Chicken, Cock, Crowing, Rooster
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