We all love watching our chickens’ antics. If we could, we’d pop some corn, pull up a chair and watch their entertaining escapades for hours on end. Despite their droll shenanigans, your chooks aren’t birdbrains. Their capacity to learn—and remember—behaviors is quite astonishing. Whether you want to train your flocks to come when called or teach them a sensational stunt, it takes only a little time and patience, plus a tasty treat as a reward. Not sure what to teach your birds? Here are a few ideas on how to train chickens, all of which have been mastered (in some cases, beyond my expectations) by the members of my flocks.
1. Follow The Feeder
All of our coops feature storage areas for lidded feed buckets; this makes refilling feeders easy on me and my farm hands (aka children). These buckets are a brilliant white and very easy to see—a good start when you want to train chickens. Our curious chickens noticed them right away, quickly realizing that the white things in our hands were the same white things that contain their feed. The older birds pass this important fact along to the new kids every year.
Back in February, our pullets and cockerels just stared as our hens charged toward me or, more precisely, my scratch bucket. Three days later, I couldn’t carry a bucket anywhere without having a bird underfoot. I recently conducted an experiment in which my son, Bryce, walked around the coops empty handed. Not one bird reacted. I then sent my son Jaeson out with one of the feed buckets. Like the children of Hamelin, the birds immediately trooped after him.
To train chickens to recognize dinner time, use the same container–preferably one that is brightly colored and at least gallon-sized—to refill their feeders. Be certain that they can clearly see what you’re doing; They’ll catch on quickly. Just make sure to use the container solely for feed. We’ve lost a number of eggs to inquisitive pecking, thanks to the kids’ use of empty buckets for egg collection.
2. Eat From Your Hand
I train every bird I hatch to recognize the hand that feeds it. I start when the chicks are one week old, placing my hand in their brooder and leaving it there, palm up and still, for several minutes. Once they’ve grown accustomed to my hand, I add motion: I lower my hand into the brooder, pause for a moment, then remove my hand. After a few days of this, I offer the babies dried mealworm bits on my palm.
Occasionally, the chicks immediately dive in and eat. Most of the time, they don’t understand I am offering food and just scamper across my hand. When this happens, I place the crushed mealworms in a pile on the brooder floor, then withdraw my hand. I repeat this daily until the chicks enthusiastically gather around my hand, eager for their treat. Once the babies understand that my hand means food, I lessen the frequency of my offerings.
The birds remember the association of hand-food as they mature, even if I offer treats only once every couple of weeks. It’s a pure pleasure for them to feed from my hand so trustfully. Note: Full-grown chickens feed more vigorously than baby chicks do, so keep your palm fully extended rather than cupped to lessen the possibility of being nipped by a hungry bird.
3. Ride On A Bicycle
Chickens love to perch, and bicycle handlebars are a perfect size for this activity. When you train chickens to this this, you won’t be racing cyclocross with Henrietta as your co-pilot, but you can serenely circle your yard with one of your birds blissfully balanced on your bike.
Pick one of your most biddable chickens. The feistier they are, the more likely they are to resist. Start by setting your bird on the handlebars of a motionless bike. Face her and reassure her, but don’t force her to stay on if she wants to hop down. Repeat this daily until she comes to trust the handlebars.
For step two, carry your chicken to your bike, sit on the saddle, then place your bird in front of you on the handlebars. She won’t be able to see you, so let her hear you: Use a gentle, reassuring tone to let her know you are there. Again, if she jumps off, don’t force the issue. Repeat this step daily until you can both sit on the bike for at least five minutes.
Add movement next: Use your feet, not your pedals, to slowly inch the bike forward with your chook perched on her spot. Every day, slightly increase your distance, then gently increase your speed.
The final step? Use the pedals to propel your bike forward a little at a time. Stay on level ground, ride slowly, and keep one eye on your bird to watch for signs of distress. You won’t go far, but you’ll have fun riding together.
4. Jump For A Treat
Why should dogs get all the glory when they leap for treats? Chickens can jump, too, especially if you’re extending a delectable tidbit for them to grab. Choose a snack your birds love (such as bread or dried mealworms), making sure it’s at least one inch long. This will keep your fingers from accidentally getting chomped by an eager beak.
Extend your arm out from your body, holding your hand about 2 feet above your birds’ heads. Make the treat visible, then stand absolutely still. If your flock stares at the food but does nothing, lower your hand a few inches and wait. Hunger—or greed—will eventually propel one of your birds upward, so be prepared to release the treat the second your bird opens its beak. Have more morsels ready to go and repeat the trick until your jumper has mastered it.
A caveat: Bear in mind that birds are fast learners. One week after I taught Claude Orpington how to leap for a treat, six others were emulating his stunt. Poor Jaeson one day headed to our garden when Davey Orpington ran over, jumped up and snatched the slice of pizza from his unsuspecting hand. Now, that’s a trick I could have watched for hours.