Out of the large range of species I have trained as a certified professional bird trainer, chickens are some of the quickest learners I’ve taught. Yes, they have bird brains, but don’t hold that against them: They’re eager to learn and retain the behaviors for weeks with the proper training.
Chicken training is something any backyard chicken keeper can and should do. It enriches the birds’ lives and ours, plus allows them to be healthier physically and mentally. Your training will also aid in their care and improve your relationship.
If you are going to train your chickens to step up on your hand voluntarily or even run an agility course, you will have to convince them that it’s worth it. Motivation is the driving force for birds to perform behaviors. My chickens, which are given as much food as they want, still work for food during training sessions because the treats are high value to them. Daily, my chickens are fed laying ration and occasionally cracked corn, but for training sessions, they receive a range of minced vegetables, fruits and grains.
Another way to increase motivation is by changing the time of day you train your birds. By training early in the morning, before they receive their bowl of scratch or forage in the yard all day, your chickens will be inspired to work for their breakfast.
My chickens are trained to do many natural behaviors, but the most rewarding aspect of training is the communication between owner and animal. Having an expression that signals to the bird that they did something correct (and that a treat will be provided) is essential if you want that behavior to be presented again.
This expression is called a bridge. Bridges in training make an association between two points of interest, like actual bridges, making a connection for the bird. The animal performs a behavior, receives a bridge and then quickly receives a treat. The bridge communicates to the animal that the behavior they just performed was correct.
Bridges can be seen in the form of words such as “good” or “OK,” a whistle, or the noise of a piece of metal snapping called a clicker. One of the reasons why bridges are used is because treats are not always readily available the instant animals do a behavior. Birds are highly auditory and will respond similarly to words and tones like a dog will. Think of all of the clucking, cawing and crowing that takes place in a coop. Those noises are some of the ways our birds communicate. While one bridge is not recommended over another, you must be consistent. A store-bought metal clicker might be most advantageous since each trainer would sound the same.
When being reinforced, our birds associate the behavior immediately before the treat as the behavior that is being rewarded. A delay of a few seconds could mean reinforcing the wrong behavior. Sometimes it would be impossible to give a treat immediately after the behavior: They could be across the yard jumping through a hurdle, for example. The use of the bridge allows us to delay the reinforcer, which, in this case, is a treat. Through this pairing, your chicken will gradually learn that after the bridge a treat will follow.
Teach your chickens by hand-taming them or by using target training.
Train your chickens to voluntarily perch on your hand as you walk around the yard to allow you to quickly move the bird to safety, examine them closely and create a positive relationship with them on their own terms. Chasing or scooping up birds with both hands in the backyard will no longer be necessary. Plus, having company over and having your chickens step up on their hands voluntarily is a great party trick!
To teach a bird to step up:
- Place your left hand palm-up on the ground.
- Hold your right hand, with treats, a few inches away from your left hand and the bird.
- Show the bird a few treats, setting it up so that the bird needs to walk over your left palm to get the snack.
- Bridge and reward the bird once it has both feet on your left hand.
- Repeat, and bridge and reinforce with treats each time the bird does this behavior.
Once your chicken is comfortable standing and eating from your hand, slowly move your hand a few inches off the ground. During the next session, move your hand around a little more and a little higher. To get the bird to step off, I bring my hand down parallel to the ground and throw some food so the bird chases after it. By keeping the hand steady, the chicken will learn that it’s a safe place to perch.
This is a technique that cues the animal being trained to orient and touch a particular body part to the target being presented. If your chickens are target trained this will allow you to get them to run an agility course, fly from stump to stump and walk on a scale for a monthly check up. The possibilities are endless. You could train them to jump through a hula hoop, fly to a visitor’s shoulder or put themselves in at night.
The video below shows a kind of target training. In it, an animal trainer who has worked with dogs prepares others who want to train animals by starting with chickens.
Many targets for animal training look like a ball at the end of a stick. Attaching a small wiffle ball or golf ball at the end of a chop stick would be the perfect size for a chicken.
To teach a bird to target:
- Present your target to a chicken. Curious animals will come over and investigate. If the chickens are not immediately engaged by the target, reward them for looking at the target. Next, increase the criteria, where they only get a reward for looking at the target and taking one step closer. Each time they are successful without hesitation, make it a little harder for them to receive a treat: Not only do they need to look at the target and take one step forward, they now have to take three steps forward to get a treat.
- Once the chicken touches the target with their beak, bridge and reinforce with their favorite treat.
- Keep the target close—and reinforce the bird each time it touches the target with its beak.
- Start moving the target farther away. Continue to reward each time the bird follows and touches the target.
Moving the target to different locations will get you different amusing results. Place the target on a tall perch, and soon your birds will be hopping and flying from place to place. Put the target on a kitchen scale, and you can get monthly, weekly or daily weights voluntarily with just a few treats. Holding the target near the entrance of the coop will act as a signal for your chickens to put themselves in at night for a small reward.
Creating an agility course with weave poles, hurdles and platforms does not have to be expensive. Using leftover PVC tubes, old picture frames and sheets of plywood, you can create a functional course for almost no cost. Walk the course with the target pole in hand and your chickens will follow. Repeat a few times, and your chickens will quickly pick up on the pattern.
Now that you have met your chicken’s physical needs with an agility course, providing some additional enrichment will help meet their psychological needs. And a mentally healthy chicken is easier to train.
Similar to physical health, there are many components to consider for mental health. In addition to providing toys or treats, you can also enrich your birds by allowing them to forage and give them environmental stimulation through feeding puzzles and the like.
Providing uncut food items, such as melons or pumpkins, is great, too: Hanging heads of lettuce or other vegetables from a tall tree or the roof of the coop will keep them busy and entertained, as will filling a plastic bottle with mealworms, poking holes in it and hanging it near their coop. This will encourage birds to peck at the bottle and scratch the ground underneath; shredded paper or leaves in boxes with feed hidden inside will also promote foraging.
My bantam chickens are kept in a sizeable enclosed coop when no one is home. To enhance their coop’s environmental complexity, I add mulch to the bottom of the coop to promote the natural behavior of scratching and foraging. I provide large branches for them to perch on.
In addition to buying pre-made feeding puzzles, scattering several food bowls in different areas will encourage foraging. To make your own feeder device, place caps on the ends of a 2- to 3-inch-wide PVC pipe—the length is up to you and the size of your flock, but at least 1 foot is recommended. Drilling a half-dozen holes on the side of the tube will allow your birds to retrieve a few pieces of grain at a time. Another option is to place chicken treats in a wiffle ball or similarly sized toy. As the ball rolls, treats fall out. You can also fill feeder puzzles with an assortment of seeds, grains and treats.
If you think that your chickens will be scared of new devices, place the potentially frightening object outside of the coop far enough away for them to quickly desensitize to it. Play with it to show them it’s not scary. Once you start, they will come quickly to partake in the festivities. Enrichment items with visible food is a good way to start. Once they become used to the idea of feeder puzzles, you can make them more challenging bit by bit.
Another thing my birds seem to enjoy is a garden mirror. I place them at ground level, and my chickens visit them daily. Strutting around the yard, they often stop in their tracks to check out their own reflection, slowly tilting their head from side to side and admiring the creature staring back at them.
Allowing your birds to make choices in their husbandry, training and enrichment will keep them healthy and happy. I love it when company comes over and sees how intelligent chickens really are. They often say, “I didn’t know those birdbrains could be trained.” Well, now they do.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2016 issue of Chickens.