Raising Free Range Chickens? Train Them to “Come” with Love Bug Treats
We know that happy and healthy chickens have access to free range. Our yards are
chicken-scaped with berry bushes, lush (pesticide free) lawns, with nutritious clover
and dandelion, and lots of verges plumped up with leaf piles just begging to be
rustled. Who doesn’t like the switch switch sound of foraging feet?
Raising free range birds is ideal and you get to hang out with your feathered
buddies, chooks and chicks — but sometimes we have to bring our flock inside…
and they aren’t ready. How do you get the gang to “come when called,” so you’re not
stuck standing guard until the chickens come home to roost.
Raising free range birds is ideal and you get to hang out
with your feathered buddies!
Chickens are intellectuals. Their society is plastic and negotiating is part of the
interaction process. Chickens do not have a top-down hierarchy like dogs, and they
don’t understand ownership.
Chickens and the “idea” of property: Everything can be mine, unless you say it isn’t,
and it will be mine again when you leave.
They “run” things more like horses, cows, other birds and primates. Chickens have
diplomacy, politics and heated arguments. Their social structure, the pecking order,
looks like this:
• Hen A can influence and dictate to Hen B.
• Hen B can influence and dictate to Hen C.
• Hen C influences and dictates to Hen A.
What? Yes, their interactions are not designed to reflect a structured hierarchy.
What this means for you, as you begin negotiating with your birds to consider
something you would like them to do, is that you will need to provide them an offer
they can’t refuse.
Who doesn’t remember this from school? Positive reinforcement means doing
something for a reward. It is based on creating interest and draw. You have
something that your birds want. But…BUT they have to do something to get it. This
is how our own jobs are structured. We do something at work and we get paid.
That’s positive reinforcement. You have to have something that your chickens will
want – it will be their paycheck, and it has to be worth something (I won’t get into
the irony here, but chickens are smarter than people when it comes to negotiating).
Whether you want your birds to come to you, sit on your lap, go into their coop or
run an obstacle course – it all comes down to you offering that waiting paycheck.
Chickens love bugs. Mealworms are a “high value” reward, and they can command
some considerable “draw.” The tub of Love Bugs is the chickens’ paycheck. The fun
thing about training chickens is that they learn instantly. This is due to their
perceptive smarts and strong social abilities. Chickens are visual/verbal animals,
just like us, and they are astute observational learners. Most birds instantly realize
they are doing something to get something. They will quickly seize this
circumstance and start doing things to train YOU! Watch for this and respond.
What to look for:
• Prompting: Birds will trial a variety of vocalizations or gestures to initiate a
response from you. Pay attention, as your intelligence is on the line here. “Hmmm,
let’s see if I can train this human?” When the bird prompts, respond. You are now
building a reciprocal conversation (the chickens understand that they can “talk” to
you). Reciprocal conversation is like verbal and gestural dancing with a partner.
This cross-species communication is the foundation to everything you want to do
with the birds, it will constantly grow, and it is beautiful! Chickens can and do learn
language once they realize that YOU know language. They already know that they
• Demand/Requests: This “give me that” request from the chicken can be spoken or
gestured. Most birds choose to tap or pick you. Respond to the request. Once again,
this shows the chicken that you can be taught. They will tap you, or the tub of Love
Bugs. If a bird wants to be picked up, they will pull on your pants or tap your leg.
Home to roost (even if they aren’t ready)
Chickens are independent. They want to be colleagues not doormats. We can exploit
this nobility, courage and inherent self-esteem to construct a rich partnership with
our birds. Once you have completed the “draw” exercises and cross-communication
steps (this rarely takes more than two sessions. It may take much longer with
abused or neglected birds — because these special circumstances also involve fear-
removal and trust exercises), your birds are ready to respond.
How to teach the birds to “come”:
1. Have the Love Bug treats at hand. Walk to where the birds are.
2. Use the same phrase each time. It doesn’t matter what the words are, just use the
same ones and keep the phrase short and clear. You are teaching a language. Apple
needs to mean apple.
“Come on chicks!” “Come guys!”
3. Shake the treats. When the chickens (if they aren’t at your feet already!) gather to
you, begin walking to the pen or coop. Shake the treats and encourage them to
follow. Use the same phrase to encourage them. Enjoy the results!
Use a phrase like, "Come on chicks, Come guys!" to encourage your chickens to come.
Keep us posted on your training case studies. Expand on the basics, and see what
you can achieve. We want to hear from fellow chicken fans!
Note: Roosters behave the same as hens. Your roosters will be your assistants; they
love to help run things. Their “pecking order” is more rigid and it is based on
breeding rights. There will be one or two lead roosters that other roosters defer to.
Challenges will be launched when one bird attempts a coop….umm, coup. Roosters
and hens have high empathy abilities - they will share food, grooming and quality
time with each other and with you, their favorite flock mate!