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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.

Positive reinforcement

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.

Love Bugs

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

have language.

• 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!

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