Chickens are smart animals. It’s not common to describe them as smart, because saying a person has “bird brain” means they are stupid. But do you know that cognitive research has shown that chickens can be trained to be smarter than cats, dogs, or even toddlers? Chickens are entertaining and useful (if you raise them to lay eggs and be meat), but training them can both be fun and functional for any chicken keeper.
Luckily, chickens are creatures of habit and that’s an advantage if you want to train them. They are motivated by their desire to eat and are keen in eyesight. While chickens may be unable to learn tricks like a parrot or become obedient like a dog, there are certain things you can teach them. By training your flock, you can have them respond to you and behave for you as you wish.
Training chickens work better with a smaller-sized flock fewer than ten chickens. The more chickens you have, the harder it is to manage them. But it’s not impossible, especially if you’re not the only one training them.
Before you start training, establish a routine with your chicken flock. They like a set schedule and a routine. Open their coop the same time each morning. Put out their feed bucket, and clean their manure box, let them out, collect eggs, and close them up at night at the same time every day.
Here are some of the ways you can train your chickens:
Teaching them to return to the coop
The only sure-fire way to get your chickens back to the safety of your coop is to let them think it was their idea in the first place. Since chickens are creatures of habit, you just need to have them know where their roost is, and they will return to it every night, like clockwork.
The first thing to do is to keep your new chickens in the coop for a week to ten days. Let all they need be there. The chicken will not think that the coop is their home. Then, start letting them out the same time every morning to feed and to roam around. Watch and see that they will return to their roost in the evening. Close the coop at the same time every night.
Teaching them to come to you when you call
Having the ability to call your flock to the coop in a free-ranging situation is important and invaluable in some situations.
To get chickens up and running when you call, use food. They are always motivated by their need and desire to eat. Scatter some treats in the run where the hens are, and either shout something, or use a bell, whistle or a small gong (as long as it’s not too loud) and they will soon associate that call with the food that awaits them.
To teach chickens to come on command, follow these steps:
- Stand in view of your flock, while you hold their favorite treats in your hand at their eye level. Choose a treat that they love.
- Wait for the dominant hen or the best forager to see the treats in your hand and come running to you. The rest of the chickens will follow.
- While the chickens are eating out of your hand, make your signal. Use that consistently, as this noise will be the signal for your flock to come to you when you hear it.
- Repeat steps 1 to 3 every day over a period of time. This will reinforce that the chickens would receive a treat if they come to you after you make your signal.
This technique is useful if you want to lure them on a set of scales for weigh in, or if you need to call a chicken who looks ill or injured. Call, whistle, or ring a bell as usual – and the birds will come flapping your way eagerly.
Teach them to come home for dinner
If it’s nighttime and your chickens are not yet inside the coop, you can train them to go home every night. You can use bells, whistles or your own voice, and the chickens can associate it with goodies. They will come running to see what’s for dinner.
So, if your chickens are not all tucked in and you want to close the coop so you can rest for the day, start treat-training them paired with a signal. To do this:
- Use your chosen signal (a command with your voice, a whistle, a bell, etc.) when your chickens are heading to the roost. Present the feed or treats inside their coop.
- Do this every day until all you have to do is to sound your signal and your chickens will come running straight to the coop.
This technique works best if you always give their feed in the coop. If you just sprinkle it around and try to urge them inside the coop, the chickens will see what you are up to and they will outsmart you.
Herding your chickens
Herding is an important behavior to teach to a young flock. To make free-ranging chickens go in the direction you want them to, here’s how to do it:
- Stand behind your flock and gently clap your hands together. A gentle clap is usually more effective than a loud clap. Your flack will start to move in a formation towards the direction you want to go.
- If your flock starts veering away from the target, use your arms as guiding rudders. Use a single arm stretched out in the direction they’re going. They will see your arm and adjust to the direction you are herding them to.
It’s important to start this herding technique when your flock is young, because older chickens may not be as teachable as the young. Sometimes, a member of the flock can break out of the herd formation and take another direction quickly. If you immediately respond with an arm to adjust their direction, you can usually bring all your chickens in a herd formation to help them move forward again. This herding technique works best in small-size flocks of less than 10 chickens.