Jul 9, 2012

How to Train Chickens (and Get Them to Do What You Want Them to Do)

Recently, my husband's grandmother visited our house, took a look at our hens, and said, shaking her head: "How do you get them to do what you want them to do?" She couldn't imagine how we got them in and out of the garden, or kept them out of our favorite plants, or put them "to bed" at night. But my answer to her was straightforward: "We train 'em."

While chickens don't exactly have a reputation for being Einsteins, they are easy to train. It's simply a matter of understanding them a bit. As my husband says, "Chickens aren't stupid. They're just simple."

It's true some breeds seem smarter than others. Our Plymouth Rocks, for example, seem a lot smarter than our Silver Wyandottes. And I hear that chickens raised for meat have even smaller IQs. But the fact remains that all are trainable - with a little patience and some know-how.

Getting Chickens Locked Up

Even if your chickens free range all day, you must lock them up in a coop at night to protect them from predators. But anyone who has tried to lure chickens into a hen house knows it's not easily done. Chasing them doesn't work, either. (Even if one or two run into the coop, while you're out chasing the others, the two that were in the coop will dash out.) My husband and I think a visual cue is the best method.

We began by using a toy plastic hoe in a bright shade of blue to herd the hens into the coop at night. We placed the hoe where the hens could see it (a foot or so from their faces), then placed it behind them, coaxing them in the direction of their coop without actually touching them. Nowadays, usually all we have to do is lift the hoe up and most of the hens will run into their coop. With the less submissive birds sometimes need extra coaxing with the hoe. We also have one hen who automatically goes into a crouching position when we get the hoe out. (This is what submissive hens do around roosters.) Sometimes we have to pick her up and gently place her in the coop.

Remember, this doesn't mean you have to go out and buy a blue plastic hoe. Any physical item that's easy for the birds to see will work fine.

Place each hand over the hen's wings, then pick her up and hold her under your arm.
Picking Up Hens

It's a good idea to inspect your birds once in a while, to check for signs of pests or disease. And the more you hold them, the more friendly and less skittish the birds are with humans. Most hens will automatically go into a crouching position (head down, wings slightly out) if you place a flat hand over - but not touching - their bodies. Again, this is the position hens get into when a rooster is around. To pick up the hen, slowly and gently pick her up with both hands - one hand over each of her wings. She'll be most comfortable and is less likely to flail if you then tuck her under one arm, snug to your body.

Calling by Name

Most hens can learn to come when you call them by name. Begin by holding the hen and talking to her softly, using her name often. Next, place her the ground and call her name, offering her a favorite food until she comes close to you. Eventually, she will come every time you call; reward her frequently with food treats.

A gentle spray of water is a good deterrent.
Keeping Chickens Out of the Garden

We can't fence our veggie garden; there's too little space and it would cast too much shade. But our chickens mostly leave the garden alone. The trick is to babysit them. We keep our hens in their run when we aren't in the backyard, but whenever we go outside, we let them free range. Our presence is usually enough to keep them out of the garden. (But if we go inside just for a minute, you can bet the birds will be naughty while we're away.) We've trained them with water.

For about the first month, whenever the hens went into the garden, we sprayed them with a garden hose. Chickens hate water, and they very quickly learned to avoid the vegetable bed. Now they rarely go into the garden, but we do keep the hose on (with a spray nozzle attachment on it so water isn't constantly flowing) while we're outside - just in case we have to remind the hens to be good.

An alternative to this is a special sprinkler with a sensor; these are commonly sold for deterring wildlife from the garden. Whenever the sprinkler senses movement, it sprays water. The only trouble with these is that they don't know chickens from children - or adults, for that matter.

Also, if you water your garden with a sprinkler, be sure to time the waterings so they coincide with free ranging. The sprinkler will keep the chickens away without any special effort on your part.

Other Tricks

These are really the only "tricks" your hens need to know to live happily in your yard, but if you want to learn some silly tricks that will amuse your children, search YouTube for "chicken tricks." Chickens can safely be taught to momentarily sleep, jump through a hula hoop, and so on.

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21 comments:

  1. That's great! I haven't spent much time trying to train my chickens, but it sounds like fun.

    My younger sister had trained chickens when we were kids. She had one that would ride on her bicycle handlebars...really turned heads!

    Found you on the Morristribe's blog carnival :)

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  2. This is awesome. We have 5 older ladies we bought last September. But we just ordered 25 chicks from a hatchery. These tips are coming at just the right time. Pretty good how God likes to time things. BTW, I'm lovin your blog!

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  3. This is awesome. We have 5 older ladies we bought last September. But we just ordered 25 chicks from a hatchery. These tips are coming at just the right time. Pretty good how God likes to time things. BTW, I'm lovin your blog!

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  4. Great article. The only way I've trained my chickens is to whistle the 'chicken dance' when I go out to feed them. They start looking for me when I start whistling!

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  5. This is very helpful...I tend to have a hard time grabbing my chickens I end up chasing them around thank you for sharing this post... it will be fun domesticating them

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  6. I guess I've been blessed. I've never had chickens that didn't coop themselves at dusk, but perhaps I was training them without realizing it. I handle my two Plymouth Rocks, Henrietta and Edna, a lot since they're intended for pets and not meat. When they were chicks I'd play with them in the evening and then put them in their coop. I guess they figured it out. All I have to do is close the ramp. I've always said "Night night" in a high voice to the girls and after awhile they started answering back matching my high pitched voice and the number of syllables except they make a sound more like "Er er". That's pretty smart. Edna also has taken to pecking at the back door screen to let us know she wants some scratch. Both hens also come to the back door and squawk when they hear the garage door open...but only when my husband comes home from work. They won't stop squawking until he says hello.

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  7. Maricam, yes, all chickens will go to roost at night without being encouraged to. But sometimes, you may want them to go to the hen house before they are ready to. This sometimes happens with us because we want to be done with chores for the evening - and while it's dusk, there are some chickens still out and about. Or sometimes, for safety reasons, we need them in the hen house for a bit.

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  8. I also only have two...which probably makes things a lot easier when it comes to catching and cooping them. :) Once one is caught the other seems to kind of give up.

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  9. My husband, who grew up on a farm, just shakes his head when I call my hens in from 'free ranging'. "Hey girls -- time to go in -- come on girls", and out they all come from all over the yard, bushes and under decks to follow me to their pen (including the roo). Never have had any that like me to pick them up though.

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  10. Dehydrated meal worms works like a charm. All you have to do is shake the container and your chicks follow you anywhere. Total chicken control and the protein is good for them too.

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  11. Ditto for the mealworms: I instantly have my girls' attention! I'm going to work on them coming when called by name though. Thanks for the tips!

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  12. Good tips! We do all of these with our chickens - it really is surprising how much they can learn. Our herding items are two long sticks that we use to extend our arms and guide them if they go astray. We've unintentionally trained our chickens to respond to a high pitched call of 'babies!'. My fault! They were my little babies when I was raising them haha. I love hearing my father call out to them :)

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  13. We bought our first chickens this year and getting them in the coop was hard at first and stressful to say the least. So I chopped up a few slices of white bread and gave the voice command COME ON and threw the bread on the ground. A few times doing that they would follow me anywhere, so I began throwing it in their coop and in they go. No more stress.

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  14. I too must have trained our girls without trying. We pick up our girls all the time and have since they were chicks. They come to the back door when they want treats and a simple call, "took-took" will bring them running from where ever. That is the same call we have used since they were babies, meaning there is food! Together we like to look under rocks for bugs. Problem is that we can no longer garden without chickens under foot hoping to get a grub. We do have to fence off our garden or babysit with a spray bottle in hand. Otherwise they are so much fun and the eggs are great too!

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  15. Kindness to chickens stood out to me.
    Maybe we should be kind to one another.

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  16. Pls. advise me how to train chickens that they become very friendly with humans and not afraid to run away from humans.

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  17. Fareed, the only way to make chickens unafraid of humans is to handle them often and gently. This works best if you begin when they are chicks, but with patience and persistence, it will work to a degree if you begin when they are full grown. But even the most domesticated chickens will run away from you if you want them to do something they don't want to do :) Our hens are very used to humans and handling, and are a laid back breed besides (Australorps), but they will occasionally run away when we want to put them back in their run and they've been free ranging.

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  18. Thanks you very much for your reply. I am planning to keep some egg laying hens at home. And in this regard i'll bother you and keep asking questions from you time to time. I believe your opinions will help me to raise my chickens...

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  19. Ms. Kristina Seleshanko. pls. tell me how to keep warm hens in the coop. Winter is just to arrive.. awaiting your rpely.. regards

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    1. Fareed, if temperatures don't reach freezing in your area, you don't have to do anything special at all for your hens. They are well covered in feathers that keep them warm. If temps drop below that, first make sure they have access to unfrozen water. Consider using sand or a deep liter method in the hen house. Choose a breed that is better suited to cold weather. You *can* heat the hen house with a heat lamp, but it is risky. It could cause a fire. Here are some additional guidelines: http://www.tractorsupply.com/know-how_Chicken-Care_how-to-prepare-your-chickens-for-winter

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  20. thank you very much for your advises. I'll follow. Regards

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