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.|
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.|
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.
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.