I can’t think of anything cuter than a baby chicken, can you? They pop out of their eggs tired and in need of everything. We are biologically wired to nurture this “baby” shape – big head, big eyes and that tiny form.
No one can resist caring for those fuzzy puffs that depend on their moms, and you, to show them the ropes, seeds, bugs, roosts and what makes the best dirt for dusting. The stage from hatch to teenager is a short one in the precocial chicken species, lasting only a few weeks, and you start to see the warning signs of things to come in the first week! There is no stopping that clock…they don’t stay balls of love fluff for long (well, unless you have silkies).
Not many pet keepers would buy a puppy without learning about training, or registering for, dog behavior classes. We all know that the puppy has a bunch to learn and that getting the training done early and correctly makes all the difference for raising a happy and well-behaved dog. There is more to dog raising than food, shelter and healthcare. Yet, most chicken owners don’t think about training…until it is too late, and problems have raised their head and crowed. Being a successful chicken keeper involves much more than just food, water and prevention.
You want to enjoy your birds, you want them to enjoy you. And you want them to come running when they hear the back door close! Dogs live for a decade or so, which means that we want to put the time in to enjoy those years with our dog. Chickens ALSO live for 6-10 years.
You want to put the time in to enjoy those years with your flock. Being able to walk out to the chickens and have them come up to you is a heck of a hay stack easier than having to catch them. Train your birds to catch you. You should never have to catch your birds with more effort than bending over.
And hey, us chick people have a perk that other critter people don’t have. Imprinting. Birds imprint strongly on the first thing they see after hatch. They will imprint on more than one thing. So even if you raise the chicks under a broody mom (like I do), you will become the “cool” aunt or uncle.
Troubles that often arise from not training the chickens:
- can’t catch the birds
- birds fear and avoid the handler
- birds resist bonding or listening to the handler
- high fear roosters that either become aggressive or panic when near the chicken keeper
- keeper becomes dissatisfied with raising aloof or fearful birds
None of these issues should ever happen to chicken keepers. Coupled with the already mentioned imprinting, chickens are highly social and intelligent birds that seek out attention and affection. I rehabilitate and retrain chickens that have been abused or neglected (or both, usually both) by humans. Initially terrified and resistant – none of the birds retain their fears and through habituation and desensitization they all learn to trust humans again (treats help…a lot). Chickens are amazingly resilient and emotionally flexible.
If we can get abused birds to do this – think how easy it is when you do it right from the start! Piece of cake. And cake helps too – chickens love cake, and cheese and meal worms, and blueberries and…
From Chick to Best Friend
The key word is habituation. You need to handle you chicks from the first day they dry out into fluff stage. Do not handle wet/just hatched babies – they are exhausted and susceptible to freezing. Leave them in the incubator or under the hen, and she won’t mess with them either because she is the expert -follow her advice. Handle the mobile chicks several times a day. Cup them in your hand and cover them with your other hand. This resembles the safety of the hen’s body over them.
This “hug” is a biological need and it stimulates brain growth (dendritic growth). It is critical to creating a chick that will forever bond to you. Feed the chicks, be with the chicks when they forage, and teach them how to forage (move leaves, find bugs, etc). Pick them up daily and engage them in play. Chicks play by bobbing their head and doing a sideways kangaroo hop. They like to play chase games (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EAzPodOGpMw). Every chicken has a unique personality (breed matters much less than individual character), and trained birds will choose to spend time with you, will miss you, will jump on you for petting and will be a “feathered” dog.
All chickens should learn to “herd.” Chickens do not naturally herd – they are scattering animals that head in all directions when danger arises. If you have spent time building trust with the chicks, this is a skill you will teach to the pullets and cockerels. Chickens go through a “teenage” stage that involves rebellion and lots of testing (and they outgrow this).
They will defy you and the other older birds in the flock (who, unlike humans, will readily instruct the teenagers about social skills). Using a long pole or stick (this acts as an extension of your arm), guide the youngsters into the coop. They will try to run out and get away from you. Be persistent and continue to collect them and guide them in the direction you want.
This is a basic behavior and training tool – pressure and release. You apply pressure to ask the bird to go somewhere and IMMEDIATELY release that pressure when the bird moves correctly. If you have real troublemakers, close the other birds in and lock the troublemaker OUT (obviously, stay and watch to keep that free-ranger safe). The bird will quickly learn that being left outside all alone is not good.
You are using the chicken’s herding instinct in your favor (negative reinforcement, such as the “lock-out,” shows the animal that they can control and change situations they do not like. This is what we use a TV remote for!). As you repeat the herding exercise, the lone rangers will “get” the message. Never hit the birds (this is animal cruelty) or scare the birds – never train in anger or frustration as animals will not learn in fear. You are a teacher and they are the student.
Always offer treats when the birds are learning and to reinforce learning. Offer the treat to tell the bird that they have made the correct answer.
Cockerels train just like the girls – in fact they are easier, as the male chicken is instinctively wired to “please” and bond with others. A rooster’s job is to protect his flock. You are part of his flock and your job is to convince him that you have the same goals he has. Once imprinted to you as a chick, he will remain bonded to you. What usually happens is, as the cock matures (roughly 5-7 months of age) he begins to court.
Many keepers mistake this dancing and roughhouse “grabbing” for aggression – it is NOT – it is affection and play behavior (read more about this at: http://www.howtodothings101.com/raising-roosters-101.html). All the cockerel is doing is acting out the “grab” that he will use to ask a hen to submit for mating. He will dance, drop a wing and shuffle towards you, this is his, “I am sooo happy to see you!” Some cockerels will even “mount” the keeper. Roosters are big love bugs. Enjoy their caring!
The “grabbing” always goes away as the boy matures. Trust me, live through those rooster kisses and you will have a solid and fantastic gentleman. One last tip… if you have large breed roosters (Brahma, Dominique, Wyandotte, New Hampshire): protect the backs of hens from “treading,” which happens when heavy roosters mount the hen, by using a hen saddle that fits on the hen’s back and is held in place by her wing shoulders.
Raise your chickies right and enjoy years of wonderful backyard buddies.