Utilizing operant conditioning to train chickens reveals they are indeed an intelligent bird.
In Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens (Storey Publishing, 2017) by Gail Damerow, she walks through the steps on what you can do to keep your birds healthy and safe. This includes how to choose the right breed, protecting your flock from predation and disease, managing shelter, feed, and water, and understanding fowl behavior.
The term “dumb cluck” in referring to a stupid person is an insult to chickens. For far too long chickens have been considered not too bright, a perception that has gradually changed over the past few decades. In the 1960s, German physician Erich Baeumer wrote a little book — the title translates as The Stupid Chicken? Behavior of Domestic Chickens — in which he demonstrated that chickens are a lot brighter than most people believed at the time.
Since then, the status of chickens in general has improved to the point where some have moved from the coop to the house — and I don’t mean the hen house. Chickens have joined parrots and parakeets as house birds. I met my first house chicken in the 1970s. This hen slept at night in a basket in her owner’s bedroom, traveled in the car happily tucked in her little basket, and enjoyed watching television. I have since heard from several other house-hen owners that chickens love TV.
Although a chicken needs to spend daily time outdoors doing what chickens do — sunbathing and dust bathing, scratching in dirt, and snacking on such tasty treats as creepy crawlies and tender green things — more and more people find that a single hen of a calm breed makes an entertaining but challenging house pet. The limiting factor is the difficulty of house-training a chicken.
I have brooded lots of newly hatched chicks in my house — at one time I was known as the lady who keeps chickens in her living room — but I never had a chicken as a house pet. I did once have a rooster that was smart enough to come into the basement in the wintertime to warm himself by the wood stove whenever I was dumb enough to leave the basement door open.
That a chicken can recall the past and anticipate the future has been proven by British researchers. In 2003, Siobhan Abeyesinghe and her colleagues at the Silsoe Research Institute determined that chickens are capable of exercising self-control, which requires resisting immediate gratification in anticipation of a future benefit.
To determine if chickens are capable of self-control, they offered hens a choice between an immediate but small payoff and a larger payoff available after a delay. The impulsive hen choosing the less-delayed reward obtained less value, while the hen waiting for a more valuable reward was able to maximize her gain by showing self-control.
Hens were trained to peck colored keys giving them a choice between access to feed almost immediately (impulsive) but only for a short time and waiting several seconds (self-control) to gain access to feed for a longer period that allowed them to eat more. A significant number of the hens held out for more feed, proving chickens are capable of understanding that a current choice has future consequences.
Training a chicken is simple but not easy. It requires a consistent, methodical approach and lots of patience. It involves carefully watching the bird for the behavior you desire, letting it know at the precise moment it has done what you want it to do, rewarding it in a timely manner, and repeating the exercise until the bird gets it right every time.
This type of training is known as operant conditioning and is the way chickens and other animals normally learn how to behave, whether they are being deliberately trained or are learning to survive in their natural environment. The technique was perfected by the late Keller and Marian Breland, who founded the field of applied animal psychology, and Bob Bailey, who married Marian after Keller passed away.
The Brelands and the Baileys developed a system of training dog trainers by teaching them to train chickens. They chose chickens for this purpose because chickens are readily available, learn fast, and lack complex social interactions. A chicken is behaviorally pretty simple — focusing most of its attention on eating, not being eaten, and making more chickens — so altering its behavior is relatively simple. On the other hand, a chicken moves fast, offering a challenge to the experienced animal trainer and the novice chicken owner alike.
Until 1990, the Brelands demonstrated the results of their training method at the IQ Zoo in Hot Springs, Arkansas, where chickens and other trained animals performed tricks with little or no human intervention. In one exhibit, a chicken named Casey pecked a small baseball bat to hit a home run, then rounded the bases of a scaled-down baseball field. In another exhibit, a chicken enclosed in a fiberglass box played tic-tac-toe against human visitors.
The method perfected by the Brelands involves obtaining a desired behavior by using positive reinforcement, or a reward. A positive reinforcer may be anything a chicken wants, seeks, or needs — most commonly food. The idea is that if you reinforce a behavior, it’s more likely to occur again. If you don’t reinforce it, it’s less likely to recur.
Reducing or eliminating an undesirable behavior is done through non-reinforcement, or the withholding of a reward. It is not the same as punishment, which is difficult to apply to get the response you want. Even when punishment is successful as a training tool, it represses (rather than eliminates) the undesired behavior exhibited.
To modify a chicken’s behavior, first determine exactly what behavior you want, then shape the chicken’s behavior by breaking down your training sessions into baby steps that eventually lead to your goal. Start with a simple step the bird can easily handle and, in subsequent training sessions, gradually escalate toward your goal behavior.
To offer a timely reward, you have to know your chicken so well you can tell what it’s going to do before the bird does it; otherwise your reward will be late, and the bird won’t associate it with the desired behavior (or may associate the reward with an undesired behavior). If your chicken seems unable to grasp the concept, most likely your timing is off. Follow the established technique, and your chicken’s behavior should steadily improve. Keep your training periods short (10 to 15 minutes) and consistent, and remain calm. If you feel yourself getting upset or frustrated, end the session early.
The technique developed by the Brelands and the Baileys involves the use of a clicker to let the chicken know the precise moment it has done what you want. Using a clicker lets you avoid the inevitable delay between the chicken’s accomplishing the desired behavior and your letting it know it has earned a reward. Not all clicker training uses positive reinforcement.
Books and videotapes by the Brelands and the Baileys describe and depict their operant conditioning technique in detail. Although nothing is available solely and specifically on training chickens, the same general principles apply as are used for other animals. Do a keyword search for “training chickens” on the Internet, and you will find lots of information and some amusing video clips.