For those of you who don’t know, I have been working at a raptor center for the last four years, and this is where I learned everything I know about animal training. We use a contemporary, stress-free and force-free method of training that is used by many other professional animal trainers, which follows an “A-B-C” guideline. I’ve gone on to use this method on the lab chickens and turkeys I study as a poultry welfare and behaviour researcher, and I also spend nearly all of my spare time at home training my personal backyard chickens to perform a lot of the same behaviours I’ve trained on other groups like falcons and hawks. This is a very short clip of me training Arty, one of the hens I adopted from my lab to do “hops”, or short, horizontal flights. Here’s how the A-B-C method is broken down:
Antecedents: This is anything and everything that precedes a behaviour. The most obvious example in here is the double-tap I do on my forearm, which I shaped Arty to respond to in less than a day. Before she learned this “cue”, however, the antecedent was me waving a treat, or reinforcer, above my forearm. Eventually, I was able to incorporate the double-tap, and fade out having the reinforcer in plain view. There are many other different types of antecedents, though, and some may cause a behaviour that you don’t desire/intend to train. For example, any disturbance like a loud noise or a more dominant hen pushing Arty out of the way would have been antecedents for a different behaviour, such as walking or flying away from me. When training an animal, it’s important to be aware of all possible antecedents, and “arrange” them in a way that sets the animal up for success.
Bridge: This is a signal, such as a click, whistle, “good boy/girl”, etc., that acts as a line of communication with the animal, letting it know that he/she has successfully done the behaviour you asked for, and that a nice treat is coming. Timing is very important here, as you want to make sure that you are reinforcing the specific behaviour that you want, and nothing else. Bridge immediately, but only once the behaviour is completed (e.g. I only click as soon as both Arty’s feet are in contact with my arm or the perch), and deliver the reinforcer as soon as you can afterward. Note: Some facilities/trainers say that the B stands for Behaviour, which is anything that an animal does - whether it’s a desired (flying to the trainer) behaviour, or undesired.
Consequence: At its simplest, this is what happens after the behaviour. The most successful (and ethical) type of training is through operant conditioning with positive reinforcement. Here, Arty gets rewarded, or positively reinforced, as soon as both feet land on my arm, after I’ve given the cue. Use reinforcers that you know the individual you’re training loves (I literally share my meals with my chickens, but here I’m just using whole-wheat tortilla bits), and the process becomes much easier for both the trainer and the animal, and trust is built up quickly! What are the consequences of “undesired” behaviours, for example, if Arty became startled and took off? This means she gets to avoid and escape from whatever threats she perceives, whether it was the loud noise or punishment from a dominant hen. In any case, it is important for the animal’s welfare that they have the choice to do so. Whether she comes to my arm or not is up to her, and if at any point she decides she is no longer interested, or feels unsafe, she is free to go. This also helps develop trust between the trainer and the animal, and almost guarantees positive sessions.
It honestly hurts me a bit when I see or hear about chicken owners chasing their birds into their coop at the end of the day. This is totally not necessary. All it takes is just a few minutes every day building trust with them. This is usually done with food - again, take the time to figure out which reinforcer works best with each individual. Some of my hens love (whole-wheat) pasta, some don’t, my rooster would inhale blackberries whole, half of the hens don’t care for it at all, and (unfortunately) cuddles/petting don’t work as well with chickens as they do with dogs, parrots, etc., as primary reinforcers. Bridge every time before you present a reinforcer, and you’ll be surprised how quickly they learn to pay attention to it, even when they can’t see any treats. In a pinch, I get my flock to recall (come to me from wherever they are) or follow me around when I click, because they know for sure that I’ll give them the good stuff soon. Ideally, there should be a separate cue for calling them over, then bridging and reinforcing once they’re where you want them to be, but this way still works. I start clicking as soon as I get out of the car after a long day at school/work, and I can’t tell you how wonderful it feels to see them literally fly and run to me from an acre away just to greet me. I haven’t had to chase them anywhere in years, and doing so does not give them a choice and causes fear. This way is so much easier, and entertaining!
This very special boy is Millet, an old English game bantam cockerel. He’s my mom’s chicken and she loves him a ton! He loves her back and used to sit on the porch and crow until she came out to hold him. He’d follow her around, find special treats, and demand to be cuddled and held by his momma.
Over a month ago, though, little Millet had to come inside when he became very wobbly and ill. We were terrified he had Marek’s disease- and while that isn’t 100% ruled out -we’re pretty sure it’s actually a nutritional deficiency.
We’ve been working with our vet to get him healthy and back on his feet, and while he’s gaining strength he’s been laying down for so long that he’s not really able to walk anymore.
I’ve created a sling and been doing exercises to help him learn to walk again, but it’s going to take more than that. I’m wanting to get him a wheelchair from an Australian company to aid in his recovery.
The wheelchair itself plus shipping isn’t too bad, but going to the vet has been financially exhausting and we could use some help! If you have some spare change and feel like dropping it in my paypal (firstname.lastname@example.org) or my cash app ($RexandQuail) that would be super in helping this special little dude get out and be a chicken again!
If not, that’s chill too! Sharing is also a big help ❤️