I have had several people Email me recently with inquiries on how to approach their skittish chickens, so I figured my next post should focus on that! That means today we're going to focus on how to catch that one hen that hides under the coop and cries when you try to catch her, or the rooster who screams, flails, and cowers in a corner when you try to pick him up. Let's even talk about the chickens who will eat from your hand, but high-tail it out of there if you so much as raise your free hand to pet them.
Let us first look back on some thoughts previously encountered in this blog. Firstly, that an animal feels safest and most comfortable when in a submissive position built on trust. That means that you, the owner of your flock and dominant being of the flock, have taken the time to convey to your animals that none of them have any reason to want to take control of any situation and that, in fact, you can and will handle it. This helps relieve much of the stress the animal feels in a dominant role when it comes to trying to supervise and micromanage everything going on around it. All of that constant vigilance will only lead to stress, distrust, and ultimately aggression. When someone else is taking care of that, the animal can let go of needing to take care of every situation, feeling calm and safe in a lower position. Remember, humans have created an idea that dominance is power and that power is desirable - this is a human concept, and animals perceive their positions in social orders very differently.
Building off of that idea, let's say that any animal who is skittish is living in fear. No one wants to live in fear - this is a horrible state of living, and it, too, can lead to aggression. Fear-based aggression. Where the other type of aggression manifests as a need to keep one's social group safe because the individual feels that no one else is doing a good enough job on that front, this type of aggression manifests as a need to keep one's self safe because they do not feel that the environment in which they exist is safe enough to let their guard down. Once you take hold of your position of dominant flock member, you should be able to eliminate fearful and dominant behaviour in your chickens, essentially eliminating fear and aggression.
So now that know the importance of how to convey dominance, and you've learned in previous posts how to be dominant... how do you build trust? Trust is built by a series of positive events... but not random positive events. The positive events must always be associated with something specific - in this case, good behaviour. Never give your chicken a treat "just because". Always ask for something. You can ask for your chicken to come to you, for them to jump, for them to follow your hand, or to peck at a certain trigger ( such as target training with dogs, many people use post-it notes or stickers ), or in the case of this post, why not use treats and praise for being pet or tolerating being picked up?
If a treat should be given upon the basis of a desirable behaviour, let us now ask ourselves...what is a treat? A treat is anything that can be associated with a positive emotion - a release of feel-good chemicals. For many animals, physical contact releases these feel-good chemicals. Without spoken language, there is no other way to truly communicate with another sentient being, so physical contact says everything a complex being needs to say in the whole spectrum of positive to negative feelings. For this reason, I often times use petting and scratching instead of edible treats for my chickens - that and it is much, much cheaper. Another way a chicken conveys positivity to another chicken is by making a long sometimes very high-pitched, sometimes very low-pitched coo. So when I say, "Oooooooh~, who's a gooooood booooy?" I am mimicking that safety sound and reinforcing a positive association with myself. Sometimes, if my chickens have been particularly good, I will take them out and give them whole body massages. I push my fingertips deep into their muscles and rub all over - up and down, around in circles, in and out... I rub their heads, their necks, backs, tails, thighs, knees, legs, wings... especially in areas with joints and where lots of movement takes place, and especially on large muscles where tension can build up. Lastly, many people will swear by food products. Many animals, and many people, are very food driven, and animals have a good reason to be food driven - it's in their instincts much more than it's in ours. However, food treats can lead to obesity and other health problems if overused, but ALL treats can lead to unwanted behaviours if not used correctly, too.
With your chickens, it is okay to make a big deal out of good behaviour. Conversely, you should never, ever make a big deal out of bad behaviour. Discipline for the bad behaviour, but be quiet, calm, and quick while doing it. Never put emotion behind your discipline, or you will begin to slip into the territory of punishment instead. As a reminder: Discipline is something your animal can understand ( speaking in their language such as pecking ) whereas punishment is actions that they do not understand ( such as hitting or shouting ). Even if your chicken just pooped on your favourite dress shirt, your wife's wedding dress from fifty years ago, if he accidentally knocked a precious china off the table, or even if he attacked you for coming into the coop - NEVER shout at him, and NEVER hit him. I will use a loud, firm, "HEY!!" when I'm not happy with a chicken's behaviour, but that is a single noise used as an alert to get attention. All chickens know what a quick, loud sound means - that means look at it to observe it any make sense of it. However, if you continue shouting, it will only frighten the animal and confuse it. When I shout "HEY!!" I make certain to come over there and correct the behaviour right away, but that sound is a way of indicating that something happened right then as opposed to the little while later when I actually reach them - in other words, it's an alert used to reinforce immediate feedback.
On the flip side, when you coo to your animal, pet it, and cuddle it when it shows a negative emotion ( fear, stress, anger... ) you are reinforcing it to feel that way. You are praising the animal for being stressed, thus encouraging it to continue being that way. When you say, "Oh you poor thing," or, "I'm so sorry," the animal has no idea what you're saying. All they really know is that while they're upset, their person is being nice. Consider that chickens catch on to patterns very quickly, and we can clearly see how easy it is for them to correlate negative behaviours - especially skittishness - with our own desire to be comforting and reassuring in the only way we know how - the human way, which is not the way that our animals know.
On that note, it is also a bad idea to put too much emotion into correcting a nervous-based negative behaviour. NEVER coo over your chicken and say, "Oh you poor thing! Are you alright??" while snuggling and petting it. This gives positive reinforcement to be afraid of a situation. When I accidentally bit my rooster's comb ( I fell backwards while holding him, and he threw his head back, sticking his comb into my mouth right when I bit down ), I felt AWFUL about it - he has two huge, deep scars on either side of his comb to this day - but I did NOT fuss over him. I checked the wounds to assess them, then I quickly cleaned them and patched them up. I was quiet and calm the whole time, and he let me handle him just fine, even while I was holding big wads of toilet paper onto his comb in order to stop the bleeding. THEN I told him I was sorry about what I did, petted him, and gave him a big hug - because he had been such a good boy, putting up with me even after I hurt him like I had. To this day he has no lasting psychological damage from me biting his comb - he even lets me nibble at his little spikes without fear of them being chopped off despite my track record!
When dealing with chickens, especially roosters, many people will choose that trust is impossible so fear is the way to go. They also choose to believe that a rooster that is submissive to you will not protect his hens. Neither of these statements are true. Some people also say that allowing a rooster to mate will up his aggression! The truth of the matter is that when an animal still has its testes, the testosterone in the body will either manifest as a sexual drive or a fight drive. Even in real, wild flocks of jungle fowl the lesser males will sometimes mate with females without upsetting the order of things - after all, the dominant male can't service all of the hens in sometimes gigantic flocks. You can ALWAYS teach your rooster that you are not a threat to his flock and to respect you without forcing him to fear you, which means nobody gets spurred and your chickens aren't stressed with you around. Even if your solution is to eat the offending animal, a stressed chicken is not as good for us because of the stress chemicals in the meat and it doesn't taste as good.
Many people will suggest kicking your rooster if he is aggressive, but this is a very, very bad thing to do. He doesn't understand what a kick is, and since it is physically painful and very frightening, he will perceive it as a threat. He may leave you alone after that, but that is ONLY because he is more interested in trying to find a way to get near enough to attack again without being punted across the yard than any real respect. In fact, he does NOT respect you or see you as "alpha" when you hurt him - he sees you as a THREAT that he doesn't know how to deal with. This seems very illogical to me since most people who have roosters have them to protect their hens, and then they become angry when the rooster attacks them despite the fact that due to previous encounters, they have clearly labelled themselves as a threat to the rooster's hens! Needless to say, violence begets more violence.
Speaking of roosters, most of the Emails I have received have focused on skittish roosters, and at least one Email stated that their rooster became skittish "once hormones came in". Skittishness is just the opposite end of the bad behaviour spectrum as aggression - and as stated above, it can even lead to aggression, even so far as the rooster that attacks people on sight! More often than not, the rooster that attacks on sight is a very fearful rooster, indeed. But let's talk hormones. Your rooster's testes are located in the middle of his back under his rib cage. Due to this neutering him ( or "caponizing" as it's called in the chicken world ) is VERY dangerous since it's an internal surgery on a small animal - and a bird, no less. There is only about a 25% survival rate for capons ( roosters that have been neutered ) due to how little it is practised in this time and area. This means that unlike dogs, cats, and other animals with external sexual organs, neutering is not an option. Now, when we neuter our dogs, we do it to make them MORE controllable... which means, they were controllable to begin with, just not as much as they would be without their sexual drives. What this means to the chicken owner is that even if your chicken has a sexual drive, it is NOT impossible to modify behaviour, even with hormones in the body. Each and every time you find yourself frustrated with your animal, before blaming the hormones, or the animal's mental capabilities, take a step back, a deep breath, and remind yourself, "This is NOT impossible! This is going to take a whole lot of dedication, continuity, and patience on my behalf, but I LOVE my animals and that's okay! It is possible to help my animals even if difficult!"
Here's the part you all came for, right? Well, first let's look at what's really needed in your techniques. The common factor in skittish birds is humans. Each and every one of these chickens is skittish around humans. Whenever their human approaches, touches, holds, or even speaks to them, they run, flail, scream, jump, fly, dig, or otherwise try to escape. So clearly the solution to these birds being afraid of humans is to add more humans into their lives! We want to desensitise these birds to humans, while training them that humans are good. This means associating positive experiences with humans, and encouraging the release of feel-good chemicals in association with human interaction. You cannot FORCE an animal to feel good, so this is going to be ALL about patience and perseverance - and remember that you are solely responsible for your animal's ability to feel good from their environment to the food they eat to they way they perceive you.
First we have to catch the birds, though. I have heard a net on a stick like you buy for fishing works great, and I personally have used the stick-string-box method where you have a box held up by a stick with a string on it, and when the bird walks under the box you pull the stick out and the box traps the bird. I only used this method as a child on the songbirds in the backyard, but if it worked with them I don't see why it wouldn't work with a chicken. Alternatively, put something the chicken likes in a kennel, and when they walk into the kennel to check it out, snap the door shut. You can even tie a string to the door to close it from afar! Those are a few immediate methods to capturing your chicken, but slower, trust-building methods can be used, too, such as just going out and hanging out with your chickens every day to get them used to your presence. Walk around with them, follow them, do some gardening with them around to build up trust from afar.
So now that we've talked concept and catching, let's look at some different methods on working with shy birds, and hopefully one - or a combination of methods will work for you.
The common factor amongst skittish chickens is one thing: Humans. This clearly means the animal needs to be exposed to lots and lots of humans without anything bad happening. Like dogs, you can help your chickens calm down by touching them in certain ways that help the muscles to relax. With my rooster, his "calm button" is for me to hold him with my hands around his wings and chest, and his feet just barely touching the ground. He stands straight-legged for a few seconds, and quickly I can feel his entire body relax, and if I kept hold of him he would slowly lower right into a sitting position for me. He also relaxes if I slowly but firmly take two fingers on either side of his back and trace from under his arms down to his tail. My little rooster calms down if I scratch him on the underside of his wings. Almost all chickens will not like having their back touched at first, but once they get used to it almost all chickens will calm down when their hind end just above their tail is massaged. One rooster that I rehomed awhile ago really, really loved having the bottom of his feet massaged. Chickens respond really well to physical contact when that physical contact is coming from a calm source.
One way I would suggest exposing your shy chicken to lots and lots of people is to get a large dog crate - one that is wired on all sides, so your chicken can see what is going on around it at all times - with a kennel in the middle so your chicken has a place to feel safe, and place the crate in a main thoroughfare such as a living room or by the front door. It water bowls become an issue ( and the will because your chicken will want to stand on them ), either train them not to stand on dishes, or use a water bottle such as the ones used for guinea pigs. Provide your chicken with only a small amount of water in bowl form when introducing it to the bottle, and twice a day ( morning and night ) take your chicken and gently shove their beak into the spout of the bottle until they get some water in their mouth. You can even do this repeatedly every few minutes, or every few hours if you have the time and energy. Every single one of my chickens caught onto the water bottle in no more than three days - and after my first set learned, it seldom took more than an hour for a chicken to observe the others using the water bottle and figure it out. Now, it HAS taken about a year for my chickens to learn a method of using the water bottle that does NOT include biting the spout, shaking it, and splashing water everywhere... but it's still MUCH less mess than a bowl being flipped every few minutes.
Each time you pass the cage, maybe say your chicken's name, elsewise just be quiet and calm. When the chicken is still nervous and not sure what to make of the situation, do not touch the cage, talk to the chicken, or even look at it - you do not want to associate yourself engaging with your animal with fear and discomfort. Your chicken is going to look up to you as a role model, and if you have another member of the flock who is nice and docile around people, maybe room your skittish chicken with them so that they have another role model to work off of. When your skittish chicken sees that they're getting along just fine - and maybe even getting treats for being so calm - he'll start to behave that way, too.
Another good reason to have your skittish chicken roomed with someone else is because when you go to integrate them back into the flock, they have someone who can, in a sense, vouch for them. Always take one of your calmer members of the flock and place them in with the chickens that are going to be introduced for a couple of hours ( or until you feel the ambassador chicken is content with its guests, and everyone is calm and trusting around each other ) before introducing new chickens to a flock. With the ambassador chicken, the new chickens have a right of passage from an existing member who is able to say to the others, "No guys, really, they're cool. They're with me." It might not eliminate fighting and establishing a pecking order ( which does not need to be made or maintained by the chickens - check out previous posts about how to make your own pecking order based on good behaviour ), but it will definitely ease the transition. You can even try little by little adding one chicken in at a time of the existing flock, until you have a good five or six who are interacting well with the newcomer, and then add all of them into the larger flock at once.
In theory, the massive exposure to humans in this new setting should desensitize your chicken to the presence of humans. The next step is to reach into the crate and pick up your skittish chicken, therefore desensitizing him to physical contact as well. If he's still skittish of physical contact, read on for ways to slowly introduce physical contact as a good thing...
This method works because you are asking the chicken to eat from something you are holding WHILE touching the bird, getting across that food comes from YOU and not the ground, feeders, jars, or what-have-you. Respect shall be given unto the food giver... if they understand that the food comes from you!
Basically, what I do in this method is I get a jar and fill it with chicken food. I place the chicken I want to socialise into isolation, and reach in past the chicken to fill up a food bowl. Since the isolation chamber is so small ( I did this particular method with a very skinny, bullied bird that was isolated for only about two weeks, so I wanted a small holding area so that it could build up weight without overexerting itself ), the chicken is forced to put up with you mussing about its enclosure. Once the chicken figured out that food came from the jar to the bowl in the back, she was soon at the front of the cage when it came time to feed her in the morning and evening. I would only give her enough food that it would have JUST run out by the time I came to fill it up - to give them any more would take away their motivation to come forward to the proffered food - or at least, it would take longer. Once she came to the front, I would hold the jar there for her so she could eat out of it, but only while I was holding it. After she would eat from the jar for a short while, I would then pour her food into her bowl and let her be.
Once she was comfortable eating from the jar while I was holding it, I began to use my free hand to get her used to physical interaction. I started by holding my free hand open-palmed towards her next to the jar. Then I gently touched her side or her breast, and would hold my hand there until she ate some and I would empty the jar into her bowl. Alternatively, you could put your free hand on the mouth of the jar so she has to eat through your fingers, or so that she has to push up against it in order to get to the food. Then I slowly moved my fingers just a little bit on her breast when giving her the jar. Then little strokes. Then I worked my way up her head until I could have my finger on her little pea comb and she didn't mind. Then I worked my way down her back, to her tail, to her legs and fluff. As I mentioned before, most chicken's DO NO like having their backs touched until they learn to accept it as a positive experience, but once they do trust it, they really seem to enjoy it.
Ultimately, I could pick up this chicken and feed her while holding her and petting her. This method takes awhile and requires daily upkeep, but it's a sure-fire way to build trust with a shy chicken. The only thing I don't like about it is the reliance on food as a source of positivity. Your ultimate goal should be that your presence, touch, and voice are just as desirable praise as food, if not more so. In that, it would seem that food is only a tool - and a crutch at that... but still, a good way to bridge the gap of trust when you don't yet have that solid of a relationship with your birds.
This method is sort of like the human exposure method, except with this method you don't have to house your chicken indoors - he can still live outdoors, but gets the indoor human exposure at the same time. This one is a little different, however, in that you'll begin your tolerance training with a direct confrontation, forcing your chicken to be in a calm state of mind immediately as opposed to working into it. Another thing to consider is that chickens process what they see very similarly to us, which means unlike many other animals, they can actually view a television or computer screen and see it about the same way that we do. It has even been proven that chickens can learn by observing the actions of another chicken on a television screen.
With this method you start at night when your chicken that needs social work is in the coop, roosting for the night. Go out and grab this chicken by slipping one hand under their belly, and sliding their legs between your fingers. Make sure you grip near the body so that you're not putting undue stress on the tarsus [hock]. With your other hand on his back, holding firmly ( perhaps even holding their wings between your fingers so they can't flap away and hurt themselves ), pull the chicken off the perch. At this point, I expect that they'll make an uproar. My solution is to flip the chicken upside-down and hold them like that until they relax. This position is naturally calming to the chicken, but be careful as it's also a very dangerous position. If held upside-down for too long ( I've mostly read about a half hour ), blood can rush to their head and kill them, their lungs can collapse, and if something happens to be in their mouth at the time, they can choke on it. Despite all of this, I have NEVER had a fatal or even casual injury or accident holding my chicken's upside-down.
When your chicken starts flailing, hold his legs firmly and using your whole hand ( unless he's a bantam ), grip the skin on the back of his neck just under his comb and pull the head down. Do not stretch his neck. This should almost immediately stop any and all flailing, and it prevents you from being bitten. If your chicken stops flailing, release his neck. If he begins to flail gain, grab his neck and hold him down again. When he's ready to stop flailing, you should feel his body relax. When this happens, flip him rightside-up. If he flails, it's back to being upside-down. Continue this until when rightside-up he is calm and not struggling. Re-situate so that you are holding onto him in a more comfortable manner - hug him, or hold him under one arm, and whenever he tries to flap or kick just restrain him until he calms down. Since chickens are good at picking up patterns, this should fairly clearly illustrate that when he is not nervous, he is not being harassed.
Take your chicken inside and set up to watch a movie. With my first human aggressive rooster ( which I rehabilitated to sleeping on the foot of my bed at night, and during the day he did a great job looking after his ladies, and was still very docile when I entered the pen ), I did all of this mentioned prior and then commenced to watch The Green Mile with him the first night. I chose a long movie just to really drill it in that this is a calm, safe environment. He sat on my lap the whole time, and any I never took my hands off him. When he tried to escape, one hand would pinch his neck and the other hand and arm would restrict his body until he calmed down again. The whole movie I pet him, too. I scratched his head, comb, and wattles, I pet his back, and placed with his wings and toes. I watched a movie with him in this manner for about five days, and then I caught him during the day and brought him in the house where I set him on the floor and walked around him. I even had the dogs walk around him, and invited them to come sniff at him. I picked him up and carried him with me while I went around the house and did some chores.
By the time my house mates chose to slaughter him, he was so docile that we grabbed him, tied his feet together and his wings to his body, tossed him up in the air a couple of times to make sure the twine held ( don't worry, it was small tosses and I made certain that I was able to catch him ), and then we hung him on a hook outside and took a knife to his throat. Not one moment was he scared, and not one moment did he make a sound of protest or fear. He was easy to catch, easy to handle, and died without the usual stress and fear building up to slaughter, meaning none of those nasty stress chemicals like adrenaline in his meat when it came time to eat. His meat was sweet and tender, and I firmly believe that to be because he was a calm and relaxed rooster.
Quick and Active
So many of us have seen those Dog Whisperer episodes where Millan walks into the house, and bam, the dog is acting totally different in a matter of minutes, right? This is sort of the equivalent to that method. This method is ONLY for those of you who have the time, energy, determination, and patience to be an active flock head and already spend a lot of time with your flock, or you're willing to make an exception for a shy chicken and spend lots of time with it in order to help it overcome is fears. The basic idea here is that you pick the bird up, hold them until they calm down, set them down, and repeat until the whole procedure can be done with a bird that's essentially a little rag doll, and this method ONLY works with lots of repetition over time - days, weeks, however long it takes to build that trust-based relationship.
To make this work you are going to need a firm hand, patience, calmness, and the ability to read when your chicken is truly calm and submissive to you. You should not speak to your chicken while they are struggling - ever. Only speak and praise when they have calmed down. When the chicken begins to flail, hold them so that they cannot do damage to yourself or themselves. I try to hold the legs and the neck on chickens I don't quite trust, and I wrap my hands around their wings and breast on chickens that I know won't bite me. Either way, when an animal is restrained they only have two options: flail or relax. Take away the option to flail, and they are forced to relax. HOWEVER, don't even use more force than necessary!! Sometimes animals will fight being restrained simply because they are being restrained too much, and as soon as you let up a little, they'll calm down. This is something I have learned working at a veterinary office, and spending a year training to become a certified veterinary assistant: "Only use as much restraint as necessary."
When you pick your chicken up, they must be absolutely calm and relaxed before you move. Then you can begin to let them down, but if they tense up again, stop your movements and just hold them there until they relax again. Soon they will learn that the more relaxed they are, the closer to the ground they get. As a modified version of this method, I pick up my tiny rooster when he's being a snot, bop him on the head, then commence to rub him against my face. I especially rub his head under my chin. It is getting across that I am boss, and there's nothing he can do about it while simultaneously encouraging calm behaviour no matter what happens to him.
Miscellaneous Tips and Ideas
You can always try to start with training chicks, but unless you know what your chicken is trying to say to you ( see my older post "What is My New Chick Trying to Say to Me?" ), it is likely that you will accidentally harbour negative behaviours. Many of these behaviours look cute when the chick is small, but manifest into larger problems as we grow. If you ever cooed around your chick when it was startled or hurt, you unintentionally encouraged it to behave that way. If your chick tried to get out of your hand once and made a fuss about it, and you let it go, you unintentionally trained your chick to WANT to get out of your hand, and if you ever pet your chicken and cooed over it while it was cowering in a corner, trying to calm it down like you would another person, you have unintentionally trained your chick that it is encouraged to be fearful of people.
However, do not fret, and do NOT hold any guilt over this! You did not know any better, and you were just trying to be a kind, sweet person. Animals see the world in the present and ONLY in the present. They have memories of traumatic events, but if you're willing to walk forward and show them that there's nothing that being calm can't fix, those memories will fade much quicker than with any human. Perhaps even in minutes! Just keep at it, keep up the good work, and even if you do screw up, make the next moment count in that you will do better and learn from it.
I would like to close by once again stressing that if your chicken is cowering from you, it does not respect you, it is not calm and in a stable sense of mind, and it is only a matter of time before it tries to aggress you again. Even hens can feel this way. Many of us have heard of "fear biting" in dogs - that's when the dog is nervous, and bites out of fear because it does not understand what is going on around it, or associates pain and fear with a situation. MOST cases of chicken biting and spurring is fear-based.
Before you get angry at your rooster and threaten to make stew, ask yourself if YOU have done anything to encourage this behaviour? Have you shouted at him, hurt him, or otherwise encouraged him to fear and be confused by you? Have you accidentally cooed at him and praised him when he was startled or upset? Are YOU upset? Remember, he's going to be reading your body language and behaviour, and he relies on you being a calm, reliable, trustworthy leader. Also remember that having a rooster that is submissive to you ( and CAN be trained to be submissive to ALL humans - children included ) does NOT mean that you'll have a rooster that won't protect his flock in your absence, and even in your absence, it's still his job to alert to danger.
Any questions, comments, concerns, or requests of a topic to be written about, please feel free to Email me or leave a comment. Please do not hesitate to Email me if your query is urgent!
I've already planned out my next post, and it's a post that MANY people have asked me about: House training. Stay tuned! I should have this one out sometime soon!