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Poultry in Motion

or, Why I spent two days in a shed learning to clicker-train chickens

 

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Most permaculturalists are familiar with chickens as a key component of a happy garden. They are rightly lauded as scrap-munchers, egg-providores, fertilizer-factories and pest controllers par excellance. But had you considered them as connoisseurs of coloured counters, or discriminating dragon slayers?

On July 16 & 17, I joined about thirty other students – a mixed bag of dog trainers, zoo keepers, vets and common garden animal lovers – to learn the gentle art of chicken whispering from legendary dog trainer, Terry Ryan.

Terry visited Tasmania at the invitation of local animal behaviourist, Jade Fountain, of Animal Behaviour Matters, to conduct the two day workshop at Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary.

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Terry teaches her two day “Chicken Camp” courses primarily to help people become better trainers of dogs and other animal. As in all of her training courses, there is a focus on encouraging behavioural change through positive reinforcement, rather than through punishment. For those who know her as a dog person, her chicken training courses may seem a little incongruous. However, Terry deliberately chooses to use chickens as training subjects (or teachers, if you like), because

  • Unlike your dog, the chickens do not love you. I’m sorry, but it’s true. They have a limited attention span, and their primary motivation is food. While this limits their utility as lap-pets, these traits make them perfect to help people hone their reflexes for training other, more forgiving animals.
  • Humans have co-evolved with dogs for tens of thousands of years, and as such, we are quite good at reading one another. Chickens are another matter – as many people are not intimately involved with poultry, they lack chicken mind-reading skills, which in a training course, promotes an increased attention from the trainers.
  • Everyone starts on a level playing field. Dog trainers who have trained dogs for years have as little experience with chickens as people who’ve just walked in off the street. It’s also unlikely that anyone has developed any bad chicken training techniques prior to coming to class.
  • Chickens are easily acquired in large numbers from local farms – in this case, our feathery teachers were acquired largely from a local free-range farm. These Plymouth Rock crosses were joined by a handful of rescued ex-battery Isa Browns, and a trio of delightful bitzers sourced from somebody’s grandmother.

Chickens also have a keen eye for detail, and can see all of the colours that we do, as well as in the ultraviolet spectrum [Link to a good article on this here: http://mikethechickenvet.wordpress.com/2012/03/30/chicken-vision/]. They are great “edge discriminators”; they clearly perceive boundaries between objects, helping them spot tiny insects lurking under leaves, or predators hovering overhead. This trait, coupled with their unquenchable desire to peck at things, leads Terry to focus her introductory training exercises on teaching her students to teach the chickens to peck at colourful plastic counters.

Terry uses clicker training to reinforce positive behaviours when observed. Clickers are a small handheld device, which you activate with your thumb to produce a distinct ‘click’. When training hens, the click is closely followed by a treat – in this case, a peck into a cup of chicken pellets, cracked corn, or for the especially unmotivated chicken, live meal worms. Prior to the course, Jade had devoted considerable time handling the birds to ensure that they were conditioned to be comfortable with humans – any chickens who did not want to hang out with people, be frequently handled, or be otherwise involved in the training process were given the option not to participate.

The first day of the course introduced newbie trainers like myself to the concept of “shaping” a behaviour, in this case, pecking at a plastic counter. Trainers worked in pairs, where one person was the designated ‘coach’ and chicken wrangler, and the other took the role of active trainer. The training teams first needed to decide which behaviours they would choose to reward. Behaviours could include taking a step towards the plastic counter, a glance in the general direction of the target, or a dip of the head below a certain height on the table. Chickens were then given thirty seconds on the table, and were rewarded for any previously defined movements that seemed to bring them closer to the target. These sessions were short – no more than thirty seconds – interspersed by short breaks to discuss tactics. A small cluster of short sessions, followed by a long break, prevented learning fatigue in the chickens, and also stopped them from gutsing themselves to the point of indifference.

Harrier, my randomly assigned chicken, was a complete gun. Hungry for learning, or more likely, for pellets, she quickly discovered that the yellow counter on the table paid out a steady supply of treats when pecked with vigour. By the second day, we had her discriminating between four different colours of counters (only the yellow one paid), which we moved around to make it trickier. Harrier would not be swayed. Even largely hidden under another counter, she unerringly struck at the yellow disc to claim her pellet paycheck. Other chickens focussed on different skills – some learnt to fish, picking little plastic fish out of a bowl, while others were “dragon specialists”, slaying plastic dinosaurs by pecking them off the edge of the table.

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What does any of this have to do with my permaculture garden?, I hear you all ask. Potentially, quite a bit. Learning skills to positively reinforce good behaviour in animals can be the first step towards developing a better relationship with the animals you live with, be they chook, dog, rabbit or goat. In our garden, I have a specific job in mind for my Pekin frizzle bantams – slug control. Slowly, but surely, I will convince them that rather than being disgusting slimy things that get goo on your beak, slugs are actually a delicious treat that comes with a sunflower seed chaser!

For more information on Terry’s training programs at Legacy Canine, go to www.legacycanine.com

For more information on Jade at Animal Behaviour Matters, go to www.animalbehaviourmatters.com.au

For more information on Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary, or to volunteer with them as an animal taxi driver for injured native wildlife, go to www.bonorong.com.au

To watch an Open ABC short documentary on the two day course, go to https://open.abc.net.au/projects/my-crazy-passion-09qa6xy/contributions/jade-chicken-training-92fn6dc

Permaculture Tas thanks Nicole Gill for her words

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