My free-range flock was at it again. They left the cozy acreage of our farm, and went to visit the neighbors. I could see them digging around the neighbor’s yard, looking for bugs, and contemplating what good things might be lurking on their back porch.
My neighbors are very nice and understanding, but I didn’t want them to be upset about having a flock of chickens hanging around on their back porch. Technically, my chickens were trespassing!
I was prepared for this, of course. So I stepped outside, and called to our rooster, “Elvis, come home!” Elvis perked up his head, looked around, and made a beeline for me, beckoning the hens to follow. And they did.
All of the chickens followed Elvis’s lead and came running as fast as their little hen feet could carry them, back to the safety of our yard and straight to me.
Of course, I rewarded them for coming home with a nice chicken treat. I had a stale loaf of bread just waiting to give to them. They happily clucked and ate, enjoying their treat.
I enjoyed their quick return, and I’m sure my neighbors were happy, too. Training chickens to come when called is worth the little bit of effort that it takes.
I think chickens are a lot smarter than people usually give them credit for. According to thehappychickencoop.com, chickens can learn to recognize as many as a hundred different people. Also, mother hens can teach their babies, and chickens can even teach each other.
They can learn to do tricks for treats and they have a language all their own that they use to communicate with each other. Mother hens will even talk to their eggs, and encourage them when they are hatching.
Chickens can learn to recognize each other, and even know when someone is missing from their flock.
So if chickens, can do all of this, they can easily learn to come when called. This is a handy practice because:
- You can call them to come to you when they are too close to the neighbor’s precious flowerbeds.
- You could call them to get them out of harm’s way – such as traffic or a stray dog or even a hawk flying overhead.
- You could call your birds to come for treats, snuggles (if you’re into snuggling your chickens, that is), checkups to make sure they are healthy,
- … or just to show off how cool your chickens are to anyone that’s willing to watch.
It is a lot easier to allow your chickens to free range if you are able to call them back to the coop when you need them to go back in.
This means you can let them out at any part of the day you like – and call them to go back whenever you like. You don’t have to wait for dusk for your chickens to put themselves to bed.
One caveat, if you just let them out, or if you just fed them, they may not be as likely to come right back. It might take a little bit of practice for you and your chickens to find the right balance.
Not only do my chickens come when called, some will even follow the command to “Go to bed, chickens!” This will send them scrambling back to the chicken coop, ready to go inside.
This is especially helpful when I need to put them to bed early, for example, if a storm is coming or if I need to go out for the evening.
The newer ones are still learning the command, but I have no doubt that they will pick it up pretty quickly. They enjoy the safety of the coop and sometimes we put food in there to reinforce what a wonderful place it is to be.
Of course, in order for all of this chicken calling to work well, you have to convince your chickens that they want to come when you call them.
This isn’t hard at all, because most of them are happy to come running for a good meal. And with a little work, and a lot of fun, you can train your chickens, too.
Patience and consistency, and lots of treats, will make a big difference in helping your chickens learn to come when called. If you are sweet and gentle, they will enjoy the process just as much as you do because of their curious nature, enjoyment of being around humans, and love of good treats!
Here’s what I do to train my chickens to come when called…
Training Your Flock to Come Isn’t Just a Trick
Now, you might be thinking that teaching your chickens to come running to you when you call them is a pretty good trick. And it is! But it’s not just a neat trick to impress your friends and neighbors.
Teaching your birds to come to you when you call them actually has very real and entirely practical benefits.
This can make your life a lot easier when you are taking care of all the many chores you need to handle around the coop or on your homestead, and it can even help keep your chicken safe from danger.
Consider the following good reasons to teach your chickens to come when you are a-callin’:
Moving the Flock
Don’t underestimate the utility of this technique when it is time to simply move your flock from one place to another.
When you condition your chickens to respond to your call, you can reliably get all of your chickens in one place from here to there with a minimum of fuss, sweating, and cursing.
Maybe it’s to take care of chores or repairs, or maybe to move them into a spot that is more amenable to the task at hand. Whatever the case, this will save you time and effort.
Another great reason to teach your chickens to come is when responding to a predator. Yes, all chickens tend to stay on the lookout for predators during the day, but they have highly varying levels of success, and their predators are many.
If you see or hear one anywhere nearby or even lurking in the distance, you can call your chickens to get them running to you.
From there you can put them in the coop or run where they will be safe, or they can just stay next to you since your presence will be deterrent enough for most predators.
Same thing as above. Sudden bad weather means danger, and its arrival is no guarantee that your birds will intelligently run for cover inside the run or coop.
Sometimes they can stay outside and get soaked or try to reach cover somewhere that they shouldn’t be, potentially getting into more trouble or even getting lost.
When bad weather is closing in, calling your chickens home and into the coop is the best response.
Understand a Chicken’s Primary Motivation: Food
Before we get on to the actual nuts and bolts of training your chickens to respond to your call, you must understand the one and really only thing that is going to motivate them reliably.
Most of you probably already guessed correctly: its food.
If chickens are awake, they are probably thinking about food: What they are eating, where they are going to find their next meal and where their favorite foods are.
The remaining, tiny fraction of their thoughts is occupied by ways to get on your nerves, and that’s it. All kidding aside, it’s all food, all the time.
Accordingly, it is only food that we will use as motivation to condition their behavior, and we do this by linking food as a reward to a stimulus, which is our call.
You aren’t going to be able to condition your chickens to come running using affection, fear or anything else. That’s just the way it is.
Chickens are surprisingly intelligent, but they aren’t cats and they sure as heck aren’t dogs when it comes to their interactions with people.
It’s Best to Train Your Chickens in an Enclosed Area
One last thing before we move on to the actual procedure: make it a point to conduct this training in an enclosed area.
Your initial attempts are going to be checked by repeated, demoralizing failures, and if given a chance your chickens can and will run around all over the place, fly up into trees, jump on your house, and generally make your life a nightmare when it’s time to round them up.
Prevent this unhappy occurrence by conducting your training inside a large run, or setting up some temporary fencing for the purpose.
Anything that can contain your chickens and prevent them from running away or getting someplace that they shouldn’t be will save you a ton of grief during training.
Now, with these few preparations out of the way let’s get on to the procedure.
Tips To Maximize the Training Process Results
Start With a Friendly Breed of Chicken
Although there are exceptions to every rule, your best chance of getting your chickens to come when called is to start with a breed of chicken that likes to be around people.
For example, Leghorns, fayoumis, and other game-type chickens are pretty skittish, and often don’t enjoy being kept as pets. They might be a little bit harder to train than a friendlier breed of chicken.
Instead, look for breeds that are known for their friendliness such as silkies, buff orpingtons, wyandottes, and australorps to name a few. These are all breeds that typically like to be around people, are smart, curious, and quite friendly.
Oftentimes, when we are sitting around in the yard, our orpingtons, wyandottes, and silkies will come over just to see what we are doing – and find out if we have any snacks! Our silkies love to meet the kids at the best stop, and follow us around the yard waiting for a few hugs.
Of course, you can find friendly individuals in any breed, but your chances are the best with choosing breeds that are known to be people-pleasing chickens.
The younger you start, the easier it will be to teach your flock to come when called. Over time, as you add more chickens, they’ll learn to come on command from the older birds in the flock. After all, if one chicken is getting a treat, the others are sure to follow so they can have one too!
If you can start with a flock of young chicks, you’ll be in great shape to get them to do what you ask. Spend lots of time with them when they are small, so they get comfortable and attached to you.
Doing this may make them more of a pet than livestock, and that’s ok, although chickens kept as livestock can learn to come when called, as well. Always offer them treats when you hold them, so they associate you with good things.
Never yell at a chicken, scare it, or drop it. Always be gentle and calm so they are comfortable with you and remain friendly.
Remember that chickens do poop – so if you are holding them, they might accidentally poop on you. Wear old clothes, and wash your hands after handling your chickens.
Give Them Names but Don’t Get Your Hopes Up
If you have a larger flock like I do, you probably won’t name each and every one. Maybe you want to name a few favorites, maybe you want to name them all. Or, maybe you just want to call them collectively, “Chickens.”
We named our rooster, Elvis, and the kids named their favorite hens. But with a flock of 40, there just isn’t time for us to teach each one of them their individual names. Either way is fine – many farmers will call their chickens with a whistle, the shaking of a can of treats, or just calling them ‘chicken.’
The key is to be consistent. A chicken can learn its own name if you want it to, and some folks say chickens can learn other chicken’s names, too. If you have multiple flocks, you could teach each flock to come to its own flock name or call.
Still the reason why we should work on calling our chickens as a flock is because it is extremely difficult to teach an individual chicken its name, as a concept, and then get it to respond to its name only.
While it’s not out of the question that you can teach a chicken its name and then teach it to come running in response to his name using the procedure above, it’s nowhere near as effective or as reliable as just teaching the flock to do the same thing as a whole.
6 Easy Steps to Training Your Chickens to Come When Called
Step 1: Pick out a Novel Treat
The first and arguably one of the most important steps to training your chickens to come when called is picking out a novel treat that you can use as a reward to incentivize them.
Remember, chickens are almost entirely food motivated and the surest and quickest way to build a connection in the brains of your chickens between your signal and them coming to you is food.
But, don’t pick just anything. Your treat should be something that your chickens love, something that is generally healthy for them since you’re going to be giving them a lot of it and something that they don’t get as part of their regular diet.
Basically, you want it to be delicious and something that they only get because you specifically give it to them as a reward for obedience.
You have many options in this regard. Mealworms are a popular and perennial favorite, as are unsalted pumpkin seeds.
You know your birds, and know what they get to eat on a regular basis, so just choose your treat accordingly.
I like to feed our chickens table scraps, so after every meal, when there are leftovers to share, the kids or I will go outside, call them chickens, and feed them the treats. We don’t even need to call them for this – when they hear the back door open, they all come running for something good to eat.
You may want to pick a treat that your chickens only get when they are responding to you. You might want to give them mealworms, or pumpkin seeds, birds seeds, or something they don’t normally have access to and keep this treat as a reward for even after they are trained.
This will keep the reward ‘special’ and they will be more willing to work for it. However, I found that any old treats or scraps that I had laying around worked just fine, whether it was crusted off my children’s peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, or left-over macaroni and cheese.
You’ll want to avoid foods such as chocolate, moldy food, green potatoes, dried beans, and avocado skins as these things can make your chickens sick. Most table scraps in moderation are just fine for your chickens, though, so don’t be afraid to give them your leftovers.
It is really fun to watch them squabble over a piece of bread or apple peels! Make sure there are plenty of treats to go around, because the dominant hens will get there first, and the more timid and shy hens may not get the treats at all. This will make it harder for them to learn to come on command.
Step 2: Decide on a Distinctive Call
Next, you need to decide on what your call will be. This is the signal you give your chickens when you want them to run to you.
This can be a verbal command or some other bridge noise you make with or without the assistance of a noisemaker.
Some chicken keepers call for their flock by name using something like “chickee-chickee,” “ah-yup”, or similar words and phrases, but you could whistle, click your tongue, ring a bell, use a pet clicker, shake the treat can/jar or something else.
A couple things to keep in mind: this should be a sound that is distinctive, meaning your chickens can recognize it and it won’t be confused for other common sounds in their environment.
It must be something that you can do every single time you engage in training and do it repeatedly when necessary.
Second, for what it’s worth, in my experience chickens seem to respond better to sounds rather than words, so if you have no special preference perhaps whistle or use something else that makes a distinctive, loud sound.
Step 3: Start Linking the Food with the Call
All right, with the treat and the call both determined it is time to start associating one with the other in the minds of the flock: signal = treat.
To do this, you’ll want to wait until the chickens are all together in a group and then make the sound prior to giving them the treat.
Unless they’re in a small run, the best way to do this is when they are in the coop, either if you are able to get inside with them or give them the treat immediately prior to letting them out.
Simply, all you need to do is give the signal and then spread the treat out on the ground or they can get it.
Make sure you drop enough food that every chicken in your flock can get some. You don’t need to drop a ton; not enough to make a meal, just enough to incentivize them.
Repeat this step for at least a week, a couple of times a day if you can.
As you add new chickens to your flock, you’ll find that it gets easier to train the new chickens. This is because the new birds will easily learn from your original flock, making the process faster and simpler.
Even if you don’t have a need to call your chickens every day, it is a good idea to keep practicing on a regular basis. It’s fun to get the whole family involved and this will help your chickens remember the lessons they worked so hard to learn.
Step 4: Call the Chickens, Give Treat when they Come
After a week of performing step 3, it is time to see if the chickens will actually come to you when you give the signal.
When your chickens are out and about in the run or free ranging, call them and see if they come running. If they do, great, reward them with the treat!
If they don’t, that’s okay, continue with step 3 as outlined above. If a few chickens come running but others don’t, reward the chickens that do come, wait a few seconds, then call them again and see if the stragglers come.
When they do, reward all of the chickens again, and even if the stragglers don’t come, reward the birds that are still nearby. It is crucial that you’re consistent in order to reinforce the conditioning.
With time, the chickens that are hesitant should begin to fall into flock behavior, and when they see their friends and relatives come running they might tag along too even if they aren’t otherwise of a mind to do so.
Step 5: Increase Treat Interval
Once you’ve established success at getting your flock to come when called, start delaying the dispensing of the treat by a few seconds each time you call.
The idea is that your chickens should come running, and then wait calmly for the food to arrive.
If they come running and then lose interest and wander off if the food does not appear immediately, this technique will be less useful in the long run because you won’t be able to take advantage of their natural flocking behavior.
Teaching them to wait as part of the bargain may be necessary. Ideally, the bulk of the flock should come running to you with a few stragglers bringing up the rear, and the ones that get there first will wait patiently until the others have arrived.
Once they reliably do this, you can wait until all chickens arrive before treating them.
Step 6: Repeat
Repetition and consistency is the name of the game when teaching your chickens to come. Be consistent with the signal, be consistent with the food and always give enough food so that you are sure each chicken gets at least one bite of treat.
Done correctly and consistently, it should only take two weeks, maybe three, for your chickens to moderate their behavior accordingly.
Once they’ve learned to come on command and the good behavior has been reinforced enough, you should be able to call them without giving them a treat.
Some chickens may or may not learn that the jig is up, and stop coming when called if the food is not forthcoming, but others will continue to come even without a food reward.
If in doubt, don’t hesitate to rely on your treats for the foreseeable future and you shouldn’t have any issues in that regard!
Training Tips From Other Experts
Cackle Hatchery offers a few extra tips on training your chickens. They explain that eating is a chicken’s primary activity, so offering treats will help them learn faster.
They suggest using scratch grains, mealworms, and even sunflower seeds to train your chickens. Over time, you can substitute less exciting treats, such as leftover bits of apple or pumpkin.
If you are working to train the chickens to go into the coop, make sure you offer the treats inside the coop. If you are training the chickens to come to you, then make sure you give them the treats directly when you call them to come.
Manna Pro also gives some great chicken training tips. They believe that chickens watch and think about what their owners are doing. They’ll learn about your particular patterns and habits just like you learn about theirs.
They have object permanence, which means they know an object is still there even when they can’t see it. This helps them learn more quickly.
Even better, Manna Pro suggests following the lead of the rooster. Since roosters like to ‘tidbit’ or show their ladies where the food is, they recommend doing a little tidbitting yourself. Not only does offering up treats help chickens learn tricks, it also helps them bond with you.
Once your hens learn to come on command, you might want to try some other lessons as well, because chickens can learn other tricks, too.
You might try teaching them some fun tricks such as jumping through a hoop, doing a small obstacle course, and even riding the handlebars of a bike. Chickens will do a lot just to get a treat!
Hobbyfarms.com gives us some ideas for training chickens. They like to play Follow the Feeder. They teach their chickens to come when they see the white scratch bucket.
They also teach their chickens to jump by holding their hands outstretched, with a treat in it, just above a chicken’s head, commanding in to jump!
Over time, as the chicken learns to jump on command, you can hold the treat farther away from the chicken to get it to jump higher. And of course, they like to train their chickens to eat right from their hands.
Become the Chicken Whisperer
Your chickens can respond to your call, as a flock, if you follow the procedure outlined above.
By exploiting the high level of food motivation that chickens have in conjunction with their flocking behavior it is possible to get your flock moving in the direction you want them to go- so long as you are there and have a little bit of food for them!
However, the key to training your chickens to come when called is… you! It’s really about patience and consistency, alongside of great treats. A little practice goes a long way to teaching these highly intelligent birds to come when called.
Not only is it helpful for their safety and your convenience, teaching chickens to come when called is a lot of fun, and a nice bonding experience for your family.
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Amanda is a homesteader and a Jesus-loving, mother of 6 toddlers. She’s raising lots of fancy chickens and goats on her small homestead (among other things).