Using both operant and classical conditioning, I attempted to teach a hen to recognize and then peck the Queen of Hearts when presented with multiple playing cards. Like Pavlov’s experiment with dogs, I paired a neutral stimulus, the sound of a clicker (NS), with unconditioned stimulus, chicken treats (UCS), to produce a conditioned response (CR), pecking only the Queen of Hearts. Like other domesticated animals the most effective method of training a chicken is to offer her a treat immediately after performing the desired action. Much of a chicken’s day is spent hunting, scratching and pecking for food so playing food related games with them is fun for both of you. Playing games with your chickens can help prevent them from becoming bored, which can lead to aggressive behavior. It is important that the hen be comfortable around people and in a familiar environment. It also helps if the hen is hungry but not so hungry as to be agitated. The desired response will be achieved only through reinforcement. At no time did I subject them to any form of punishment. I allowed her to decide when she had enough and would be returned to the run with the others.
The first thing I needed to do was to determine which of our three hens would be easiest to train. With a small bowl of pellets in one hand and a clicker in the other, my son Wynn sat in the middle of the chicken run. All three hens gathered around him having been pre-conditioned that a human entering the run meant it was feeding time. Holding the bowl high in air Wynn would click a clicker then immediately present each chicken with the bowl of treats, allowing each one peck before raising the bowl out of reach again. The session lasted for several minutes and was repeated throughout the day. With repetition the chickens began to associate the sound of the clicker with the presentation of the food bowl. Along with conditioning the animals, I was also able to observe each chicken to determine which of the three I would select for further conditioning. Our Easter Egger (Ethel) lost interest quickly and was the first to be eliminated. Both Lucy, the Buff Orpington and Pete, the Barred Plymouth Rock played along for quite some time but eventually Pete wandered off leaving Lucy the clear winner and my chicken of choice for the experiment. Unfortunately, due to the Thanksgiving holiday and other commitments, a week passed before I resumed the experiment. I rightly assumed there had been a weakening of the prior conditioning (extinction) but fortunately, reconditioning happened quickly.
After a few more sessions with Lucy I was certain she associated the sound of the clicker with treats. To eliminate competition from the other hens I carried out the remainder of the training with Lucy in the coop while Pete and Ethel remained in the run. The run is along side the coop so Lucy could still see and hear her colleagues, preventing her from becoming anxious due to separation as chicken are social animals. During each session I allowed her to decide when she had enough and would be returned to the run with the others.
The next objective was to get Lucy to peck at a Queen of Hearts playing card. To do this I held a raisin under my thumb as I presented her with the card. Each time she pecked at the card I clicked the clicker and presented her with the bowl of treats that now consisted of chopped peanuts, raisins, apricots and figs, allowing her one bite before raising the bowl out of her reach again. After a few sessions I stopped placing the raisin under my thumb and just presented her with the playing card which she pecked anyway. I responded by clicking the clicker and presenting her with the bowl of treats. After a few sessions using only the Queen of Hearts I began to introduce numbered, black spade or club cards along with the Queen of Hearts. Much to my surprise she immediately pecked the Queen. Next I proceeded to lay cards in front of her one at a time beginning with the numbered black cards. Lucy looked at each but did not peck until I laid down the Queen of Hearts. I increased the number of black cards and again she selected the Queen. Next I introduced numbered, red heart and diamond cards, still she found the Queen. I began to slide the cards around changing their order, still she found the Queen of Hearts. It wasn’t until I added another face card that she chose the wrong one but when I did not give her a treat she looked again and found the Queen of Hearts.
I could continue to work with Lucy until she could find the Queen of Hearts in a pile consisting of nothing but face cards but the ultimate test would be to condition her to peck a different card (re-conditioning). I could also attempt higher-order conditioning, pairing another neutral stimulus, such as a flashing light with the sound of the clicker but it is more likely that I will build obstacle courses for them to run.
My inspiration for this experiment came after viewing (Chicken Training: The Art and Science of Animal Behavior” by Dr. Sophia Yin, DVM, MS. Dr. Yin is an internationally acclaimed veterinarian and animal behaviorist.