Training Chickens in a Pandemic: Practices in Absurdity

Or, lessons in teaching your backyard hen to high-five.

Two pretty chickens in the grass
Detail from "Hatched Dispatches from the Backyard Chicken Movement".

University of Washington Press

During the pandemic, we have collectively learned quite a lot. Forget all the big lessons—like how to learn online, how to work from home, or how to keep friends and family close while maintaining relationships at a distance—and think of the small ones. We never baked more sourdough bread. Never canned so much jelly or sewed with such fervor. Never so confidently exclaimed to a partner or roommate, “Why yes, I can cut your hair. Hand me the kitchen scissors.” We did our nails, our dogs’ nails, started skincare routines, used Zoom, and stayed home. We stayed home.

Personally, my trajectory of time-consuming pandemic tasks varied depending on the month. I made white clover oil that putrefied in the jar; took up, gave up, then readopted knitting; gave up and then readopted reading; learned how to create Google Folders; and late-night online-purchased a plastic accordion with the hope that I’d learn to play it (spoiler: I only learned how to make the dogs howl, which, that month, was enough).

My chickens have been, for the most part, spared. Yes, they did accompany me on a cross-country road trip to temporarily join my parents’ bubble. Yes, I did uproot them to a new backyard and move to a smaller house to mitigate a personal financial crisis during widespread economic collapse. But overall, the pandemic passed over them. At least, until a certain point.

With fewer and fewer small tasks to accomplish, I was left to contemplate absurd ones. Sure, I could learn a new language or start meditating, but I couldn't stomach more lockdown-induced self-improvement.

My chickens are unruly. While I keep some chickens in a mobile tractor to ensure their safety and find the eggs they lay, the older, non-productive chickens free-range. My landlady let me know that Joan, my oldest chicken, not only chased her but pecked her hard on the behind. Somehow, Joan’s mischievous nature convinced me that she would be cooperative in training efforts.

Chickens are a lot smarter than we give them credit for, at least partially because we don’t encounter them as animals that we can train. In “Factors Influencing Human Attitudes to Animals and Their Welfare,” professor of Animal Ethics and Welfare James Serpell asserts that humans imagine animals we suspect are cognitively similar to us are viewed positively. Training animals makes us examine their cognitive abilities.

Later research, such as an article published in Animals written by Susan Hazel, Lisel O’Dwyer, and Terry Rand, reinforces Serpell’s point: after spending time training chickens, students view them as more intelligent than they did before. Chickens are a completely commoditized species, so they’re often seen as food first and creatures second, but this doesn’t undermine the fact that they understand object permanence and experience self-awareness, cognitive bias, social learning, and self-control.

My first act of training Joan focuses on getting her to come when called. This doesn’t seem like a drastic feat, but she’s often pecking at bugs or eating leftovers tossed out by my landlady. When I feed Joan or give her treats, like the remnants of breakfast, left-out hummus, or too-pasty vegan dip, I make a clicking noise with my mouth. She associates this noise with food. After a couple of weeks, she has been thoroughly Pavloved. Soon, I click and she’ll come running from clear across the yard.

I up the ante. This brings into question the difference between training and association. It seems important—for no other reason than I want it—that Joan is trained. Yes, this is absurd, but I don’t care.

First, I teach Joan to “high-five.” I manipulate a handful of chicken pellets away from her body so she must step on my hand to get food. After about 10 repetitions, she places her foot on my open hand, expecting to be fed. Soon after, I begin raising my palm while also raising the handful of treats: this directs her attention toward the goal (food) while she transfers her weight from the ground onto my body. Eventually, Joan succeeds in shifting her weight, puts both feet on my hand, and awaits treats while I lift her above my head. I hold her on the pedestal of my arm. It isn’t a big win—but it’s worthwhile.

Cover of a book with cute chickens in the grass.
University of Washington Press

One of Joan’s favorite foods is banana. My first book, "Hatched: Dispatches From the Backyard Chicken Movement," which came out in May of 2021, features Joan, and I want her to approve. In order to teach her how to pick my book from a lineup of others—in this case, I use some of my current favorites, namely "Porkopolis: American Animality, Standardized Life, and the Factory Farm" by Alex Blanchette, "Ecosocialism: A Radical Alternative to Capitalist Catastrophe" by Michael Löwy, and "Ecofeminism as Politics: Nature, Marx, and the Postmodern" by Ariel Salleah—I plastic-wrap my book, present it to her, and offer banana whenever she pecks it. Within a few repetitions, Joan has learned: peck "Hatched" by Gina G. Warren and get banana. Eventually, I can mix the lineup of books and Joan knows to go for the blue cover with her mom’s name on it. I throw in extra books from the bookshelf, and she remains confident and fruit-fed.

The point of this is nothing useful: it’s small laughs. I just want her to enjoy my company and for me to enjoy hers. Sometimes, it’s the small things that help you neutralize the ways being alive in the 21st century are overwhelming. During the pandemic, I struggled to find work, struggled to pay rent, struggled with feeling alone, struggled against the global implications of coronavirus, and I learned how to train a chicken.

We didn’t just learn small things: big things happened, too. We grappled with compassion, safety, and public policy, and the meaning of being a good person, neighbor, and family member. We watched as the country reckoned with widespread systemic racism and the impact of decades and centuries—not just four years—of intolerance. Hockey rinks were made into temporary morgues. A Supreme Court Justice who acted as a symbol of equality died. Sometimes it’s the big things that matter, but the small things that get us through the day. We can’t live on big things: we need moments of absurdity, flight, failure-without-consequences, laughter. There’s no other way out. The big things matter, everything matters, but we can’t always swallow stones without water.

One evening, I take a stack of books outside—mine included—and ask Joan, “Which one is your favorite?” Because she’s a chicken with advanced cognitive abilities, and maybe because she understands association and training and object permeance, she pecks the one that belongs to me. I give her some banana.

"Hatched: Dispatches From the Backyard Chicken Movement" is published by the University of Washington Press and is now available at booksellers.


View Article Sources
  1. Serpell, JA. "Factors Influencing Human Attitudes to Animals and Their Welfare." Animal welfare (South Mimms, England), 2004.