It’s Training the Rooster Time! Rehabbing “Vinny”

Rooster Training Case Study

I would like to introduce you to a young fellow named Vinny. He lives with his new family and all was going well…until… Vinny discovered he had some hidden skills.

All cockerels spar with their buddies, and with un-amused hens. This play behavior teaches the birds how to relate to others, what is acceptable in society and what gets you in trouble.

Some cockerels try out these new skills in cross-species sparring tests. The other species can be the barn cat, the dog, or you! Some roosters, like Vinny, feel uncomfortable as flock leader and work from a lack of confidence. For these cockerels, we want to build their confidence while we show them that “attacks” are not OK.

Animals are very rational, and they try behaviors to see what happens. They are like little scientists! Sometimes their “experiments” are not so endearing. Cockerels sometimes get confused and anxious, because they are not quite sure how they are supposed to behave. In a natural setting, their behavior would be swiftly and clearly shaped by older hens and dominant, older roosters. Mature roosters teach the cockerels how to act with clear signals and unwavering consistency.

It’s this confusion that turns some young males that have lived in loving and wonderful relationships with humans to “suddenly” become kung fu fighters. Just like kids, we want to keep loving on them…but, we NEED to train them.  But, unlike with kids, teaching cockerels to grow up into perfect citizens is pretty easy!

Vinny’s friend, Anne, tells his story:

Vinny was given to me by a friend at work that had too many roosters for the amount of hens that he had. He purchased a straight run of Asian Blues and had four roosters in the group. Vinny was the lowest in the pecking order and he gave him to me because he wanted him to have a good home.I always wanted a rooster because I like the crowing, but didn’t know anything else about them.  Vinny was 4 months old when we got him last August, and he’s almost a year now.  John brought him over in a cat carrier one evening after our hens had gone to roost.  We let him out in the coop and he immediately jumped up with the older hens, on top of the nesting boxes. He was huge – I was expecting something much smaller. He began bossing the girls around immediately, giving them little pecks and making noises.We watched for a while and then when things seemed to settle down, closed the door of the coop. I think I was intimidated by his size right from the beginning [Anne’s body language inadvertently told Vinny that she was not capable of being a leader. Vinny took over that role – because someone had too. Someone has to make decisions, because animals still live in a “life or death” world].

It was an adjustment for everyone.  Some of the girls took to him immediately, others were not so happy. Arabella followed him everywhere, but even though she is a beautiful hen, he was not interested in her and often chased her away.  He seemed to like Jennifer and Conchita at first, but later the other girls warmed up to him (almost all).  Vinny put a damper on the squabbling almost immediately, and I was able to put Esmerelda back into the flock [Vinny is doing his job. Roosters keep the peace and make sure everyone is safe. Even though this is instinctual, it is very stressful, especially for a young rooster without any guidance].  We kept her out  because some of the younger girls always picked on her and she was injured and needed medical treatment because both of her hips were broken.  She is doing fine today and is happy to be back in with the flock.
     Vinny was afraid of us at first. We made friends with him by hand feeding him tomatoes from the garden and bread. After awhile, he warmed up to us and would come up to us for hand-outs with the girls. We would hang around with him and the girls when they were out free-ranging, or keep an eye out from nearby. Most of the day they are in the pen. We let them out to free range for an hour or two before they go in for the night, and someone is always out with them.

 

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Vinny started jumping on our legs about a 4 weeks after we got him.  It was occasional at first, but by December, it had intensified. There’s three of us here who take care of the chickens. My husband, my son, and me.  Charlie and I are the primary care-takers because my son works at night. My son helps us on the weekends. I let them out of the coop in the morning and clean up, give them scratch and greens, and a little treat before I leave. Charlie and I let them out to free-range at night.
     Vinny started jumping on my leg when I began to give the treats out in the morning. He did the same to Charlie when he let them out of the coop in the morning. He would also get us when we let them out to free-range, especially when we were carrying the water containers back and forth to the house.  He would just come up and attack from behind [Vinny is doing what a lead rooster would do. It has no emotion attached to it. He is simply trialing behaviors that a rooster would do on other roosters to establish the flock hierarchy]. It got so that I always had an ‘eye out’ for him, and would put down the water container as soon as he came running. At first, Vinny would bounce into our legs and then would flop to the ground, but he later perfected his technique and would give two or three jumps before stopping.  This didn’t scare my husband or my son, and they would go about their business and not pay him any mind, but it freaked me out.
20160124_163221      I read all kinds of advice on the internet and tried standing still like a tree (that worked for a while), flapping my arms like a bird (this didn’t work), picking him up after the attack and carrying him around and petting him (with gloves on). This didn’t work either because he could sense my nervousness. I tried brushing him off of the hens when he would mount them, but this left him surprised and angry.  I found that I was spending less and less time in the pen in the morning because I was so scared of Vinny I just wanted to get out of there.  I used treats as a tactic to make my escape. He knew he had the upper hand.  By mid-December, I was so unnerved by him that I gave him a very wide berth and kept my eye on him at all times.  Charlie gave him the nickname ‘The Wise Guy.’
 In the video above Vinny has told Anne that he is respecting her. He still isn’t fully trusting because he felt the need to say that. A fully trusting rooster will not wing flap to you (unless he did something naughty and you caught him!). Vinny is not mature yet and he is learning about everything! What Vinny is doing is a hardwired response that a lower ranking rooster would give to the boss rooster.  He is saying, “you are the boss and I don’t want to fight.” He still has to learn that he doesn’t need to do that with people, because they will not attack him. Humans teach that by loving and doting on the rooster (stuff another rooster would NOT do). This is an amazing step forward. Yay!
1. Standing still like a tree. This CAN work. If you “hold your ground” you are subtly challenging the bird.  You must do this WITHOUT any movement or emotion. Because you are NOT leaving, you are a continued threat. The rooster will attack you. But…and this is the training part….if you remain still long enough for the rooster to realize his attempts to get rid of you are NOT working (wear a good pair of tall boots!!). He will leave and rethink his tactics. Unlike humans, animals use reason and calculation. They will not do the same thing twice and expect different results, “duh” (what Einstein defines as the characteristic of insanity!).
The key to this: You MUST stand your ground until the rooster says, “huh, I’ll have to try something new. I’m open to negotiate.”
2. Flapping arms. A great Youtube moment. This makes no sense, and I can’t imagine how someone actually came up with his. Of course you MUST wear a yellow shirt when doing this (I’m being sarcastic – can’t help it). Side tip: Clapping or slapping your sides with your hands means “that’s enough.” A rooster will also yawn when doing the slap if he feels frustrated or stressed (the equivalent of a human shaking their head – “you’ve GOT to be kidding”). The hard wing slap has many meanings in the chicken language. Other meanings of the wing side slap (all are done in a conversation’s context) are, “OK, I get it,” “I’m fed up,” “Don’t mess with me,” “I yield to you now – but won’t fully defer (the teenage eye-roll),” or “I’m exasperated with this.”
3. Picking up the attacking roster CAN work with some birds. It works because his attacks got him nowhere. For confused or fearful birds this is a great technique. However, bending to get him and holding him can put your face in danger. A rooster attack to the face can blind you – very dangerous. Training MUST keep everyone safe – the rooster and the trainer. This CAN work- use with caution. Remember when you put your face to the bird this means you are going to bite him in the chicken language. The birds all need to learn that when humans put their face to a bird it means affection. Once they learn that, it is equated with affection/grooming time. Roosters LOVE affection.
Back to Anne’s story
Things went on like this for awhile.  By February, my son was able to pick him up and hold him (even though Vinny would attack his leg too, he was fond of Vinny and not scared of him).  Vinny seemed to enjoy being held by Riley, and I wondered why didn’t he like me. Things got worse for me because the ‘attacks’ on my legs intensified.  Vinny came up to me a couple of times when I was shoveling out manure in the pen in the evening and would attack, or if I was just standing in the pen right before bedtime, he would give me a wallop. He would do it to Charlie or I when we opened the gate to let them free range.

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He would just walk right over, attack, and then walk away with the girls. In the morning, after cleaning the coop, I wouldn’t exit if he was standing in front of, or near the door.  This was always a sign that he was contemplating a move. I used treats as a way to distract him and then would make my escape fast.  I will say that he never bothered me when I was throwing scratch out in the morning, it was only after I was finished the chore of cleaning up the coop, giving them more treats, and then leaving to go back inside. I loved watching him from a distance and liked how he interacted with the girls, but I wished that I could get over my fear of him.

 This was pretty much our routine until I contacted Andrea, who gave me good advice and a lot of support through emails. I now carry a water bottle and give him a squirt when he jumps on my legs. He doesn’t like this and it takes him by surprise. I’m not afraid to be around him anymore, and going out to the coop in the morning is the pleasure it once was. Even though he occasionally ‘attacks,’ things have settled down and are much better now because I am at ease. Sometimes, I just have to show him the bottle.  I’m spending more time in the coop in the morning and not rushing out hastily. Vinny and I are interacting and are on ‘good terms’ now. I am able to pick up the hens in front of him. I am not afraid of Vinny anymore and can walk right up to him (with the water bottle in my pocket just in case).
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Vinny’s lesson! Training the rooster
How do you tell someone that you are not a threat and that you love them – without using verbal language? Animal training is all about being creative and clever.
Vinny feels confused and unsure – about everything. We needed Vinny to understand that he had to deal with his lack of confidence. This was done by controlling some of his behavior.  He developed confidence, and what we would call “manners,” at the same time. Animals feel relaxed when they feel safe. Vinny needed a leader to take some of the decision making off of him. This was done with positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement.
Vinny and Friend

Vinny enjoying some “buddy time.”

1. Negative reinforcement is not punishment. It MUST be done with no emotion. It sets up a situation where the animal learns that he/she has the power to change an outcome. Being able to predict and control situations builds an animal’s confidence. Confident roosters are regal and gentle roosters. They are happy roosters. How this worked with Vinny:
•  Vinny learned that when he launched his leg attack, he got a surprising squirt in the face from the water bottle. He learned that leg attacks = wet face. He also learned that no leg attacks  = no wet face and tranquility. Animals do not associate the squirt with you – they associate it with the action. After the first “contact” squirt I only give warning squirts. You want the bird to have the option to NOT do something and the warning lets them control the situation.
2. Positive reinforcement involved calm and happy humans handing out treats and doing appealing things for all of the chickens. This is the bonding we do with our birds. It involves our tranquil and inviting presence, good food, petting sessions and praise. Vinny always enjoyed this, but now he REALLY enjoys it, because his anxiety is going away. The videos show Vinny moving away with respect. He is calm and simply telling the humans he defers to their “wisdom” and station. Yay! This is not a bad thing.
Animals do not understand “equality.” A rooster that defers to you is only “speaking” chicken, they can’t speak anything else! When we praise that and respond, it makes the rooster feel very safe. Eventually we move forward to a more nuanced relationship where the rooster has learned to view you as their best friend and partner. We then communicate in a unique and intrinsically nuanced language. At this stage we simply talk to out birds and they will understand. Win-Win!
Building a cross-species friendship is simply amazing.  Working with animals is not a connect the dots process. We need to always be translating what the animal is telling us, we need to use “feel” and intense observation. Communication with another is complex and unique.
Stay tuned for Vinny and the Gloves – Part 2….
Note on the water squirt: The water is a tool not a game. It is also great for breaking up cock fights. You only spray the bird to get an action to stop. You do not continue to spray the bird – this amounts to teasing and is an act of animal cruelty.  Abuse has no place in teaching.
Note on language: One word or gesture can have the different meanings in any language. I can say “rats!”, while pointing at a bunch or rodents. I can say “rats,” after spilling water on the floor. I can say “rats have empathy and care for other rats.” The word rats had 3 different meanings. Chicken language is also nuanced. Tone and body language are also parts of meaning.

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