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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Teaching chickens to beg.

Somebody asked for an update on my chickens. Of the current batch, which originally comprised a dozen, I still have eleven - a hawk got one, I was lucky to see it swoop down and carry off its silent feathered bundle while the others squeezed themselves under wheelbarrows and into flower pots (they were smaller then). Hawks have to eat, too.

Happily, the chickens are now too portly to be swept off their feet (I hope). They command a wide range, poking, grabbing, squabbling, grazing the day away in languid counter-clockwise sweeps around the house. They have certain hotspots: Jethro's piles of poop briquettes, for instance, the garden, the back porch where I leave their scratch...

[Scratch is a combination of cracked corn and wheat, and it's junk food for chickens, but this batch of hens, just like the last batch, scorns proper chicken food. I used to worry, but since they munch omnivorously all day, I no longer worry about their nutrition. The name refers to the annoying reflex which causes chickens to stand in their tidy pans of scratch and scratch all the scratch out of the pans all over the porch.]

They also like to rush over when Jethro gets fed, because he can't pick up every single bit of the oats and "sweet feed" (junk food for donkeys) we give him, and they are devoted gleaners.

Long ago the chickens discovered that I save the best food for their wild cousins the chickadees and cardinals: black oil sunflower seeds (they swallow them whole).

They first discovered sunflower seeds flung out of the birdfeeder by over-excited customers into the patch of irises below. They scrounge there and then waddle around the porch scarfing up outliers.

Seeing that, I started to throw them handfuls of sunflower seeds gratis. Now, though, I've decided to demand more entertainment, because they're pricey, sunflower seeds, they don't grow on trees you know, so the chickens must learn to beg. I'm trying to train them to tap on the glass of the kitchen door.

This isn't easy because
  • chickens are incredibly stupid;

  • they are also incredibly skittish and fearful. Even though I feed them every day and provide them a regal life, all the worms they care to eat, they act like I'm going to put them in a pot or something. Racial memory? They certainly seem to intuit that they are on everybody's shortlist of good dinners.
It's been pointed out to me that if all eleven chickens learn to tap, or even half of them, things could get mighty annoying around here.

In the mean time, though, I'm highly amused by holding up a small handful of seeds to the window; when one of them gets up the nerve to try and peck through the glass, I quickly open the door and fling the seeds outside. At first they would all then rush/fly/scramble away in consternation, but now they stand their ground and wait for the reward. Tentative tapping has begun.

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