Living here in Wisconsin, I know quite a few people who grew up on farms in the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s. In many ways, they’re a great resource for this city girl trying to learn how to raise chickens. But fairly quickly I realized that there are also many differences between keeping country chickens and city chickens. There are some things my farm-reared neighbors and friends cannot help me with. One of the biggies was how to get those little chicks to go into their coop at night once you move them out of the brooder in the house to the outside coop.
We moved ours out when they were just about five weeks old. We hadn’t been able to finish our coop yet – it had a temporary roof. But I really needed them out of the house. They were creating a lot of dust and triggering allergic symptoms in me. Plus, they were just too big. Already they were flying up onto their waterer and pecking at the chicken wire above. I was sure one day they would break free of that makeshift cardboard brooder and fly around the laundry room. Especially given their fascination with the duct tape that was holding it together. So out they had to go.
As luck would have it, Rick had to leave on a business trip the day we moved them out, so I’d have to figure out a routine myself. Everybody I knew who’d grown up on a farm claimed you didn’t have to do anything special; that chickens just knew what to do. When dusk came, they’d troop into the coop and bed down for the night.
Of course it didn’t happen that way for me. On traditional farms, chicks have mother hens or other chickens to learn from. Instead, my chicks had only each other and a clueless owner. As darkness fell, they grew increasingly anxious, pacing around the run and peeping loudly.
It’s not that they didn’t know how to use the ladder. They’d already shown they could. Our 14-year-old grandson Nathan built it, and wanted to see them use it before he left that afternoon. So he cleverly sprinkled the ladder with grass clippings and we sat outside to watch. Sure enough, they’d walk up the ladder, snacking on the treats, but fly off when they got to the top.
They refused to walk into that semi-dark, enclosed place, and who could blame them? They’d lived their entire lives up to now in a box with an open top and a light on day and night. A little battery-powered LED light affixed to the ceiling of their coop was not the same thing at all.
I finally realized that unless I wanted to sit out all night, I’d have to put them in myself. So one by one I picked them up and put them inside. They squawked like crazy, making me feel terrible. The first three I managed to catch easily. The third, a Rhode Island Red our granddaughter Alexis had named Tracy, refused to be captured. She raced around the run, jumping over the piece of cardboard I’d used to trap the others, skillfully evading me at every turn.
Finally, I managed to catch Tracy, then tripped and fell. Away she went again, this time more desperate than ever to escape. I watched, horrified, as she literally threw herself against the fencing TWICE, banging her beak into the wire, trying to escape. By now I was completely miserable, but somehow managed to snag her and put her in the coop.
Exhausted by the ordeal, I locked the door to the run and went around the side to look in the coop window. There they all were with their beaks to the window peeping loudly and piteously. I felt like a heel. I went into the house, but came back out to check on them ten minutes later. They were all nestled together on the floor of the coop, next to the window, apparently sleeping. Feeling spent, I went into the house to lie down. I CANNOT go through this every night, I thought.
The next day, I surfed the net and chicken discussion forums for advice. I quickly found out I wasn’t the only one with this problem. Some posters on one message board advised locking the chicks in the coop for a few days or even a week. That seemed unduly harsh, and a rather unfair punishment, considering it wasn’t the little chicks’ fault they’d been raised artificially up to now.
One woman posted that her husband taught their chicks to go in by picking up each bird and walking it up the ladder! Another wrote that she’d been picking up her chicks and putting them in each night for two weeks. How long will it be, she asked, until they learn to go in themselves? The drill they’ve learned, I thought, is to wait until someone comes along and puts you in. I realized I’d have to find some way to trick them into doing it themselves, and that wouldn’t traumatize them or me.
A couple of posters had some workable ideas. One advised removing the feeder a couple of hours before dusk, and then putting it into the coop, so they’d be hungry and go in to eat. Another suggested putting a bright light into the coop, since it was the darkness they feared. They’d gravitate toward the light.
That night, I marshaled all my resources. I took away their feeder two hours before dusk. Then I went into the pen and filled the feeder right in front of their little beaks before putting it in the coop. Next, I put a flashlight in the coop, shining a spotlight on the feeder. Finally, I sprinkled grass clippings on the ladder. “Come on, girls!” I called. I tapped the top of the ladder.
Within a few minutes, three of them moseyed up the ladder and into the coop. Uncharacteristically, Batgirl (a Barred Rock, so named by our youngest grandson Zachary), stayed below, pacing the pen and peeping. Batgirl is the alpha female of the group, the leader, usually the first to investigate anything new. Surely she understood what she needed to do. I called out to her and tapped the ladder.
Finally, Batgirl gave up and stopped her pacing and peeping. “Shoulders” hunched, head down, she walked with an air of resignation (I swear!) to the front of the ladder and up. It occurred to me then that she wasn’t upset about going into the coop; she was upset because everybody else was ignoring her! They’d all taken off without her.
Success! I quickly shut the pop door, went out of the pen, around to the egg door, and thoughtlessly removed the flashlight. Of course, they all started the piteous peeping again. They’ll pipe down in a few minutes, I told myself, and went into the house.
The next night, I went through the same performance, except that I had forgotten the grass clippings. They went in easily anyway. This time, however, I decided to let them finish eating before taking away the flashlight. I sat out on the deck for about ten minutes; then went to check on them. Nobody was feeding, but two of the birds were staring at the wall and moving their heads all around; right; then left, then stretching their necks up, then down. The bright light was behind them, and I realized they were fascinated with their shadows on the wall. How cute is that! I thought.
Then I heartlessly took the flashlight away.
The fourth evening Rick came home and I bragged about my success in training the chicks. “I’ll show you how I do it tonight!” I enthused. But we got to talking and lost track of time. It was already past dusk when we went out to do the routine. To my amazement, the chicks had already gone in the coop! Without induced hunger, grass clipping bribes, or a spotlight on the feeder! I was so proud. Their little bird brains had learned the lesson in just two nights. It seemed they needed just a little nudging for their instincts to kick in.
A few weeks later, we put in a roost. After a few days, we finally remembered to check whether they were using it. We went out after dark, and at first couldn't even see them through the window. Turns out they were all snuggled together on the far end of the roost, away from the window. Apparently, they now felt safe in their new home.