Ahsoka, Rey, Padme. If you thought these were simply Star Wars character names, think again – they’re also chickens. Like their Star Wars counterparts, however, they are learning a few new tricks, thanks to the students in psychology professor Raymond Phinney’s learning methods course.
What are chickens doing in a psychology course, you might ask? The answer begins in the 1850s, when the labs first began using rats for biomedical and psychological studies, according to the Smithsonian Magazine, opening the door to the use of animals in psychological research. After years of using rats in his courses, however, Phinney began to look for another animal that could help teach students about psychology.
The reason, simply put, is that you can’t teach an old rat new tricks. Rats are only able to be trained once: once they learn the behaviors reinforced to them, those behaviors stick. Rats also have such a short lifespan, limiting their usefulness in a classroom.
In Phinney’s courses, they can only be trained for a brief period of time since the student projects are only for a part of the semester. Most importantly, despite being overwhelmingly popular in lab research — rodents make up more than 95 percent of laboratory animals, according to Smithsonian Magazine — they lack one crucial thing, according to Phinney: a connection with the students.
“I just thought, wouldn’t it be better if we could get the class involved in using these principles the way we would do with rats, but connected to the community a little bit?” Phinney said.
While all rats previously used were donated as food for a rehabilitation center to wounded birds of prey, Phinney sought a more lasting subject for the class’s projects.
So, Phinney started brainstorming ways to train animals in the community.
While watching an animal training show with his kids, inspiration struck. The trainers held clickers and had whistles around their necks, guiding dolphins in commands and tricks. Phinney began to explain to his kids how the trainers were leading the dolphins in specific behavior training. Suddenly, Phinney had a thought.
“‘You know, I should get my students involved in this,’” he said he thought.
And so Phinney began to look into conducting training in a local Chicago zoo, one that might allow his students to work with dolphins. It wasn’t very long before Phinney realized that Wheaton College would be no Seaworld.
“The zoo was far away, and it’s a program that’s not very amenable to that kind of participation,” Phinney said. Strike one.
Back to the drawing board once again, Phinney took his kids to Cosley Zoo, where the lightbulb lit up for the second time.
“I was hoping my students could train like the bobcat and the deer and all that,” Phinney said, “But what Cosley Zoo said was, ‘Look, we got a bunch of chickens. We could do that, okay?’”
Chickens weren’t exactly what he had in mind, but the plan made sense. At last the search was over -– squawking chickens were the answer.
Ten years later, the dividends are paying off exactly how Phinney hoped. His students today are still training several of the same chickens that his first class began with. Kelly Golbeck, the Education and Outreach Director at Cosley Zoo, said she is grateful for the legacy that the chickens have at Wheaton, especially the way that they let students interact with nature.
“I like that we’re connecting to all ages — we have college students that are coming, and it’s just another connection and another link to nature for a lot of people, which is wonderful,” Golbeck said.
“It’s not just the little ones that are coming in the mornings or for our weekly classes anymore,” added Golbeck. “I really like that.”
While Cosley Zoo is both an asset for children curious about animals, don’t underestimate the psychological battlefield for wary Wheaton College students and their pecking chickens.
Sam Banta, a junior psychology major, is the trainer of a tan and brown freckled chicken named Ahsoka. He is currently working on two commands, Station and Target. Station usually merits some suspicious eye-contact from Ahsoka.
“When she turns her head, that’s how you know she looks at you, because eyes are on the side of their head,” Banta said.
Armed with a clicker and a cup of mealworms, Banta walks past the rabbit exhibit, ‘down the block’, so to speak, unlocks the gate to the pungent pen and steps inside, locking himself in with the squawking birds. They stare nervously at him, half-running-half-hopping away when he gets near them.
The most difficult part of each session is its beginning, for Banta must shepherd all chickens except Ahsoka outside through a foot-wide hole in the wall and block it off with a wooden plank before one might get back in. The beginning of winter is closing upon us, and these chickens — like Wheaton students — are less than eager to spend aimless time out in the cold. Banta chases the chickens with this plank, sweeping the flapping and annoyed birds towards the door, ignoring all protest. Ahsoka remains close to the wall, nervously waiting.
Banta begins the training session with two clicks. The clicker is the key to reinforcing the behaviors he is trying to train Ahsoka.
When the action is performed correctly and Ahsoka makes eye contact with Banta, he clicks immediately and gives the chicken some food.
“You want the reinforcement as early as possible, so the chicken will associate you with food and also the clicker with food,” Banta said. “She’s pretty good with Station at this point, and so I’m trying to go into the next behavior, Target.”
Target, the action of pecking an intended target, is more challenging. The chicken has to peck a bowling pin until it falls down.
“Right now, she’s not really good at it,” Banta said.
Ahsoka has shown considerable progress over three separate training sessions, however. Halfway through the session Banta paused, not for an intentional break but because another chicken had snuck back in the pen, as he had not covered the hole completely. A peppery and especially curious chicken named Yin-Yang (unconnected to the Star Wars family), Yang walked immediately to the bowling pin and did what Ahsoka could not, pecking it to the ground.
Ahsoka stood still while Banta chased the show-stopping chicken around the mulched and feather littered coop outside, before other curious poultry might discover Banta’s mistake. Ms. Yang, the inquisitive pepper-spotted runner, declined to make a statement.
While Banta has no outstanding desire to become a zoologist or animal trainer, the experience is new and refreshing.
“I think it’s fun,” he said, in between clicks and tossing out mealworms. “Experience outside of the classroom, hands on learning; for the zoo, it gives the chickens some kind of enrichment.”
While these chickens may not be able to wield the Force, they certainly can follow Banta’s – and other students’ of Psych 345 – commands.