In 2017, Shannon Myers and Sei-Hee Arii appeared on America’s Got Talent with their piano-playing hen, Jokgu, who delighted the skeptical audience and judges when Jokgu started to play along to “America the Beautiful” on a chicken-sized keyboard.
You might be wondering how the ladies taught Jokgu to play? Well, training chickens is easier than you might think. Some hens have a natural aptitude for learning and a longer attention span than others, making them good learners. Are chickens smart? Oh yes! Hens are naturally curious birds, so training chickens can be quite an exciting experience, for them and for you!
Jokgu, the chicken star of America’s Got Talent, is a very talented bird, but she does suffer from stage-fright sometimes. Her nerves got the better of her in the “Judges Cuts” stage when she was asked to play Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild,” accompanied by her sister Aichan. The birds refused to play the keyboard so their act was buzzed, and they were eliminated from the competition.
How do the birds feel about performing? I asked Shannon. “Live appearances are very stressful for Jokgu and her humans, so we keep those to a minimum,” she explains. “She does an amazing job with internet videos, though.” That’s obviously where she feels most comfortable.
The Two Creative Chicks have become a social media sensation, sharing news and videos about their hens on facebook.com/TwoCreativeChicks. They have over 44,000 followers. Jokgu appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live and played the national anthem on a keyboard for The Puppy Bowl in 2017.
“Most recently she was on an episode of Outrageous Acts of Science, Episode 3 ‘Savage Skills,’” says Shannon. Jokgu has even attracted attention from the greeting cards industry. “She has three adorable e-cards, available through American Greetings”.
The two women have 15 “very spoiled pet chickens” who love to spend their days dust bathing, scratching around, and playing on their toy instruments. “We have 14 hens and one very lucky rooster,” says Shannon. “We originally got two hens in 2013, thinking they would be good to till up the garden, give us fertilizer, and provide a few eggs. We had no idea that we would fall in love with them!”
How did the ladies get into training chickens? Shannon explains, “Sei-Hee trained rats in college with clicker training, so she had some previous experience. I’ve always had very intelligent dogs and love spending time with them and training them. So, when we noticed that the chickens really enjoyed playing random notes on the kiddie piano that they have in the run, Sei-Hee thought, ‘I bet they could be taught to play an actual tune,’ and the idea was born.”
Training chickens took on a life of its own and the hens participated eagerly, receiving food rewards and an encouraging click to reinforce the correct behaviour.
“Clicker training, is a form of operant conditioning,” explains Shannon. “It works for all types of animals, even humans. A desired behavior is rewarded to increase the likelihood it will be done again.”
The toy pianos are programmed so the keys light up, to assist a child learning to play a tune. The only difference is that, in this instance, it’s birds learning to play a tune. Jokgu learned that when a key on the keyboard was illuminated, if she pecked it, she would get a click and a food reward. The reward system didn’t work for keys that weren’t illuminated, so she soon learned to look out for illuminated keys and peck them. With practice, she has even started to remember, or anticipate, which key lights up next when she recognizes a tune. Shannon explains, “She does learn to anticipate the next note, as you can see when she walks to a new area before it lights up, but she can’t memorize a long sequence.”
“Each song can take a different amount of time to learn,” Shannon continues. “Some songs, Jokgu immediately loves, some kind of grow on her, and others she will just walk away from. Her undeniable favorite is ‘America the Beautiful.’ When the intro comes on, she hops up to the keyboard to play.”
The ladies have also taught their hens to recognize a bell ring, which means the rooster is coming. “This means they can avoid him if they choose to!” says Shannon.
Getting your hens to concentrate
Chickens aren’t always great at concentrating, which can make training chickens a difficult task. Some hens lose interest quickly. Shannon says, “Jokgu is pretty unique in that she has a long attention span for a chicken. She can complete an entire song without receiving a treat. We have taught several of our other chickens to play, but they lose interest much more quickly. Our advice would be to know your chicken. You have to have a bond with the chicken. Look for one that seems to be evaluating their environment. Obviously, they can’t be afraid of people and must be somewhat treat-motivated. BE PATIENT and keep training sessions short (about five to 10 minutes). You can tell if they enjoy it or not. Jokgu has songs that she enjoys, and ones that she just won’t play!”
Jokgu and her piano-playing friends now have so many fans that they have merchandise of their own. You can buy a tee shirt with Jokgu Chicken on it on Amazon, or choose an “I Love Jokgu” tee shirt, bearing an image of the famous hen inside a heart symbol.
“I created some shirts to sell on Amazon,” says Shannon, “and we also recommend products that we have tried and truly love. We spend more on the hens than we make for sure! We both have real jobs, so this is all about having fun and showing the world how great pet chickens can be. We put their safety first, so we turn down a lot of offers because we are not willing to put them at risk in any way.”
Some readers might be wondering why a clicker is necessary. Wouldn’t food on its own be effective? Not necessarily, because the sound of the click becomes recognized as positive reinforcement in itself. Animal trainer Maisie Wake, a huge fan of Jokgu, explains, “A clicker is both distinctive and uniform, which is hard for us to replicate when trying to reward with a consistent voice signal. It is also possible for us to more easily ‘capture’ the moment we are trying to reward — vital when training chickens, who are so quick!”
See workshops for training a chicken in Sequim, Washington: www.legacycanine.com/chicken-workshops