So I’ll give credit where credit is due: I got this years ago while watching a video of the “Horse Whisperer”. Here’s the deal; horses, chickens, cows, antelopes, etc. are all herbivores, which means a prey species for the carnivores. The distinguishing features of a carnivore/predator (that’s you) are forward facing eyes (for binocular vision) a forward posture (for pouncing) and paws/hands/claws that face forward for grasping the prey. Therefore, when you are addressing these prey species, you want to be conscious of what your predatory eyes and hands are doing.
The recommendation here, then, is to come at the chicks with a “claws backward” attitude. Huh? What? That is to say, offer the chicks the BACK of your hand when you come down to meet them. They have a HARD WIRED instinct to run/hide/fight your hand if that hand comes in with the fingers/claws extended in the natural position (we are predators). So when I drop my hand down into the chick zone, I have my grasping/claw/fingers inverted down into a non-predatory position (palm down); I even slip it down the side of the box, so the palm is never pointing at the chicks (again, you always have the problem of coming at them from above, hawk-like, so come in slow and mellow). Let the baby chicklings peck at this non-threatening creature. Let them explore it, jump up on it, take a ride on it. No problem, it’s just a big, non-grabbing hunk of flesh (ooh, with wormy hairs to peck and explore, yea! appealing! One of them pulled a splinter for me last night!) If you reach down and grab a chick every time, with those grasping claws/fingers, then they start to associate human contact with constriction and “discipline”. Chickens do not like that. (Neither do I; ew, ick, constriction). You want to make things fun for them when they experience human contact. For the first days, especially, you just want to stick your hand in there, palm down, and just “bump” them, and caress them, and come in from below to pat/very gently caress their bellies. You are a big, warm and calming influence if you do it right. Chicks do NOT like to be petted from above (oppressive/dominating), so stay away from those pretty new wing feathers and the downy backs- they will hate you for that. Just caress gently around the breast and legs, and if they peep and run away, let them go. Later, put your hand down there, and let them come to you: let them peck at you, get used to you. Talk to them, they are listening. You’ll know when they are used to your big fat ugly oppressive fingers, they will come to YOU,, when they start jumping on the back of your hand voluntarily, then you can start lifting them up for a “chicky ride”. I’ll say that again: you LET THEM hop up when they are ready for a chicky ride. Don’t force yourself on the birds; they WILL remember, and they won’t like you for it. Always make it “their idea”, then you can get away with many things.
So here is the picture: palm down, touch the chicks lightly from below (belly, feet, legs, etc). Once they get used to you, they should start hopping onto your hand just for fun. After that, it’s “chicky rides” all day long.
Like here, Stella has crawled up my arm, but there is no grasping or clutching on my part. She is perfectly capable of maintaining her balance (at the moment). I just let her explore, then lower her back into the brood hutch when the time comes. Now, she did try a take a “flying leap” the other day, and I did my best to cushion the fall, get her back into the brood box, etc. I had to scoop her up and she wasn’t liking it, and for the next hour, she didn’t like me (no physical harm, chicks are tough). Fortunately, chickens do not normally hold a grudge, but if this happens every time, they will remember. So especially in these early days, try and make every experience positive for the chicks. They will turn out more mellow, cooperative and productive if you take care of the little psyches in the early stages. Talk softly, let them know you are coming, move slowly, everything is OK=happy, well adjusted birds.
Update-Postscript 5-30-2012: Do not confuse horses with chickens. After reading a bunch of columns from the “Horse Whisperer”, it becomes clear that horses are a lot bigger than we are, and occasionally, you need to show them who is boss. That is not going to work with chickens-you start off as the bigger, meaner, “boss”, and so you actually need them to get OVER that. You need to show them that you can be gentler, kinder and more forgiving than even the other little chickens in the pen. THEN they will love you. No fear= good chickens. Again, this is HARD WIRED BEHAVIOR, and it is up to you to work around it (you ARE the smart one, right?)