Did you ever play tic-tac-toe with a chicken? If so, you lost, didn’t you?

There were such chickens, unbeatable, and with a strong Minnesota connection.

I knew of one personally, a roadside attraction in South Dakota years ago. This chicken simply could not be beat. It cost you two-bits to be embarrassed by a chicken.

You could ask one of my grandsons about that (I promised not to reveal his name). He is a smart fellow, and was willing to play this kid’s game with a barnyard bird.

Grandson tried several times. He never won, always doing what the amusement proprietor hoped he would do: try once more to beat the darned chicken. I supplied the quarters that this futility required.

Ever heard of B.F. Skinner? The famed behavioral psychologist taught for a while at the University of Minnesota. One of his classes concerned applied animal psychology — conditioning animal behavior using positive reinforcement.

Players could watch the South Dakota chicken as it seemingly pondered its next move. It would peck at something, and the electronic board recording the X’s and O’s would mark your progress toward defeat.

We were pretty certain that the chicken wasn’t that smart. We just didn’t know how the trick was done. We didn’t see the few kernels of corn the bird received after each play.

Positive reinforcement.

We couldn’t see the light that flashed above the chicken’s computer-chosen move. The bird was conditioned to peck the X or O indicated by that light. To earn the corn, the chicken did as it was trained.

Marian Breland was born in Minneapolis in 1920. She was a Skinner student at the university, as was her husband at that time, Keller Breland. Marian was a pioneer in the animal behavior field, becoming an international figure in psychology.

The Brelands left the university in 1947 to begin a business, Animal Behavior Enterprises, located near Mound.

One of the Brelands’ early trained-chicken clients was General Mills, according to a Breland bio found at the University of Central Arkansas website.

For General Mills they taught chickens to dance, play the piano, and play three-card monte, a street-con card game, at which, I suppose, the chicken never lost. The company is said to have used performing chickens as an attraction at trade shows.

Chickens were viewed by Ms. Breland, correctly it seems, as having innate behavior that could be manipulated through positive reinforcement.

Chickens were not alone. First in Mound and later in Arkansas, the Brelands worked with rabbits, ducks, raccoons, cats, whales, dolphins, pigs, gulls and ravens.

According to the biography, the gulls were conditioned to conduct searches over water. Pigeons were trained to spot snipers. Ravens were taught to take photos with cameras held in their beaks — drone work, futuristic ravens.

The biographical information says nothing about that all-time tic-tac-toe champ working beside a highway in South Dakota. That bird is the center, however, of one of my favorite family stories.


Read Jim Williams’ birding blog at startribune.com/wingnut.