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Training a Bird to Station & Its Importance

March 12, 2011 5 comments

A step in socializing Rico and Rocky with each other. A healthy benefit for behavior.

Many different topics come to mind when I think of something I could write here on my blog. I always wait and post something for when I’m really engaged in the situation. I was just talking about a certain training topic the other day and it was suggested many times that I write a post about it. That topic is stationing; training an animal, in this case a bird, to go to a designated area and stay there until cued otherwise. There are so many reasons this can come in handy.

All of my birds at home station and for different reasons. It may be as a cue to come out of the cage, preventing a bird scrambling up the side of the cage, or allowing me to open the cage door and change an object or clean. I taught one of mine to station while I’m out of the room because I was starting to have a problem with him dive bombing the cats as they tried to pass through the kitchen on their way to the litter boxes in the basement. I saw this behavior having the potential to turn into a serious problem in numerous ways.

I hate to admit it but I saw the almighty Rico, my Umbrella starting to become the bully of the house….dive bombing the cats and I saw him start to do the same with Rocky, my Moluccan. Having him do this behavior with my Moluccan had major potential for damage and not for Rocky, but for Rico. In thinking back about this behavior, it didn’t just start this winter. I have proof that it started or even existed last summer. Now it is to the point where it is dangerous for one possibly both birds. Below you’ll see my proof that this behavior existed last summer. What is reinforcing this behavior in this video?……me, and to be more exact, it is my encouraging tone of voice!

This behavior from the aviary has now shifted and perfected itself inside the house. First I identified what was reinforcing Rico’s dive bombing Rocky now that this was inside the house. Rocky is a runner, not a flyer. Rocky loves running through the house. The more Rocky runs freely, he squeaks a loud squeak that draws Rico’s attention. When Rico would see Rocky running through the house with his crest up and excited, this seemed to reinforce Rico’s behavior of flying near Rocky. It soon developed into flying and swooping closer to Rocky. Then eventually Rico would fly close enough I really started worrying about Rocky reaching up and snagging him out of the air, which is pretty likely if Rico got close enough.

I saw this starting to happen  and Rico was starting to get really good at it. I immediately came up with a behavior change plan through positive reinforcement training consisting of a few things at the same time. Before I move on, I saw the behavior of Rocky running in open spaces being punished, and to be exact it was being positively punished. By punished I’m referring to his behavior of running in open spaces decreased, hence the punishment. It was positively punished because the addition (+) of Rico flying in his environment caused the behavior of him running freely to decrease. Sorry, I’m not trying to get too involved, but for those following positive reinforcement, I just wanted to state what was being punished and how. The addition of Rico to Rocky’s environment was definitely becoming an aversive. I needed to nip this in the bud asap because my goal is to get Rico and Rocky interacting more without physical interaction so they both are socialized with other birds to help with any behavior issues.

Anyway, this behavior has since stopped. Rocky is now running through the house again with crest up and squeaking his very high-pitched squeak while Rico interacts with him vocally without dive bombing him. It is a pretty awesome sight to see.

I would positively reinforce (adding something to the environment that increases the rate of a particular behavior) Rico for other acceptable or desired behaviors like hopping across the kitchen table while Rocky would run through other parts of the house. He wasn’t standing still on the table but he was staying on the table. I positively reinforced him for staying on the table while Rocky ran. I stayed next to the table while first training this. I would reward him with “Good Boy Rico” every few seconds. Then I spaced it out to every 10 seconds. Then I would go over and give Rocky attention in hopes to increase his security in running through the kitchen again. I would keep my attention-giving to Rocky very short while looking over my shoulder to keep an eye on Rico making sure he wasn’t coming in for a dive bomb to Rocky again due to my loss of attention to him on the table. Initially I made sure I kept my interactions with Rocky short in order to be able to catch Rico watching and staying on the table. I would stand up and say “Good Job Rico” and give him praise and an added positive reinforcer for a job well done. I gave him a pine nut in addition. I was training Rico to station on the area of the table. I had to make sure I delivered positive reinforcers to Rico for this behavior, otherwise him staying on the table would soon prove to be of no value to him.

Reassuring Rocky.

I continued this process while paying close attention to the body language of both. If I saw the slightest change in body language of Rico while he was standing on the table I made sure to shorten my session with Rocky the next time to be able to catch the behavior I wanted to see in Rico and reinforce it. Because I caught all of this behavior pretty quick in the beginning before the undesired behavior got too out of hand, I was able to nip it all in the bud pretty quick. The concern is, Rico already knows and has seen consequences of him dive bombing Rocky. I state this because it could happen again. The more I pay attention to all of the precursors, the more successful I’ll be in changing the environment and training before it has the opportunity to happen again. I taught Rico to station on the table for a period of time in order to reinforce a desired behavior, Rico’s calmness, while extinguishing an undesired behavior, Rico’s dive bombing Rocky. This type of stationing was a temporary tactic used in a behavior modification plan.

With each time I interacted with Rocky, those times away from Rico became longer and longer. Soon Rico started doing other things like flying on top of the cupboards. When he did this, he would get other reactions from me, which resulted in him leaving Rocky alone. I gave this particular example to show how and why stationing could come in handy in working with two birds in an open space, such as the home. This particular behavior issue had every opportunity for the potential of aggression between two birds beginning to happen, and more importantly, with a dangerous consequence.

I still like Rico and Rocky to interact vocally with each other while paying close attention to body language. If I see the slightest change that may make me nervous, I try to identify the reinforcer and then make sure that reinforcer is no longer delivered, a procedure called extinction.

So back to stationing. I have 3 different scenarios of training a bird to station based on what behavior I was looking to increase. First, there is a video of Rico, my Umbrella Cockatoo being taught to station on a boing hanging next to the kitchen while I’m walking out of the room and out of sight putting food in cages. I have a several videos showing how I shaped, or initially trained  the  pigeon to station on a particular perch in her cage on cue. (you can easily see how this could be trained with our companion parrots in the house). Last, I have a video of me training two Red-Tailed Hawks on the same perch. I want the one to station and stay perched while I call the one beside her to my glove, return her, and reward for stationing. This one also you can see how you could train the same behavior to two parrots, even two dogs. These same steps could be used to train a dog, a pet rat, a horse, and yes even the domestic house cat.

Let me begin with Rico, my Umbrella Cockatoo. This is a video I shot last summer when I decided to train Rico to station on a boing hanging near the kitchen. Several things are going on in this video and there are a few reasons why I chose to train this behavior in this particular location. Rico is fully flighted and flies well. He is also quick to learn from his environment so it doesn’t take him long to figure out how to get into something I don’t necessarily want him to get into. Also, as Rico is getting older (almost 7) he is showing signs of nesting behaviors. I know these are natural behaviors but they are none I want to encourage as I see them causing frustration. Third, you will see the boing is hanging next to the cupboards that are full of bird food, treats, and toys. Rico loves to get into this cupboard and foraging through and eat all the treats. You will even see at one point where Rico moves toward the cupboard showing signs of thinking about going in, and changes his mind because he knows if he stays, the reward will be greater. So the training begins.

I edited this video to save time but to show the how I began training this behavior, showing real-time, and showing how I am bridging or marking the desired behavior from another room while I’m out of sight. Bridging or marking is the same as using the clicker in clicker training. My bridge is saying “Good” or “Good Boy Rico”. This marks the exact behavior I am looking for and lets Rico know that it is that particular behavior that is earning him his reward.

You see me rewarding him while I’m standing right there. He continues to stand there because he’s realizing if he stands there the treats are delivered. Another highly valued reinforcer for him is to hear me tell him he’s such a good boy. This has obvious effect, otherwise he would just walk down the boing and get the treats himself as he clearly sees they are within reach. If he were to fly off the boing or move on the boing, the bell that hangs at the bottom would let me know this from the other room.

Training him to station in this spot also comes in handy when I’m preparing dinner and opening cupboards. With each open cupboard comes the opportunity to fly into another lovely nest box. When I’m preparing dinner, I train and reward Rico for stationing on this same boing as I open and close cupboards reaching for spices. Yes, it comes in pretty handy and no need to use force or tell him “No!”. I can reward the behaviors I want to see and Rico looks pretty content sitting on the boing waiting for the goodies.

So, where to start? Ah, I have video of that too. These series of videos are taken by me with my cell phone while I’m training, so I apologize in advance for all the shaky video. In these videos I am training a pigeon to station. I make it extremely easy for her to give me the behavior I am looking for, which is why I start with a perch on the floor of her cage. Once she understands the cue, I begin changing the area of the perch. In the end, I placed the perch at the back of the cage. I did this because I heard a few people complain that Francis, the pigeon, was pecking people’s hands while they were trying to clean her cage. Time to put the ‘station’ cue to work. My intent was to get Francis to ‘station’ on the back perch, high above where people clean her cage grates and change her dishes. This way the undesired behavior of her chasing and pecking hands is not being reinforced if she’s stationing on her back perch. The key is to remember to reward her for stationing on her back perch. Otherwise chasing the hands becomes more rewarding.

Step 1: In this video you will see how I’m luring Francis to the perch. Here reward is a beak rub. I’ve placed the perch in an area easy for Francis to give me the behavior I’m requesting. This makes it easy for me to deliver her reinforcer. Francis will soon start doing whatever she thinks will earn her the reinforcer. In this video you’ll see she has no clue what I’m asking as she practically stumbles over the perch. I’m dangling my finger just above the perch, just above her head. She needs to step onto the perch to reach my finger.

Step 2: In this video, I am still saying the word “perch” ( which can be ‘station’, whatever word you choose) and you will see Francis doesn’t quite understand what it is that I’m requesting that will earn her the beak rub. What you do see in this video is her fluidly step up onto the perch. The reinforcer is quickly delivered to communicate to her that is the exact behavior that will earn her the reward.

Step 3: Wow! She’s getting it! Each of these videos were captured back to back and in one training session. Here you see she understands what it is I am asking that will earn her the reward. In this video you will also see where and how I have my hand in the cage to be able to quickly deliver the reinforcer when she gives the behavior. Immediacy in delivering the reinforcer is one of the four stages in reinforcer effectiveness.

Step 4: Just fine tuning the behavior. My goal is to ask her to perch and have her do it quickly, accurately, and consistently.

Step 5: By George, she’s got it!

Step 6: Here is where I took it further to put the behavior to work for the benefit of the cage cleaner’s hands. You will see that she now has a new perch and a new cue. I have now changed the cue to “station”. I could have and did shape the behavior of her staying put on that perch for long periods of time. In order to make sure I knew she understood clearly, I wanted to cue her off of it and say “station” again to make sure she would go back to it. She sure did! Here you will also see me target training her. Target training is training an animal to touch a particular object with a particular body part. I am training her to target to a plastic measuring spoon with her beak. This perch is directly above where I originally trained the behavior. You will even see that I leave her cage door open and she is choosing to stay in and continue training.

This is when I fell in love with Francis and our training continued well beyond that. Next was recall training and staying on my arm until cued off which we

Me training Francis the pigeon and Pete the blue jay at 2010's Meet The Flockers annual fundraiser for Nature's Nursery.

put to use in giving live flight demonstrations at a fundraiser with her and Pete, the blue jay.

In wrapping up this post, I’d like to finish with the video of how this training is also incorporated in training two Red-Tailed Hawks. You can easily see here also how this can be incorporated in how we would use this to train two parrots at home. We often call both of the Red Tails to the front perch in the enclosure to begin training. I am still working on getting the one used to a new trainer. In order to do this, the one Red Tail seems to give more behaviors if the other Red Tail is on the front perch with her. The problem we were running into was that the other Red Tail seemed to hog all the food. Another hurdle in the journey, but not one that can’t be figure out. So now we cue them both up to the front, ask the food hog to station, reward, and then train the other. This video was taken almost two years ago to the day. Kamikaze is the food hog on the left and Kamali is the one on the right. This video was taken back when I was the only one training. This was Kamili’s first time ever flying voluntarily to a glove. I was so excited but could now scream and jump for joy like I wanted to.

In this video you will see me reward Kamikaze for doing exactly what I want her to…..staying right there. I then turn to Kamali and call her to my glove. When she goes back, I turn to grab more food to once again reward Kamikaze for staying put while I trained the other.

Once I train an animal using positive reinforcement training, a piece of my heart goes to that animal. Positive reinforcement training paves a new pathway of communication between you and the animal, one the animal grows to respect and often times shows behaviors of wanting more. This is why I continue to train as many birds a week as I do. It makes a huge difference in their lives and when many of their choices lie in my hands, I choose to continue to offer this form of enrichment to them. I like to pay it back to them for allowing me to learn from them. They are nothing short of fascinating and I respect every ounce of that.


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