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Training…. it is more than just tricks

I never gave much thought to training and the effects it has on our birds. I never gave it much thought until I began to really understand it. “Training” is a loaded term and this blog entry could now split into several different directions and then split in several more from there. The importance in this entry is to explain the strength in training and what I learn, observe, and continue with “positive reinforcement” training.

Whether one knows it or not, with each interaction or encounter we have with our bird, we are training it. Parrots in particular are extremely observant and equal to if not more intelligent than the raven. That is what was quoted on the PBS documentary “Ravens”. A parrot’s intelligence is the reason I became fascinated with them. The difference in behaviors between parrots and raptors is what drew my attention to bir
ds of prey. Learning what I didn’t know about birds of prey is what opened my eyes to everything avian. The unknown about them is one of the main draws that keeps me digging and searching to learn all that my mind can possibly hold about these fascinating and most unique creatures.
With each interaction I have with one of my own birds I’m training, someone else’s bird, or the ones I train at the wildlife rehabilitation center I want my every encounter with them to be a positive and pleasant to them as possible. I want them to enjoy their time with me, not cower in the corner of their cages or mews in fear of my intent. They show fear, I back off. They show me signs of them not being interested, then I come back later. You may then wonder how I get any training done.
By paying close attention to the details and showing respect to the animal is how I get a lot of training done. Not just training…… it is powerful, trust-building, bond strengthening training. It is the type of training I use that gets a once extremely fearful red-tailed hawk to fly to my glove when requested.

Training a Red Tail Hawk to fly to the glove on cue

It is the type of training that I use that gets a very hand shy barn owl to fly to the front of it’s enclosure looking for me when he hears the keys jingling from my pocket when I get out of the car. It is the type of training that I use that gets a once aggressive turkey vulture to fly to the front perch waiting for her turn to go for a walk. It is the type of training that I use that gets an abandoned excessive screaming Moluccan Cockatoo choose to whistle tunes in vibrato when he hears me walk in the house.
The really, really cool thing about this type of training is to see how strong the consequences. I see the birds wanting to be with me. I see the birds showing signs of excitement when I’m present. Even more rewarding for me is when I see their trust in me and their comfort in me being with them.
On a cautionary note, be very, very careful with whom and where you seek this type of training. Positive reinforcement training is very strong, very relationship building between the trainer and the animal. There are many people out there who will claim they can teach it and I’ve watched a lot of these self-proclaimed trainers and I find this very scary. Very scary for the innocent trainer who wants to learn and very scary for the animal in which they will be training. I was and will continue to seek the best professional animal trainers in which to learn under. If you have any questions, please feel free to e-mail me at aviansanta@gmail.com and if I cannot answer your questions, I will point you in the right direction. Know your trainer well and better yet, know their credentials. Two very well respected positive reinforcement trainers in which I studied under and continue to are Barbara Heidenreich (goodbirdinc.com) and Steve Martin (naturalencounters.com). There are others in which I know or know of that I am looking forward to learning more through courses I have scheduled. I train on a daily basis and numerous times throughout the day, but I never stop looking to increase my knowledge and learning potential. Please, please be very careful and do your research on the people in whom you look to for advice and teaching.
So how is it that I interact with the birds and have them want to be with me? There are many things I do but one very important one is by finding their reinforcers and using them humanely and effectively. As seen in this photo, the bird has the choice to move away from the towel if he desires, yet look where he is. In as many instances as possible, the bird always has the power of choice.

Training an Umbrella Cockatoo to accept being toweled

Defined by Paul Chance a reinforcer is “an event that, when made contingent on a behavior, increases or maintains the frequency of that behavior.”1 Reinforcers are objects or events that are used to increase the likelihood of that behavior occurring again. He defines reinforcement as “the procedure of providing consequences for a behavior that increases or maintains the frequency of that behavior.” Positive reinforcement training is when something is added to the animal’s environment contingent upon a behavior that is likely to maintain or increase the frequency of that behavior. It is the trainer’s request and it is the animal’s choice. There is no force involved. I once read an article by Steve Martin called “The Art of Training” which can be found on his website (naturalencounters.com). Art couldn’t be a better term for effective, positive reinforcement training. It truly is an art. I see it and practice it on a daily basis. It constantly and consistently invades my mind and my way of thinking. I practice daily quickly deciding which brush to pull from my pocket as the environment changes. I quickly decide which hue of color best matches the changing behavior evolving by the second in front of my eyes. When I do all of these effectively I see a masterpiece built on fluency, passion, and trust building upon itself quicker than I can put into words. I see small holes that can be filled. I see brush strokes filling in these holes that put the final touch on a vision created by three things: the bird, myself, and the environment. All three of these things effectively and humanely build a bond and a trust between the bird and myself.

Below: the beginning steps I took in training a Barn Owl to fly to the glove.

The first time you play the above video, you may not think there is much going on. When I view this video I see a lot of behaviors, mine and the barn owl’s. I see environmental set up ready for success. I see many consequences of my every move. I see a consequence I didn’t want to happen but I also see a decision I quickly made as to not reinforce a consequence I didn’t want happening again.When watching this video, keep in mind that my intention is to have the bird remain calm and where it is as I move in the way that I do to get closer to it. This bird used to sit on top of the nest box and then fly back and forth and back and forth over and over again when entering its enclosure. What you’ll see in this video is the bird allowing me to be at the distance in which I am from it. You will also see all of the room I am intentionally leaving to my left to give the bird the opportunity to escape and fly toward the camera and away from me at any time. I want to give it that choice, but I don’t want to push the bird that far that it will chose to do that. You will see me getting closer and closer to the bird all the while giving the bird the choice to fly away from me if it wants. The owl makes the final decision to move toward me to take the mouse. In reviewing this I see things I could and should have done different, but in reviewing it I learn. The owl takes the mouse and flies away from me. There was plenty of time for me to have quickly removed myself after he took the mouse and that is what I should have done. Instead I stayed and I don’t remember why. You’ll see that when the owl flew, I tried to stay as still as possible to not scare him and cause more behaviors I didn’t want to reinforce. One really cool thing in watching this is that I notice what the owl didn’t do. He didn’t fly back to the top of his nest box. THAT is fantastic. To the top of the nest box is where I didn’t want him to go. I consider this a very successful training session and am very pleased. This was a very small snip of my patience in training this owl that eventually got me to the point I desired….. the bird flying to my glove at his choice.

Below: Rocky’s magic trick. All positive interactions and consequences with a bird who once used to fly and attack when I walked in the room.

Each day I walk into the bird room or into the enclosures of the birds of prey. Each day I see the trust build, change, tweak, move. Each day I learn something new from the bird and from the environment. It is with this that I use as tools to build my blueprint for the next interaction. Training is a form of communication. It is a language that is unique to each bird in which I work and I use it as just that, our own form of language. The video above is me training a Moluccan Cockatoo which is now mine, the power of choice. The power is within him and each choice he makes in interacting with my hands shows positive consequences. This being a bird I could once not hold or touch, his final choice in this video is one in which he learned and chose the outcome through his training experiences with me.
Positive reinforcement training is a language that is well accepted and welcomed by each of the bird’s in which I have interaction. It is our unique language and it is with this language in which the bird and I develop a relationship built on trust and respect. Respect of their space, their body language, and their environment. When used to it’s fullest potential, this type of training is very strong. The proof of the strength is in the relationship between the bird and myself.

Below: A series of steps in training  a Red Tail Hawk to fly to the glove. I always give her the opportunity and space to fly away if she chooses.

In the above video this was the first time this Red Tail Hawk had flown to the glove on cue. It is all her choice and she has every choice and opportunity to fly away but I try and make it well worth her while to stay. When I see the opportunity that the behaviors I am requesting (such as staying on the glove) starting to fade, I choose to end the training session on a positive note which is why I cue her back to her perch. End of training session, but the next one started only minutes later. I keep my training sessions short but very frequent when working new birds or birds who show high fear responses. Once the relationship develops and becomes even stronger, I find the training session may last longer and I can ask for more complicated behaviors.
In each bird that I train that I see come and I see go, it tugs on my heart strings a bit. Sometimes a lot. Because I’ve trained that bird, I’ve formed a relationship with that bird. I’ve formed a language in which the bird and I could clearly communicate with each other and when I see that bird leave or know I won’t work with it again, you bet I’ll miss it because we had a level of trust or communication unique to us that I have been honored to experience and honored because it was the bird’s decision. Even when it’s sad, it is a learning experience. Training is one of my strongest teachers. I learn with each interaction. I learn from each bird.
Positive reinforcement training puts the bird’s choice back into the equation of behavior modification. That is the tag line I use in my signature on my e-mails in hopes that it will or may make a difference in many animal’s lives somewhere, somehow. I know it’s made a world of difference in mine and the animal’s in which I interact.
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