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.
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.
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.