If situations didn’t bring us challenges, how would we learn? Challenges and complexities are positive reinforcers for me. It is for these reasons that I enjoy training various species of animals and numerous animals at one time.
Birds are excellent teachers
Birds help us fine-tune our skills, approaches, and ideas. My gateway into applying Behavior Analysis to train and modify behavior concerns of bears, giraffes, alligators, and more was birds. Parrots, to be specific. Since I began working with parrots over eighteen years ago, you often hear me say, “The more intelligent the animal, the more complexities involved in empowering that animal.”
Working with parrots has opened my eyes to the intricate subtleties of being a better reader of interpreting behavior and my approaches to all species of animals. As my work continued, my interest was piqued in observing the similarities and differences between different species of birds: raptors, hornbills, waterfowl, seabirds, toucans, and more. I was fine-tuning my education through the application of ABA across species. I thought, “Why stop here?” I became fascinated with the laws of behavior, behavior change, and how this work empowers animals. I soon began working with fish, pigs, primates, giraffes, alligators, wolves, and more.
Working with birds and being able to accurately understand the subtleties and differences in their behavior has fine-tuned my approach and ideas in working with all of these different species of animals. Many birds are prey animals and must know what is behind, above, and below. They must be aware while feeding, sleeping, nesting, and foraging.
When birds are on the ground, they are in very vulnerable positions. All of these situations impact behavior. Whenever I teach a workshop and we work with fearful birds, I always inform attendees never to walk behind a fearful bird. When shaping comfort levels with an avian subject, I always advise the group of people to stay in one area or group, so the bird(s) don’t have to move their heads in multiple directions to observe those wandering while trying to focus on the training happening in front of them.
Here is a list of some of the learning opportunities and challenges working with birds can bring to learners.
They can just fly away!
If you unknowingly push them past their comfort level in shaping behaviors, they will fly away, usually up and a long distance from you. Boop, you just lost your opportunity to continue the learning session. Just make sure you learn from this interaction. What subtle antecedents did you see before the bird flew away? Those are now cues to you to take a step back in the next learning session.
Gotta love evolution. If you haven’t yet read it, I highly suggest the book Feathers, by Thor Hanson. Feathers often cover most of a bird’s body, making observing subtle muscle movements more complex. Hint; if a bird is on you and you have your head turned, you can still identify behavior by feeling a change in the grip of their feet.
Oh, those eyes!
With over 10,000 species of birds worldwide and growing, their eyes vary greatly. You can’t see the pupils of some species. Not a problem. We learn from challenging situations. Is the bird even looking at me? Start the training. You’ll find out. If you can’t see the pupils, you can’t see the pupil pinning. Keep training. Some species, like owls, their eyes don’t move in their sockets. They have to rotate their head to focus.
They are bipedal!
Have you ever seen a four-legged bird? Me neither! They have two less legs than most mammals. That is two less legs to be able to observe additional movement.
Get that blood moving!
Birds also have a high metabolic rate, meaning they eat very little but very often. What’s up with all of these challenges? Their appetite allows for many training sessions throughout the day with smaller amounts of reinforcers. They also tend not to have as wide of a variety of foods to eat as many mammals, causing the trainer to get very creative in identifying reinforcers and non-food reinforcers.
Show us your teeth!
Yeah, they don’t have any. They have beaks and bills. The beak and bill don’t change shape like a mammal’s mouth would if they were to snarl or growl. The world’s largest flighted macaw has a bite pressure of over several hundred pounds per square inch. That beak pressure, along with the ability to fly, are the common reasons why many people are afraid of birds. This fear can be equated to a lack of information on understanding birds and the individual bird. That’s ok. Learn the behaviors of the individual bird through training together. There’s no need to push it past its comfort level. If you don’t do this, you won’t get bit.
I can’t see your pupil, but your pupil can see me…
…said the mouse! Not only do birds have a very acute sense of vision, but they can also see ultraviolet light that humans can’t. I’ve also witnessed several species of birds reacting to patterns, patterns on clothing and in their environment. Survival of the fittest.
Birds are Fascinating
This is especially true when you begin understanding birds through training and understanding their extremely long line of evolution. If you are interested in dinosaurs, tune in for my weekly episode of Coffee with the Critters on The Animal Behavior Center’s Facebook page or YouTube channel. On February 11th, 2024, I have an in-depth interview with Sabrina and Garret from the podcast I KNOW DINO!
My love of paleontology was my gateway to my work with birds. Birds were the gateway to my education in Applied Behavior Analysis. ABA was the gateway to my current work with all exotic animals and animal welfare.