I was asked a while ago to start making daily blog posts. That sure is going to be tough but it has been in the back of my mind since I was asked. I love to write about the birds that I am involved with and that are involved with me. They are creatures I respect highly whether parrot, raptor, or corvid. I am very passionate about enriching the lives of animals in captivity and if I have anything to share, I will which brings me to this post.
I have been volunteering my time training the birds of prey at a local wildlife rehabilitation center. I started with every intent to train them for a few months, taking advantage of the opportunity to learn from them and then apply that knowledge and experience to working with the companion parrot society. Well, a few months has turned into a few years and this is why. I began using positive reinforcement training on these birds and applying applications in behavior analysis. What I saw was amazing. First it is really cool to see the techniques work on different species of birds. Second, from the best of my observations, I saw how much this type of training was enriching the lives of these birds. I had every intention of training for a few months, thanking the organization and the birds, and then moving on. With time, patience, application, and dedication I saw many things. I saw certain birds flying to the front of their enclosures when they would hear me walking near them. They used to fly away. I began seeing stress levels diminishing. “How can I possibly walk away from this?” I thought. My choice in interaction in their lives has effected them, changed their behavior, and changed their stress levels. How could I possibly walk away. What I felt was a responsibility. So, almost three years later here I still sit training the birds of prey. What an honor it is to be given the opportunity to work so closely with them. This brings me to my training session with two Red-tailed Hawks today.
Let me introduce you to Kamali and Kamikaze. These two Red-tails have taught me so much. The day I met them I couldn’t even approach without them turning their heads and looking at the walls and ceiling. What I’ve learned is when most captive birds of prey do this, the direction their head turns is often the direction in which they launch themselves. This was a behavior I did not want associated with me. I do not want to work with a bird and have it show signs of wanting to get away from me. If it does, I observe the environment and change what is in it to help keep the bird calm and relaxed. I had to start with my proximity to the bird. There was a long history of seeing a human meant being captured for a program. Oh yea! I had many things working against me including the gloves I was wearing. The gloves were associated with being captured. I could have changed gloves but I chose to keep working with those gloves and put new meaning to the gloves. The gloves now are only worn on one hand. They aren’t for protection anymore. They are for holding a raptor willing to fly to it.
Ok, so back to this morning’s interaction with them. Kamali and Kamikaze are showing many signs of nesting behaviors right now. Over the past few years
of working with them and talking to day-keepers that volunteer to keep enclosures clean, with these nesting behaviors also comes observable behaviors of them being aggressive. Heck, there is a reason Kamikaze was nick named “Spinal Tap” because if you turned your head, that was what she had a history of flying to. The first nesting season I worked with them was nothing short of amazing and I remember standing in their enclosure taking tons of photos and sitting there for hours observing them, learning from them, and watching how they interacted with each other. I didn’t want to be associated with any part of disrespecting their environment and as far as I can tell, I’ve never crossed that line with them.
Today Kamikaze was on the ground walking around and giving out her chirps. Before they can see me approaching their enclosure I say hi to them to let them know I’m approaching and that is when the chirping starts. I open their door. Kamali is perched on the front perch and Kamikaze is on the ground in the back picking at the previous day’s left overs. I bridge Kamali (give a signal telling her that is the behavior for which I am looking for which she will be rewarded) for staying calm and perched on the front perch. I slip on my left glove. This was once a cue to fly away and through time and training it is now a conditioned stimulus to let them know training is about to begin. Kamikaze is on the ground walking around and seeing the glove catches her eye and she stops. I take a few steps back toward her and her head movements increase. I’m not sure, but I’m not thinking I want to see this. I’ve seen a Red-tail go running after a person in defense throwing themselves on their back with talons in the air. Yea, I’m not wanting to reinforce any of that behavior so I take a few steps back and the head quick head movements stop. “So, instead of me trying to get her to invite me to her environment, let me invite her into mine.” I thought. I knelt down so I wasn’t towering over her. “Kamikaze come?” I requested as I tapped the tree stump in front of me that gave her the opportunity to perch in front of me. She was now walking around and looking down, chirping, and glancing at me. “Kamikaze come?” I requested once again and with that she flew up to the stump. “Good” I said with immediacy to let her know that was the behavior I was looking for that would earn her a reward. What is that reward?” you may ask. Kamikaze is the one that determines that. Is it distance between
us? Verbal interaction? A treat? All of the above? She stood patiently looking at me as I reached for a treat and offered it to her. Once she flew to the stump, Kamali the other Red-tail flew to the perch in the back. Kamikaze was now eye level in front of me as I knelt in front of her stump and she perched on it staring at me. “Good” I said to her once again for her behavior of standing still and showing no signs of aggression as I reached for the goodie. I handed it to her and as she ate, I snapped these photos. “How absolutely awesome” I whispered to myself. “How absolutely awesome.”
After about 10 minutes of feeding and kneeling in front of her she flew back down to her corner. Her enclosure is large and the back of that enclosure is large. In the very back of her enclosure I also saw the remaining tid-bits from the day before. They needed picked up and removed. Now I was asking to come into her environment. I walked back slowly not wanting to reinforce any sign of aggression which I would say would be increased vocalization, feathers standing up on the back of the neck and head, a scream, a charge, any movement toward me with increased vocalization, and increased head movement. As she stood chirping on the ground in the one corner, I bridged and continued walking back to the other corner. She stayed calm and I continued to bridge. I had to duck underneath perching to get to the tid-bit. I was in a vulnerable position but the saying I say all the time kept coming to mind “Know the Bird. Know the Bird.” I know Kamikaze and Kamikaze knows me. The type of training I do is our form of communication and Kamikaze controls my feet, my hands, my glove, and where I walk. I once again knelt down to pick up the tiny morsels spread about. She stood watching me occasionally but most of the time with her eyes off of me. I smiled as she was showing all signs of being comfortable with me in her now more confined environment of the back of the enclosure right next to where she’s showing nesting behaviors. I bridged and offered a treat reward. She made no movement toward it showing no signs of wanting it. So what reinforced her behavior of staying calm? Our training history together? As I said, I smiled, nodded my head to her and thanked her for sharing this part of her life with me.
A video of me training Kamikaze to perch calmly while accepting a nail trim. Video taken 12/10.
Traci Barsugli says
I so appreciate you and all your help. Jamus has not advanced any but he hasn’t really regressed either. I can go in his mew, he will allow me to touch his chest but he will not let me touch his feet. He will not walk towards or over the glove but will eat a mouse sitting next to it only when it is on his side of the glove – I’ll keep working on it.
Lara Joseph says
Hi Traci. I was just talking about you and Jamus the other day. Not seeing him regress in behaviors is good news too. Each bird comes with its own history, whether that is good or bad so each will advance at an individual pace based on that background. My opinion I think you’ve made great strides with Jamus from when you first started. The advancement of training will also depend on how frequently you train. In a perfect world, I like to make my training sessions very short but with high frequency. So a training session may be 20 seconds or 5 minutes. The 5 minutes is a bit on the high side. The type and size of food reinforcer may have an effect also. For example the owls like that particular part of a mouse. 😉 I’m trying to be vague for the non-raptor trainers and care takers. That particular part is what I use to train the bird. If I can, I then try to mix in other parts. I use pinkies also, but prefer the raptors eat the parts of adult animals since a lot of the nutrition comes from the bones of the adults.
In the video I gave a full mouse as a huge reward. That was a pretty big reward. If I was out there all day and able to train whenever I wanted, I would be rewarding for pieces 1/5 of that size. Other reinforcers I use with owls are light, movement, and toy parts.
I mentioned to you that I’m getting ready to start training an owl real intently. I have every intention of video taping daily training and posting the videos. I love posting my mistakes also because I really learn from watching the mistakes. Once I start with this bird, I’ll shoot you an e-mail.
susie chen says
Hi Lara, what can I say but WOW !! Awesome. This is so great. What an honor it must be, to get to be that close to these amazing birds. To earn their trust has to be the best feeling in the world. Thankyou so much for shareing them with us. I live in the country and watch red tails from a distance everyday, how lucky are you !!
Always a pleasure to read about the updates Lara!