Basking

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Animal training is never a linear line; there are always ups and downs. One day Carson runs to greet me, ready to train. The next day she might ignore me completely and tuck her foot into her belly feathers, telling me she’s not going anywhere. Despite the occasional setback, I was reminded last week that our overall progress is overwhelmingly positive.

When I started working with Carson last July, she ran away from me multiple times before stepping on my glove. She remained uncomfortable when we came outside, often trying to fly away after any noise or sudden movement. I decided to “go back to kindergarten” with her training. We started with basic trust building and slowly reintroduced the glove, this time letting her tell me when she was ready to move to the next step.

We reached a huge breakthrough last week: we finally made it outside. She ran to me when I entered the mew and stepped on my glove right away. She stayed with me as I attached her leash and we stepped out the door. We basked in the sun for a few minutes as Carson calmly looked around the backyard and ate some rat tidbits. Not only was she calm that day, but she decided to do it all over again the next day. I couldn’t be happier or more proud of how far she has come. (I tried to be professional writing this article, but rest assured the original entry in my training log contained a plethora of incoherent exclamation points and smiley faces. 🙂 )

Steps Toward Flight

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To prepare for a training session, I closed the blinds in the classroom and set out a step stool – just in case. I brought Aldo into the room and carefully closed the doors behind me. I removed the metal swivel and leash that normally keep him secure on the glove if he tries to fly away. He needs this level of freedom – in a controlled room like the classroom where he cannot escape or hurt himself – to accomplish his new training goal: to fly!

I let Aldo step onto the perch and take in his surroundings. He has seen the classroom many times before, but he was curious as he looked around the room, his head bobbing up and down. After a moment, I raised the glove to his feet once again. He looked down at it and stepped up with both feet. I bridged and gave him a few mouse tidbits, then set him back on the perch to try again. While not very exciting yet, this is the first step in flight training. I will gradually move the glove farther and farther away so he has to take a big step, then hop, then finally fly to the glove. Eventually, he will fly across the room during raptor programs to demonstrate falcon speed for audiences!

A Big Step for Carson

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I have taken Carson’s training nice and slow. I go at her pace and let her tell me what she is comfortable with. But sometimes I have to take a risk. When Carson was inside last week to escape the cold temperatures outside, I decided to leap ahead in my carefully sequenced training plan to see how she would do in front of a group of people. We have spent months building trust in the mew, but I didn’t know if that comfort level would transfer to the classroom.

I was relieved to have a small group of well-behaved adults for Saturday’s “Talon Talk” program; it would be the perfect audience for Carson’s latest debut. Her first test was coming out of the crate. Just like we had practiced over the previous week, she hesitated at first, looking between the glove and the room outside the crate door. After a moment she set one foot on glove and tested its stability. My hand held her weight without wavering so she peeled the second foot off the perch and placed it on the glove.

Her next challenge was staying calm in front of the audience. I watched her body language out of the corner of my eye. She stood up straight, looking around at each corner of the room, and even took a few mouse tidbits. I was impressed; she didn’t seem concerned about a thing. After a few minutes, I brought her back to the crate while she was still comfortable, completing her portion of the program as a fun, positive experience for both of us.

Inside a Training Session: Not Interested

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Sometimes training sessions go really well with big breakthroughs like the session I described with Theo last week. But sometimes we just don’t get anywhere. Here is an example of another session with Theo that was not as productive:

I stood outside and peered into the mew. His yellow eyes almost seemed to glow as he stared back at me cautiously. After making sure I was staying put, he turned away to watch the backyard. I silently willed him to turn his attention to the chunk of mouse sitting next to him on the perch. My mind controls proved ineffective, however, as something else caught his eye. He bobbed his head down, then stretched every one of his fourteen neck vertebrae to capacity as he reached his head to the left. Eyes wide, unblinking. I also swiveled my head around, searching for what would be so interesting to an owl. Did he just now notice the two men sitting quietly by the library? Otherwise the backyard was quite peaceful. Perhaps it was something inside the mew. Would a rogue fly warrant such focused attention? Finding nothing alarming myself, and Theo’s neck still stretched out as far as it would go, I tried to gently refocus his attention with more than mental vibes. I shuffled my feet, quietly crunching the gravel to remind him that I was still there and this was a training session. No luck. His eyes were still round globes locked on something more interesting than me.

Inside a training session: Theo learns the rules of the game

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Theo’s training log helps me keep track of his progress.

I wait patiently just outside Theo’s open door. To avoid a direct gaze that could be intimidating, I stare at the ground and count in my head: 34…35…36. In my peripheral vision I can see Theo completely ignoring the two pieces of quail meat sitting on the perch two feet away. He simply rests with one foot tucked deep into the fluffy feathers on his belly. 86…87…88. I am starting to get worried. All he has to do is walk over and eat the tidbits, but his window of opportunity, 1 minute and 45 seconds, is closing in fast. Unfortunately he seems quite content to keep watch over the quiet backyard. As my internal count reaches 105 seconds, I sigh and take a step forward. Theo instantly turns to me. I reach out with the forceps to take one tidbit from the perch. Theo’s eyes lock on the retreating meat and follow it all the way back to the pouch hanging from my belt. Before I can move again Theo places both feet firmly on the perch and his head begins to swivel quickly back and forth between me and the single tidbit left on the perch. He knows I am about to take it away. I pause. Finally he makes his move and walks down the perch to grab his food. I smile at this bold move and give him more quail as a reward. I marvel at how much this owl has learned in the past few weeks. He has learned enough about me to actually predict my behaviors and act to change them. Owls may not be known for their intelligence, but they certainly are not “bird brains!”

The Mouse Went Down the Hole

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Imagine a hawk sitting on a fence post along the edge of a cornfield. Scanning the ground beneath her, she suddenly spots a mouse and must decide whether she will chase it or not. There are several factors that influence her decision. First, is she even hungry? If she just finished eating a rabbit, she probably won’t feel the need to work for an extra snack. She also considers if it is a desirable piece of food, whether the tiny mouse is worth her effort, and if she can obtain it without injury to herself. Now if she takes too long to consider all of this, she runs the risk of the opportunity disappearing completely: the mouse could scurry down a hole, out of reach. She will learn to think faster next time!

This “mouse went down the hole” theory is a useful tool in training our raptors. Knowing that their food may disappear, they are more motivated to act quickly. While station training Theo, I placed a piece of meat on a particular perch and gave him 5 minutes (his “window of opportunity”) to come eat it. If he didn’t move by the end of the 5 minutes, I took the food away, just like the mouse escaping down the hole. He learns that he must move before the 5 minutes are up if he wants the tidbit. I gradually shorten his window, working it down from 5 minutes, to 4 minutes, and eventually to a few seconds. I am happy to report that he is currently coming to his station as soon as I set the food down. In just a few weeks, he decided that he is not going to let those mice slip away!

Photo by Vera Domingues/Hopi Hoekstra

The Bridge

The bridge, usually a sound like a click or whistle, is an important part of training with positive reinforcement. You may already be familiar with bridges, especially if you have attended a dog obedience class. Metal clicker boxes have become a popular way of training dogs: ask the dog to “sit,” and as soon as his butt hits the ground, you click and give a treat. The click marks the sit behavior, essentially telling the dog, “THAT is exactly what I want you to do, a treat is coming!” It is more precise than using treats alone. After sitting, the dog might stand up by the time he eats the treat; without a click, the dog might think the reward was for standing. The clicker acts as a bridge, appropriately named because it bridges the gap of time between the behavior you want (sitting) and when they get the reward.

The bridge can be any sound or symbol the animal learns to associate with food. I simply make a “cluck” sound with my tongue for our birds. In this short video, I use the bridge to teach Carson to touch the target stick. Now that you know what the bridge means, watch the video carefully to answer these questions:

  • What mistake do I make with the bridge when Carson touches the target stick?
  • How can you tell that she understands what the bridge means?

Could you spot my mistake? In this session, multitasking with my camera divided my attention and I actually bridged AFTER she touched the target, a second too late. If she didn’t already understand the target behavior, a late bridge could have confused her even more. Did you notice how she responded to the bridge? Looking around in different directions, she searched for the food she knew she earned. Rest assured that after I set the camera down, she got a juicy reward!