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.