Natural Encounters, Inc.
Your Macaw is sitting in the tree on the side of the stage, ignoring your plaintive appeals and progressive offerings of more enticing food. Your restless audience bakes in the hot sun and all you can think of is how to get this damn bird out of the tree before you have exhausted your reserves of natural history wisdom.
Sound familiar? You're not alone, it has happened to all bird trainers. All who fly their birds free, anyway. Unfortunately, all too often the result of this experience is lowering the bird's weight when poor training practices, not the weight of the bird, is often the cause of the problem.
In our quest to provide our audiences with the most dramatic and entertaining behaviors possible, we are often faced with the challenge of how to motivate our animals to perform these incredible feats. How do we encourage them do what we want them to do?
Then, how do we get them to keep doing it every day, three times a day? Motivation makes possible all the wonderful behaviors our birds' perform. Motivation is also responsible for much of the undesirable behavior our animals perform. Whether we like it or not, birds are sometimes motivated to do things we don't want them to do.
Ken Ramirez, in his book Animal Training, Successful Animal Management Through Positive Reinforcement, describes motivation as: A state of mind which produces a noticeable increase in behavioral activity. This does not necessarily mean desirable behavioral activity, just activity. So how do we motivate our birds to do the things we want them to do?
It is obvious to all of us that we can reduce a bird's weight to create added motivation, or drive, for it to perform a behavior. The degree of drive determines the degree of responding (M. Domjan, 1998). However, it is important to realize that weight reduction is only one of the tools we can use to create motivation in an animal, and it certainly is not the best tool to use in all situations. In fact, it has the potential to be the most dangerous tool we have available to us. Reducing a bird's weight can cause increases in aggression, food begging, mantling, and many other undesirable behaviors. It can also have a negative effect on a bird's overall health. Weight reduction should be used as a last resort, only after you have exhausted all the other training tricks in your bag.
Most professional bird trainers use food as reinforcement when training their birds. This is a well-proven training strategy that has evolved over many years. It is also a very natural way to train birds. In the wild, a bird flies from its roost tree to the hunting or foraging area in search of food. Hunger is a major influence on the motivation for the bird to perform this behavior. In our shows, we can create a similar type of motivation for our birds to perform their behaviors. Therefore, our goal should be to work the bird at the same weight it would be at if it were in the wild. To accomplish this lofty goal we need to dig deep into our box of training tools.
Before I address training strategies that encourage birds to work at higher weights, let's look at some of the most common factors that have negative effects our bird's motivation.
Poor Training / Communication
Increased motivation is often required to compensate for poor communication and training. It is very important that you establish a level of communication with your bird that is built on honesty. What does that mean? Never lie to your bird, in any way. If you show the bird a mouse give it to him when he makes the flight. Don't show him the mouse and give him a few grams of bird of prey diet instead. A bird that has been tricked in this manner will never know if it should believe you or not, and will need more motivation to perform behaviors in the future.
Avoid doing things like flying a bird off a perch that it is tied to all day. It is easy to move a hawk's bow perch out into the training field for a training session. Sure, you know you took the bird's leash off and put on the créance, but does the bird know that? When you stand back five feet and ask the bird to fly to you, it thinks it can only go three feet. A three-foot limit is the communication it has received every other time it has tried to fly off that perch. Some trainers will see the bird's failure to perform the behavior as the need for more drive. I see it as a breakdown in communication and very poor training.
A major antagonist of motivation is environmental distraction. There is no limit to the number of distractions that affect the behavior of the birds we are training.
Our changing environment provides constant challenges to any bird that has not become accustomed to novel situations. Some birds just seem to accept change and new situations as a normal part of life. Others see change as potentially life threatening and will do everything in their power to avoid new situations. If forced to work in these stressful situations, these more nervous birds will require a higher level of motivation to perform. Whereas the "bomb proof" birds, as Kim Caldwell from Sea World calls them, will require little motivating to perform their behaviors in new situations.
Behavior is a product of instinct or experience. It is most birds' instinct to be wary of anything that they do not understand or that is outside their experience base. The best way to prepare birds to accept the wide variety of distractions at our shows is to provide them with as much experience as possible when they are young. A bird that has been socialized with many different people and has experience many novel situations will be much more accepting of changes in the future. However, if a young bird is sheltered from novel experiences in its first year of life, change will be more difficult in later life and more motivation may be needed to encourage it to perform in these situations.
The personal history a bird has with a trainer can also be a distraction. A bird that is bonded to one trainer may not perform for another trainer if the object of its desire is in sight. On the other hand, a person who has a negative history with a bird can kill its motivation and destroy training sessions.
Many bird shows today incorporate birds demonstrating free-flight natural behaviors. There are few things more spectacular than a bird flying inches over your head. But, not all birds are capable of flying or can be taught to fly in shows.
It is very important that we ask our birds to do things that are well within their capabilities. If a bird does not have good flight skill and confidence, a high level of motivation may be required to get it to fly a long distance. However, the bird that has a good level of skill and confidence will require far less motivation to perform the same behavior. If a bird is not a confident flyer it can acquire the skills on its own if you provide a large flight cage in which it can practice. Or, you will need to develop these skills through training.• Ask the bird to fly to the hand a short distance; whatever distance the bird can fly comfortably, even a few inches is OK in the beginning. When the bird performs one step without hesitation, move to the next step, lengthen the distance you are asking it to fly. If the bird hesitates, stay at that step until he has gained enough confidence to fly without hesitation. Through these repetitions the bird will gain confidence in his flight and will require less motivation to perform the flight behavior in the future.
A common problem with some parrots is their lack of flight skill and confidence because they had their wings clipped in their first year of life. Nature provides a bird with the motivation to learn to fly in the early part of its life, usually the first year. It's at this time young animals learn most of the skills and coordination that they will use for the rest of their life. If the bird had its wings clipped in its first year it will be deprived of the opportunity to learn these skills at the proper time of its life. Plus, the bird will have a year's worth of punishing experiences discouraging its attempts at flight.
Flying birds downwind can also eat away at a bird's motivation. Depending on the strength of the wind, most birds have a difficult time flying downwind. Many training sessions have come to a screeching halt because the breeze shifted and the bird is now being asked to fly to a spot that is directly downwind. The latency to perform the behavior can easily be blamed on the bird's motivation, which is true. It is not as motivated to make the difficult downwind flight as it was to make the easier crosswind flight. But, rather than cut the birds weight, it is more productive to set the bird up to succeed by arranging the training session to allow the bird to fly cross wind.
Sometimes we ask our birds to perform behaviors that are just not comfortable for them to accomplish. For instance, birds have a very good understanding of the length of their wings. A bird will have little motivation to fly to a trainer if it means hitting its wing on an object in the path. However, if the trainer moves to the side just a little, the bird may not hesitate at all to perform the behavior. Sure, if we created more drive in the bird by lowering its weight it may make the flight even thought it will hit the object. But, being sensitive to the bird's comfort level with the environment can allow a trainer to work this bird at a higher weight.
Repetition breaks down confidence barriers and promotes skill and confidence. It can also have a negative impact on behavior. Just like a human who performs the same task time after time day after day will become complacent and bored, a bird that performs the exact same behavior will also become bored and slow to perform the behavior. I recently toured the Calloway Golf Club manufacturing company in California. On the tour they pointed out that no one in the assembly area does the same job for more than two hours at a time. Everyone in the building shifts jobs every two hours to avoid becoming bored with the job. This increases productivity and decreases mistakes.
Instinctive Drift is a common problem with birds that are asked to repeatedly perform the same behavior. It is a gradual drift away from learned behavior toward more natural behaviors. For instance, a bird that has been trained to fly a particular route to a particular perch on a stage may gradually begin to take a different route to the perch. Or, it may begin to land on different objects before landing on the perch. These drifts away from the learned behavior may be caused by such things as its innate desire to fly upwind, or to land on a high perch to get a better view of the area. Increasing the bird's drive may cause the bird to get back on track. However you may consider relaxing your criteria for the behavior and accept the offered behavior.
We have some macaws that have been trained to fly from a release box to a tree on stage. The birds performed the behavior flawlessly for several months. Our strategy is to consistently raise the weight of any bird that is performing its behavior properly. As the bird's weights climbed their drive to perform the behavior decreased. Instead of dropping their weight we started adding a wider variety of food items as reinforcement when they landed on the tree. They still performed the behavior very well, but gradually began altering the behavior they performed. Instead of flying straight to the tree, they began circling the audience, then landing in the tree. Then, they started landing on the backdrop before landing in the tree. Their behavior had drifted away from the original learned behavior toward behaviors that had other reinforcing values. We could have decreased their weight and increased their drive to perform the original behavior. However, we felt the new behavior they had established was acceptable. In fact it was desirable. So, we allowed them to do as they pleased, kept bringing their weight up, and kept increasing the variety and types of food we provided them upon landing on the tree. Today, they perform one of the most spectacular flying behaviors in the show.
To avoid the need to increase drive for birds to perform the same behavior on a daily basis, find ways to make small changes to the behavior that will keep the bird interested. Often this is little more than changing the types and quantities of reinforcement you offer or even offering secondary reinforcers like scratches on the head, attention, toys, companionship, etc.
Setting Them Up To Succeed
Setting birds up to succeed means preparing the subject and the environment for the learning experience. We should begin with a proficient understanding our bird's natural and personal histories. Each bird is an individual and will respond differently to various situations. Also, each bird has its own skill level and preferences that may affect its attention span in different situations.
Next, we should cultivate the learning environment and weed out distractions to create fertile ground for our lessons to take root. Our training should take into account the behavior we want the bird to perform in the show as well as the show environment itself. For instance, if our birds are to work in front of large audiences, then desensitizing to large audiences should be part of the training process.
Good training practices, including clear, honest, two-way communication are an extremely important part of setting birds up to succeed. Understanding what our birds are expressing through their body language will provide great insights into our training relationship with them.
When a bird flies from one place to another it is either going toward something, or going away from something. That is, it is moving toward a desirable place or away from an undesirable place or situation. Understanding this simple concept will give you great insights into the motivation of your birds. A bird flying to a tree may be motivated by the desire to sit in the tree, or it may be motivated by the desire to get away from a person it is nervous of. Understanding the bird's motivation gives you insights into the strategy for correcting the problem. If the bird flies to the tree to get away from a particular trainer, then, creating a positive relationship with that trainer will help fix the problem. If the bird flies to the tree to bask in the sun or obtain a good vantage point, your strategy will be more focused on creating more positive experiences related to the stage.
The Right Bird For The Job
Some birds are just not fit to perform in shows. Unfortunately, some zoo professionals who direct show staff poorly understand this fact. As a consultant with experience at over 30 zoos, I have seen many zoo curators and supervisors pressure show staff to work with the birds they have because they are not allowed to replace any birds with new ones. This causes some trainers to work birds that are not well suited for shows. These birds are often ones that require a higher level of drive to reduce their fear or anxiety with the show environment. Some birds are just too nervous around people to work in shows. Of course, you can always drop their weight to create motivation that will overcome their fear. But, is it worth it? I say no.
There are some species that are more appropriate than others for use in shows. Corvids, as a whole, are very intelligent, yet high strung and nervous birds and often provide training challenges for even the most experienced trainers. They almost have to be hand-raised to prepare them for life in show business. A corvid that was raised in the wild, perhaps one that has come through a rehabilitation facility, will be an enormous challenge for even the most experienced trainer. Wild-hatched owls also do poorly in show situations unless they are hand-raised.
Working birds in shows demands special talents and skills of the people who care for and train the birds. There are equal requirements of the birds themselves. For a bird to excel, or even perform, in a show at a comfortable level, it must have the physical and the mental abilities required for the job. Not all birds meet this requirement. Some birds simply should not be used in shows.
Using Food As Reinforcement
Food is a primary reinforcer for the birds we use in our shows. It provides the best and most natural motivation of all. However, there are some things to keep in mind that may help you make better use of this reinforcement tool.
When using food as a reinforcer we should make sure the quantity of food offered is worth the effort for the bird. Repetition is very important in training, and the more repetitions you can perform in a training session the more information you can provide to the bird. However, there is a point where the food you are offering may not be worth the effort to the bird. A bird will lose motivation if it feels the quantity of food is not worth the energy it is required to spend in order to receive the reward.
Also, make sure the bird likes the food you are offering. If you offer a novel food item the bird may have little motivation to eat it. Some birds may even be afraid of novel food items. Keep in mind, just like people; birds have their preferred food items. A hawk may turn away from a ten gram ball of Bird Of Prey Diet but be very anxious for a ten gram piece of mouse. Some parrots will not fly two feet for a handful of pellets but will fly 100 yards for a peanut. Use the most desirable food items for training and feed the other less desirable food items for feeding at the end of the day.
I teach my staff something 1 call psychological hunger. The bird's hunger is more in its mind than in its stomach. Any time you restrict the amount of food, or even the type of food, you are feeding a bird you create psychological hunger. It is similar to an increased appetite in a wild bird when there is a food shortage. When a wild bird realizes a food shortage it will eat more food and eat the food more quickly before another bird gets to it. Psychological hunger is a natural process and allows trainers to work birds at very high weights.
When you visit our show on Sat. you will see a number of birds that are working at their natural weight. Groucho, our well-known singing parrot, weighs 595 or 600 grams when he is given all the food he wants to eat. This is his normal, or ad-lib, weight range. Although he has performed flawlessly at over 630 grams we now try to keep him around 595 grams. A few of the macaws you will see in the show were recently put on feed up for over a month. Their weight increased by only about two or three percent, and this was most likely due to the effects of psychological hunger driving the weight above normal. Our strategy is to constantly bring our birds weights up to the point the behavior finally begins to deteriorate. With this strategy we can often work birds above their ad-lib weight.
We conducted a weight increase experiment on a Harris Hawk that was exhibiting some odd behavior. Scooter flew from point A to B then back to A for his exit. His problem was associated with the tree branch he landed on at the B location. He would repeatedly foot the perch after he landed on it. We decided to see if it was a weight related problem so our strategy was to raise his weight. When the trainers asked, how high? I said keep raising the weight until his behavior breaks down. The bird was working at 630 grams at the time we started raising his weight. When the bird's behavior finally broke down his weight was 850 grams. Two hundred twenty grams over his working weight! Since his footing behavior in the tree had not changed, we decided to take him out of shows and just feed him up. After one week of feed-up, getting all the food he wanted, his weight had dropped down to 780 grams. That's the power of psychological hunger. His weight finally went down to 740 grams and we put him back in the show. Unfortunately, his footing problem had not disappeared so we retired him from the behavior. We have since raised the working weights of most every bird in our collection, although none have been as dramatic as Scooter's story.
Some trainers speak of reducing a bird's weight by 10% before training it. This is a dangerous strategy. Every bird is an individual and will react differently to weight reduction. Some birds might mantle, food beg, or become aggressive when their weight is reduced only 5%. Others may not even notice a 10% weight reduction. It is important to weigh a bird before you begin training it, if weight reduction is going to be part of the training plan. The original, or ad-lib weight should be your ultimate goal for where you want to work the bird. Anytime you approach a 10% weight loss in the bird you should reevaluate your training strategy and maybe even reevaluate the bird for its suitability for show business.
No matter what weight you ultimately train the bird at, your plan should include raising the weight back toward ad-lib weight once the bird has learned the behavior. This is a very important point. It is too easy for trainers to keep birds at their working weight all their lives. Any bird, especially a young bird that is flying in a show will need to gain weight. The increase in exercise produces more muscle and muscle is heavier than fat. As the bird burns off fat and develops muscle its weight should normally rise. Most birds working in shows will experience a substantial increase in their body weight over their first year of life. If you do not allow this increase to occur the effect will be similar to lowering the bird's weight and could possibly compromise its health.
Also, some trainers work their birds only during the summer months then lay their birds off during the winter. This is a great time to discover a bird's ad-lib weight. When a bird is fed up, or, given all the food it wants, it will quickly increase in weight as psychological hunger causes the bird to eat inordinate amounts of food. Then, usually after a few weeks, the bird's weight will begin to drop. Once the weight levels out and becomes consistent the bird will be at ad-lib weight. When this bird begins training again in the spring this ad-lib weight should be its new target weight. Some trainers will automatically return to the working weight the bird ended up at for the last season. If you let the bird's behavior dictate its weight, you will most likely find that you can work the bird significantly higher than you did the previous year.
Food is not the only reinforcement we can use with our birds. Many birds will perform behaviors for secondary reinforcers. For instance, some birds will fly to a perch because they like the companionship of a particular trainer or another bird. Other birds will accept a scratch on the head or even verbal praise as reinforcement. After a bird has learned a behavior it may even perform the behavior almost out of habit. Our macaws that fly down at the end of the show often land in the tree right on cue without even looking to the trainer for food reinforcement.
Not All Trainers Are Created Equal
Training birds is part science and part art. You can read the books, learn from the experts and have years of hands-on experience and still not be a great bird trainer. The great bird trainers are the ones who have developed the sensitivities and empathies that allow them to understand what a bird is thinking and feeling by reading its non-verbal communication, its body language. The best bird trainers are the ones who create motivation by trying all the tricks and using all the tools before ever thinking of cutting a birds weight. The best bird trainers are the ones whose birds perform reliably at the highest weights.
Our birds rely on us for virtually every aspect of their lives. We control their care, nourishment, and training. We should insure that our quest to provide our audiences with spectacular behaviors does not compromise our quality of care for the animals in our charge.
Our training should be founded on clear honest communication, with the trainer being just as good a listener as teacher. The bird should be an equal shareholder in the training process and should not be forced but rather allowed to participate. When it comes time to consider weight reduction the bird will tell us through its body language if it needs more motivation...provided what we are asking it to do is fair, all things considered.
Our training should be based on positive experiences. But, Positive Reinforcement is not enough. Positive Training should be our goal. Positive Reinforcement is the consequence for desirable behavior, the icing on the cake. Positive Training is the recipe, the strategy, for how to carefully and creatively arrange the environment to produce a masterpiece. Only when we practice Positive Training will we understand that motivation is a state of mind and not a state of hunger.
Domjan, M. 1998. The Principals Of Learning And Behavior, fourth edition. Brooks/Cole publishing company, 1998
Ramirez, K. 1999. Animal Training, Successful Animal Management Through Positive Reinforcement. Shedd Aquarium, Chicago, IL.