We were told we could pick any behavior to train for the remainder of the week. That was a bit of a challenge since I had no idea what one could train a bird to do! I decided to train a husbandry behavior and asked about nail trimming (I still don’t know if those are nails or claws or what on a bird). Wouter said that was pretty easy and suggested I do “toweling” and then maybe some nail trimming too. One of my teammates, Meg, who is a dog trainer, chose crate training. Birds are transported in crates just like dogs when they have to be moved, so it made sense to train a bird to be comfortable in one. My other two teammates, Tricia and Blake, both chose tricks. Tricia wanted to do something fun and also wanted help with her timing. She actually played with a couple fun behaviors over the week. Blake is a fish trainer at Disney and had been working on training a ray to swim out to a marker and back to him. He wanted a little help working through that process so he trained his bird to climb a rope up…and then come back down. The coming back down was the challenging part because birds like going up, and they want to keep going up to where there are some lovely high perches way up in the tops of the flights. So Blake got a lot of work with markers too, since that was how he indicated to the bird “that’s far enough, now come back for your treat!”.
This shows the beginning of Blake's training for climbing the rope. You can see the bird trying to figure out how to climb this new thing (they climb up the cages and on the perches all the times) and how to find his balance by using his wings. Blake is marking and reinforcing the very first attempts as Wouter coaches.
I was lucky to get this early video and then on the last afternoon, I got another of the project as he was finishing it up. It's a great example of before and after of a nice training job.
So for those of us who had no idea what toweling is: birds are sometimes wrapped in towels for certain procedures to restrain them and protect the people working with them. Just as we teach horses and dogs to be comfortable with husbandry practices, birds can be trained to be more comfortable with the toweling procedure. A bird who has had an unpleasant experience with being wrapped up will be that much more uncomfortable and potentially difficult to work with in the future. To quote Steve Martin, “past consequences become current antecedents”. Just how uncomfortable the towel could be was about to become very apparent to me.
There are several methods trainers use to acclimate a bird to the toweling procedure. One which I saw done very successfully in the flight next to us, consisted of training a bird to go through a large (6-8”?) PVC pipe, maybe a foot long, by targeting him through gradually. When he was comfortable with that, a towel was laid over the pipe, just as environment. The next step was to have the towel hanging over the end of the pipe a little so the bird brushed it as he exited the pipe. This was gradually increased until the final behavior which I saw was a bird entering the pipe at one end and pushing his way out through towel which extended about foot beyond the end of the pipe. No human to bird contact was made the entire time so the bird was choosing to do this all on his own and becoming comfortable with the towel contact, the lack of visibility and the feeling of minor confinement.
There are times in our animal’s lives when we need to do something uncomfortable and we don’t have time to do the training ahead of time. I can tell a story to myself about how this must have been the case with the bird I worked with because we didn’t get anywhere near that progress. “Does why matter?” in relation to why an animal exhibits a particular behavior is a question that has dogged me for many years and I swing back and forth on the pendulum to answer it. Sometimes we don’t know our animals’ pasts, sometimes we do. How much does that matter in our training? Certainly if it helps pinpoint a particularly troublesome stimulus in an environment, we can focus in on desensitization with that stimulus. But during the week at NEI, Wouter repeatedly said to us, “doesn’t matter, this is about behavior”. Any time we slipped up and mentioned an emotion or a guess as to why a bird was doing something, the response was “doesn’t matter, focus on the behavior”.
After initially observing the bird I was working with fly away rather than be on the table with the towel, we moved to a location with a high history of reinforcement: the long perch we’d worked on the previous day. The behavior I observed here was a hesitancy on the bird’s part to be within 8 feet of the towel, which we had folded narrowly on the far end to minimize the apparent size of it. I define hesitancy by comparing his response when I asked him to target toward my hand without the towel present to his behavior when I asked him to target toward my hand (between him and the towel) with the towel present. I could measure his hesitancy in both the size of the steps he took and the speed with which he took them. Without the towel, he would approach my target hand with steps measuring an inch or more each and in a steady rhythm of about 2 steps per second (I did not actually take this data; these are estimates). When the towel was present, his steps, when he took them at all, were about a quarter of an inch in size, barely enough room to put the next foot down and sometimes he only took one step before stopping or rapidly retreating.
In our projects, we were always given choices along with great coaching. Wouter said I could try something else but this felt like something I should be able to accomplish. It didn’t seem any different than trying to get a horse into a trailer or to approach a scary object. I felt like I had the skills to achieve this and I said I didn’t care about the conclusion of the project (getting him under a towel); I wanted to work through it.
Next up: Breakthrough