On the first day of the workshop, we were told to capture or shape three behaviors on our Macaw. This helped those of us who had minimal or no experience with birds get a feel for their offered behaviors, their style and speed of learning, learn a little about our individual bird and see what it felt like to feed a treat to a bird! I had zero experience with birds except for farm chickens. I was in awe.
These first sessions were done in protected contact (meaning the bird was in a cage and we were outside it and feeding treats through the wire). I came to think of the enclosures the Macaws were in as comparable to horse keeping. There was a large “flight” they all shared, probably 20’ x 80’ and also 20’ or 30’ high. I thought of these as horse pastures. There were four or five birds “turned out” together when we weren’t training them.
|Using his foot to hold the seed while eating|
Inside that flight, there were a couple smaller cages probably 5’ by 5’ and 12’ high which were kind of like run in sheds. 2 or 3 birds were put in each to be out of the way when we were training. There was also a smaller cage on wheels, more stall sized, where the bird I worked with was put when others were training because “he didn’t play well with others”. He was out with all of them when we weren’t training, but the smaller confines must have brought out the same sort of behavior that one sees when horses are bunched together in a small area.
After that first protected contact session, we needed some more basics. Because we had not yet learned how to “lead” a bird (again, I revert to horse terminology), when we were ready to train out of protected contact, Wouter (pronounced Vowter) brought each bird out for us. The first afternoon he placed the birds onto a perch which was about eye level in the corner of the flight. The birds had the option to fly off into their “pasture” so it was only because they chose to stay that allowed us to work with them (and there were the occasional fly offs but not often and they came back pretty easily). We taught them to turn around on this perch and also to station on a piece of wood nailed to the perch. That became a high value place to be for the rest of the week.
The next morning we learned how to cue the bird to fly to our hand and how to return them to the perch in a manner that they felt safe and comfortable. In Susan’s LLA class, she frequently uses the behavior of a bird “stepping up” onto a hand as an example. Last week the clarity of that term hit me. The birds truly do prefer stepping UP to stepping over or down. So when we returned a bird to a perch, we had to place the bird a little lower than the perch for him to be comfortable stepping up onto it, rather than dumping the bird out of our hands. We were taught to have them fly to our hands before stepping onto our hands because it’s easier for the bird.
Having the birds step up was an example of the choice that these birds are given. Traditionally, I guess people kind of press their hands into the birds chest to knock them off their balance so they have to step onto the hand. At NEI, the birds are offered a cue of right hand up which means the bird has a choice. If he chooses to step up, he picks his foot up in, I’m sorry but the cutest little darn posture you could ask for. It reminded me of a toddler reaching up a tiny hand in that trusting way that you will offer yours back to help them. In any case, when they pick up that foot, then you offer your left hand in front of them and they step on (and if you are Wouter, you accompany that offering with “did you call for an Uber?”).
I had no idea what to expect when this bird flew to me but what I found was that he was very light (compared to a broiler chicken!) and the little feet are very gentle. There were more mechanics to learn so we could turn this bird who was now facing us around so he could step back up onto the perch. All this needed to be done smoothly to keep the bird comfortable or he’d take to his wings.
There was, of course, relationship to build. When I think of building a relationship with an animal, I tend to think of long term such as months at least. Here we were asking the birds to trust us in just a matter of days. I’m not a fan of flying myself, so it would have taken me a lot longer to trust someone if I was going to fly over and land on their hand. It also made me think about what we offer to an animal that we are asking to trust us. Certainly my teammates and I had the best of intentions for these birds. But we needed to quickly build our skills so we could offer clear communication in addition to our good intentions. This was obvious when comparing us to Wouter. He no longer worked at NEI and did not necessarily know these individual birds, but they responded to his cues quickly and comfortably. He had the body language, if you will, that they understood. I think that’s an important point to think about regardless of the animals we work with. So many people have great intentions with their animals but they just don’t have the education to understand that the human way they are communicating with them is not received with the emotion that it is given. Something as simple as stroking or patting may be done to an animal to convey appreciation or love, and yet it could be very aversive to the animal.
Next up: Training Projects