Recommended Articles on Freeflight Training

Posted by Raz on Jul 19th, 2009
Jul 19

As a follow up to my post on freeflight training for companion parrots, I would like to share links to a couple of articles that describe the process NEI uses for their birds. The first is an article by Deb Stambul, who attended the second level NEI workshop where they learn hands-on with new NEI birds. It should be stressed that although they are new freeflyers, they have been in the program working with professional trainers for a long time before this one-week workshop, have excellent flight skills in huge aviaries, and have already worked on recall training in those protected environments. This is the part where they make the transition to the open outdoors.

Learning How Professionals at NEI Train Birds to Fly Outdoors Safely

The second is an article that appeared in World Parrot Trust’s Psittascene magazine a few years ago, in which Steve Martin of NEI describes how involved the process is and what he expects from trainers.

To Fly or Not to Fly?

Fanny Schutte training a Scarlet Macaw at NEI’s 2009 workshop.

Chris Shank also does freeflight workshops at Cockatoo Downs every year or so, demonstrating recall training and also featuring guest speakers like Susan Friedman. I’ll try to write about that in an future post.


San Diego Zoo SOAR: Final days of training

Posted by Raz on Jun 25th, 2009
Jun 25

NEI’s new show at the San Diego Zoo, SOAR: A Symphony in Flight, is in the last few days of training before the opening Saturday night.

I’m glad I watched the training last Saturday as well (blog post About to SOAR). There were far fewer opportunities to learn from birds who were giving them training challenges with new behaviors, in a new environment, at night. Everyone’s getting their part down. The teamwork of the trainers and staff is equally impressive. There are a lot of birds in this show, and almost all are cued off stage for behaviors they perform on the set or in the amphitheater. Right now there are no mechanized release cages, so all the entries and exits involve trainers as well.

One thing that struck me, which may seem trivial on its face, is how readily the birds enter their carriers. They are never shooed in, never forced in; it’s always a choice to walk in on their own. Clearly lots and lots of positive reinforcement there on a regular basis. Cool to see with such a tightly orchestrated show.

The other thing that’s very noticeable is how little voracity the birds show for their food rewards. With everything synced to music, video, sound and lighting effects, there isn’t much leeway for birds being reluctant to perform or wandering off script. Their diets are carefully designed to keep their weight in a good range for health and training, but when you see the birds working they don’t go after the food rewards all that rapidly when they’re offered, and their attention is definitely not focused on looking for it from the trainers. Many of them seem almost nonchalant about it. Also very cool to see in a show that demands such precise timing and which is on such a tight schedule for the opening. (Some of these birds only arrived from NEI’s Florida base two weeks ago.) It’s a wonderful demonstration of how weight is just one factor, and hunger doesn’t need to be very strong when there is a trusting relationship based on choice and not force.

The Green Winged Macaw at one of his stations on the set:
scarlet at SOAR

Pair of macaw butts stretching for treats:
macaw butts

Worker bees swarming the set:

Pair of very tired trainers waiting for Eurasian Eagle Owl to get set up.
[Hillary (standing) and Cari (collapsing).]
tired trainers

Many more photos in the Facebook album.

UPDATE: Show performance

I finally got over to see the show a week after its opening. It went very well and the audience loved it. They are combining parts of the planned night show (SOAR) and using parts of the day show in sections where the birds are still in training for the full SOAR program. It works seamlessly though, and if you didn’t know before hand which was which it would be very hard to tell.

After the show they let people stay if they want to watch them train, which is good for them (birds get more practice doing their routine in front of an audience) and pretty educational for the audience too. He explains what they’re doing as they train, and really stresses that they never make a bird do anything it doesn’t want to do, all R+. I wish more parrot owners could see that in action!

Jun 21

Steve Martin’s Natural Encounters Inc (NEI) is creating a beautiful new nighttime bird show for the San Diego Zoo, with an environmental theme set to music and visuals. The set with full sound and lighting is spectacular (got a brief view during some testing). Here’s a peak at some of the birds being trained for the night show.

condor and moonbeams

Me and my friend-in-forgetfulness Hillary (aka Tex, and NEI’s newest full-time trainer) both managed to forget our good cameras, so only the bigger birds and the ones trained before my iPhone ran out of juice made it in here. Over a very long evening, they also worked with several Eurasian Eagle Owls, two Keas, Blue Headed Macaws, a troop of rats, a pot-bellied pig, a 40-year-old American Fish Eagle, African White-necked Ravens, a flock of chickens, a rooster, and a pair of gorgeous Toucans. These show Steve training the Andean Condor (above) and the Maribou Stork with Wouter Stellard.

Steve and the senior trainers — Cari Clements, Dillon Holger, Lindsey Morse, Wouter — plus the other staff, certainly had their hands full. Some birds worked better than others, and usually the trainers were aware of potential problems before they happened. The level of difficulty and length of the training session appeared to be monitored very, very carefully, and no one was pushed even remotely near the danger zone. (Remember, this is training in a brand new environment, outdoors, at night, in the middle of a large city.) One of the important lessons I’ve learned for flying Carly in an urban area has been to be careful to never, ever knowingly push the safety zone. Knowing when NOT to go flying, or when to call it a day, is a crucial part of good training. So I found watching the training of the more challenging birds of the evening especially interesting. Not recognizing the limits essentially trains the bird for bad behavior by allowing an opportunity for competing reinforcers. (Once a bird settles in a nice tree there are no “do-overs.”)

Observing good trainers can be an education in itself: the ideas for solving problems, teamwork, different personal styles. But what I find most interesting is the clarity of the human-bird interaction when trainers are very focused and experienced in applying scientific training principles. Great opportunity to learn by example. Especially impressive when the trainers still have that focus after the fatigue of an already long day’s work and several intense weeks of preparation.

More fun pictures here. Hopefully some soon with a proper camera!

For more information about the show, see the San Diego Zoo site. There are also two daytime shows, at 2pm and 4pm. Opening is next weekend, June 27th (26th for zoo members).

For more information about NEI, see Natural Encounters, Inc. The “Press Room” area has some excellent articles on training and behavior, by the NEI staff and others. NEI also does week-long intensive training workshops for companion parrot owners once or twice per year.