Natural Fledging & Recall: Comments

Posted by Raz on Aug 1st, 2009
2009
Aug 1
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The following are comments regarding my post about training flight skills vs recall skills. Jim Dawson is an avian biologist at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tuscon. He states that “a trainer overly focused on ‘recall’ will never let a bird truly explore its wings.” He also points out that birds naturally fledge with a type of A-B recall, gradually increasing their flight skills along with their confidence, under the supervision of their parents. It is that type of supervised, controlled skill-building that I prefer to use with my own birds, and which is typically used by professional trainers (ask around).

UPDATE: This discussion originated with someone’s assertion that a new trainer with an adult bird who was just being introduced to outdoor flying had to choose between focusing on allowing the bird to learn flight skills and training recall. My position applies to any bird who was raised by humans indoors, whether newly weaned or adult. I do not condone anyone inexperienced in hand-rearing and weaning baby birds to experiment with replacing a bird’s natural parents or a qualified breeder. Please see the guest post by Wendy Craig for details.

Nicely written — We find ourselves bounded by the ways that we think about flight. Our birds thus end up equally constrained. This blog touches on some of the false labels we put on behaviors.

Instead we need to think about how wild birds fledge and learn to fly competently. With all the written resources and video out there about wild birds, there really is no excuse any longer for not understanding natural fledging (all the way to strong skilled flight outside).

Recall is part of fledging naturally — babies don’t leave the cavity until parents refuse to go to cavity to feed them. Babies’ first flights are to the parents to get food. It’s parallel to recall to a person. It has to be done right away and without much food restriction. They are out for supervised, short periods and are not left at liberty ever. I am very much against any form of at liberty flying, even though people like Chris Shank do it very well.

The youngsters develop quickly and their skills keep pace with the final growth and hard-penning of their sails. Panic flights happen when a bird has the hardware (developed wings and some muscle) to fly high and far but is lacking the software (confidence and learned skills) to handle flight. A young bird fledging doesn’t have the hardware yet to go far. By the time they do, they’ve flown quite a bit and have the mental skills in place.

I agree with you that recall and skills have to happen simultaneously. I don’t agree with a sink-or-swim idea about flight. I don’t agree that putting a bird outside without a solid recall is the way to do it.

A to B recall is only the very start of the process. The point is to increase the skill level of the flights as the bird develops physically and mentally. The practice A-B flights are shaped into loops, and the loops are shaped into larger loops, then higher. Eventually the bird starts exploring dives and other maneuvers, and flights become longer and and require a great deal of stamina. But the goal at all times is to maintain a balance of control and freedom with the bird, so that they can explore their own limits without excessive risk. When dealing with an indoor, human-raised bird, we are the only ones who can provide that balance and allow time for mental growth (confidence outdoors, “thinking on the wing”) as well as physical growth (flight skills).

Note: Chris Shank is a long-time trainer who started out in the marine mammal world, and conducts week long workshops on training and flight at Cockatoo Downs in Oregon. Chris recently stated about at-liberty flying:

I have flown cockatoos in this manner. However, I do NOT promote that form of flying in any way now. It is an unsafe and reckless way to fly one’s companion parrot. (29 July 2009)

When we are dealing with a bird who is going outdoors for the first time, whether as a youngster or an adult, it is a good recall that enables us to maintain control over the pace and difficulty of the skills being practiced.

Regarding a suggestion from a “recall optional” proponent that the method of early training I advocate needs to undergo “peer review”… well … if there even were such a thing for publications in the bird training world, in this case it would kind of be reinventing the wheel. This type of flight/recall training is the industry standard. Descriptions of the process I used with Carly for early flight training can also be found in two articles in Good Bird Magazine (links here), a publication reviewed and edited by Barbara Heidenreich. (Not the same as peer review, but in the companion parrot world it’s the best we have at the moment. Barbara is a past president of IAATE, and training consultant with many zoos, as well as an active advocate for companion parrot training.) Most all of my training strategies that are not routine practice are discussed with one or more professional trainers/behaviorists before and during the process, and well before writing about them. I strongly encourage others to do the same and not rely on internet chat groups as a sole source of information.

In addition, because of such a need for training information to be somehow “vetted,” the newly formed IAATE Companion Parrot Committee was set up for just that purpose. Articles posted at the site will have undergone peer review by members of the committee as well as the IAATE board of directors.

For more information:

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2009
Jun 23
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Sometime last year, I was concerned about times when Carly would fly so fast down the beach that she’d be out of hearing distance before I could call her back. Barbara Heidenreich suggested training an emergency recall. Zoos use this with some animals in case there is an incident with a trainer or an animal has to be moved quickly to another location. The idea is that the cue is different than a normal recall, and the reward is a huge jackpot, so there is a much higher probability of a response, even in the face of external distractions or competing reinforcers. It’s also a very useful behavior to have trained in case of an accidental escape outdoors.

I practice this once daily at home with both Carly and Piper to keep it fresh, using a referee’s whistle as the cue and usually a whole almond in the shell as their jackpot (highly, highly desired by my guys, as both toys and food). I use it at the beach when Carly is getting too far away, but not every time we go. Typically her flights are large loops, but within visual and hearing range. I am careful not to overuse it, otherwise the jackpot isn’t a jackpot any longer, and the emergency recall loses its extra incentive.


jackpot
Jackpot!

Today I had the first opportunity to test it with Piper. He is about 15 months old, and has never been especially keen on going outdoors. He simply hasn’t shown the curiosity or ease with things and events outdoors that Carly did, even when very young. When he’s outside I try to take it very easy, going to familiar places routinely, doing a little training there, providing lots of opportunity for calm behavior and lots of reinforcement. We use a harness outside because I want to see far fewer startle responses before free-flying. Today he surprised me by flying out to me as I walked out the front door, then landing on the roof next to the entry. He sat there and looked around, and I wondered how this would play out. I called him a couple times and he stayed where he was, looking at the trees around us. Then I remembered the whistle on my key chain. Gave the double-toot that’s our cue and he looked back at me for a second, then flew right down. I took him inside and got an almond pronto! (Carly got one too, for not flying out the door. )

To get started training the emergency recall I shortened our daily recall training sessions a bit, and switched to the ref’s whistle at the end. At first they had no idea what I was asking for (and were a little startled by the loud sound) so I followed the whistle with our usual recall cue. When they came they got the big jackpot. I did this at the end of every recall session for a few days. Next I moved to different positions in the house, while still in sight, before giving the cue, and then out of sight in a different room. When that was working well, I stopped doing it at the end of our usual training sessions and started those steps over (whistle cue close by, then further away, then from another room) at random times. This is how I keep it in practice now. It’s quite funny to see them come racing in from wherever they are to get their jackpot.

The first time I tested it outside with Carly at the beach, I did it when she was not too far away. I had no idea if she’d respond out there. She turned around so quickly it was as if she skidded and made a u-turn in mid air.

It is not a 100% solution by itself. I still have to keep up all the regular training and practice routines or both kinds of recall get unreliable. In environments where there are a multitude of competing reinforcers (seagulls, people, trees, etc) the regular practice is especially important, so that the whistle works even when other reinforcers are present.

I was very pleased with the response from Piper today on his first escape outside ever. And also pleased that he was eager to go outside to begin with. We took a nice walk outside later so he could explore more, and did our usual training out by the pool.

Next up: competing reinforcers!

For more information, Barbara Heidenreich describes training an emergency recall in Good Bird Magazine

Carly Lu’s Flight Blog

http://likambo.com/flyblog

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Carly Log 3: Generalizing Recall

Posted by Raz on Feb 1st, 2009
2009
Feb 1
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For background see Carly’s Super-Generalizing Recall Training.

We’ve been continuing to practice regularly before meals indoors, including “emergency recalls” using a whistle and super-treats. We took a beach outings several days this week, each one a bit longer than the last. We’re up to our usual 30-40 min session that we typically have done during the week.

Set-up: We’ve been going out before her first meal, and using sprouts and nuts for rewards, and peanut butter for the super-treat.

Some new changes we’ve made, which seemed a bit counter-intuitive to me at first:

  1. I’m letting Carly and Piper stay at home in their cage several days per week instead of bringing them to work. Seems odd, but I get the impression that they often prefer to not be carted back and forth; it’s a lot of moving from place to place, often when they are already content where they are, and which can require visible treat rewards to keep it voluntary. They also seem to be finding their cage a more interesting environment than the office (I’ve been working a lot on their cage activities). And when I’m very busy at work, they are not getting much interaction from me anyway, and certainly not whenever they want it. I was also wondering if Carly might be more likely to stray off for social visits if she is fairly well saturated on being with me so much of the time. (I would be!) So they now get some quiet, private time for 6-8 hrs a few days per week.
  2. I’ve switched to feeding a base diet of pellets. Formerly I fed a small amount of pellets to both greys, just because they like them, with a base diet of sprouts and veggies. But sprouts are also a very favored training treat, so to increase their value I am now using the pellets (Lafebre’s) and veggies as the base, and reserving sprouts, nuts and fruit as rewards. We do enough work each day that she will still get a good balance of everything.

~ ~ ~

Behavior: Most days she did medium length flights, staying fairly close, with one or two longer ones playing with gulls. On all of them she came directly back to me when finished. Weather has been warm so there have been somewhat more people around. If they stop to talk I let her do her meet-n-greet (fly to them on cue, fly back for treat, repeat). Her body language has remained normal, and it didn’t change her subsequent flying. Yesterday we met a RHG only 2 minutes into our session. She predictably showed interest but didn’t fly to him until cued. I let her do some A-B’s back and forth, and she was fine when we left.

Tried the emergency recall whistle today on a longer flight and she turned immediately and headed back in. But I’ll need to see many more repetitions before I’m confident it’s trained solidly.

Continuing use of jackpot treats at the end of session and while walking back to the car (larger nuts, additional sprouts).

Other notes:

It’s getting fun again, and more relaxing, as she gets back into her old groove!

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Carly Log 2: Generalizing Recall

Posted by Raz on Jan 12th, 2009
2009
Jan 12
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For background see Carly’s Super-Generalizing Recall Training.

Bad weather last weekend so we did some outings to indoor locations for socializing (and acclimation of Piper). We’ve been continuing to practice regularly before meals indoors, including some “emergency recalls” using a whistle and super-treats. We took a beach outing Saturday afternoon.

Set-up: she was barely below at-lib weight (458 g / at-lib 460) and we went out about 1-2 hrs after her normal first meal time. It was very warm and sunny, with a strong breeze from a Santa Ana wind. Used a variety of treats: butter toffee peanuts (super-treat), sunflower seeds (average), and peanut-butter cracker (jackpot, end of session).

Behavior: She did very energetic medium distance flights, dived over the waters, got some seagulls to chase her. We were approached by people a couple times. The second time there were 4 people who wanted to talk a lot, including a red-haired guy. She wanted to fly to him so I cued her to to go to his arm and back to me. That worked fine and she did quite a few of those back and forth between me and all four visitors. Didn’t get over-excited by the RHG. When we moved along she didn’t try to fly back. She did a very long flight but came right back to me at the end and made no stops along the way. Called it a day then with some jackpot treats as we headed back in.

Other notes:
Very good day. Carly got to experience many reinforcers: flying in wind, flying with gulls, and flying to and from other people, including a RHG. Kept her focus well.

Took Piper out on harness by himself afterwards.

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Carly Log 1: Generalizing Recall

Posted by Raz on Jan 12th, 2009
2009
Jan 12
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For background see Carly’s Super-Generalizing Recall Training.

After a week or so of outings (on-leash) to public places for socializing, we took a trip to the beach yesterday.

Set-up: Her weight was 451 (at lib is 460). It was early afternoon, a little past when she normally gets her first meal, so she was due for that. There were more people than I expected on a foggy winter day, but it was a holiday. So we had a few distractions, including people approaching us which is always risky. We used super-treats for everything (butter toffee peanuts).

Behavior: Recall was very tight. But she did a lot of small to medium size flies, out and looping directly back in. This weight/meal timing is more than sufficient. I had to run alongside and encourage her to take some of the longer flights. I brought along a jackpot for the last flight of the day, walking back in (peanut butter ritz bits). We also did a few A-B recalls to someone we met at the beach, and it did not distract her from further flying as it sometimes has in the past. I’ll probably keep this weight and set up for a few sessions or more.

Other notes:
One thing I used to do at the beach that I’ve started up again is having Carly fly to someone she’s interested in, then call her back to me for a favorite treat, repeat… (I’ve seen her do this for over half an hour before!) That way she gets the socializing and also is reinforced for coming back. We did this a bit yesterday. It worked fine and she didn’t become obsessed and try to keep flying back when we moved on.

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