Sep 21

Continuing on from the last post, it has been a very uneven path with Piper acclimating outdoors. At times he has become very relaxed, and at one point was flying to the door when I was getting ready to go out, so he could come along. But it takes very little to cause a setback — anything from a new spook outdoors to not having had the opportunity to take excursions for a week or so.

I have heard comments from some that the reason I was not freeflying Piper sooner is because I don’t use weight management (although you are never supposed to control weight on a bird under 1 year old!) Piper’s recall is excellent indoors, as well as outdoors in our routine locations when he is on a harness (short 8-10 ft recalls). His focus is usually better than Carly’s, and as with her we time training sessions before meals to optimize food motivation. (Actually, I’ve rarely seen Piper NOT motivated by food, dinner or not!)

Acclimation is one part of training, and for us this is the hardest part. One of his early freeflights resulted in an extended chase by crows (off and on for hours) and that didn’t set us up for quick success for sure. His manner of flying after that was not relaxed, and seeing him flying with Carly was a huge contrast; one was a bird relaxed and aware of her surroundings, the other was a bird in a state of fear, flying straight and fast with unpredictable turns. Increasing his comfort level outdoors became a primary concern.

I’m reminded of a list that Sid Price presented once, in a talk entitled “It’s Not the Scale, It’s the Balance.” It’s also in his blog article on Food and Weight Management. On one side you have a training challenge, things that work against a bird’s motivation. On the other side you have a set of tools you can use to accomplish the goal, that increase a bird’s motivation.

Things that affect the motivation of the bird include not only its desire for food (its degree of hunger) but also:

  • The reinforcement history of the bird.
  • — Does the bird fully understand that the executing the cued behavior will result in a desired reward?

    — Has the trainer always been honest in their reinforcement of behavior in the past or for example was a large visible reward offered by the trainer to elicit a behavior switched out for a small treat when the behavior was completed?

  • What is the relationship like between the trainer and the bird?
  • Does the trainer have a history of positive rewarding experiences with the bird?

These are just a couple of the things that contribute to the “will perform” side of the balance. Meanwhile on the other side of our imaginary balance are all the things that are telling the bird not to perform the behavior.

  • Is this a new or poorly trained behavior?
  • Is the bird physically capable of performing the behavior?
  • Is the trainer being clear communicating what they are expecting of the bird? Clear, concise, consistent cues are essential components of this clear communication.
  • Is the bird in good health and not exhausted by behaviors performed earlier in the training session?
  • Is the bird in a novel environment with new distracting noises and/or sights?
    Generalization of behaviors in varied situations is an essential step in training any bird. When entering novel situations a trainer should relax their criteria for the behavior and build the bird’s confidence.

The key is to use the right tool for the job. That first involves identifying the problem by looking beyond weight as the only option. If the real problem is environmental distractions, lowering weight is a very inefficient (or even ineffective) way to solve it; it could take a very large reduction to overcome the problem when it could more directly and ethically be solved by eliminating and then gradually increasing the distractions. If the problem is an unreliable new behavior, repetition is by far the most effective solution.

Another ethical consideration I have pondered also concerns Piper’s acclimation outdoors. Even after a year of going outside regularly he is still much more relaxed, animated, and playful indoors. He is rarely eager to go out, though once we are walking on the beach or sitting at the pool he sings and whistles. When we come home from work, he gets animated and sings when we turn into our driveway, and increasingly so as we park the car and walk up the path to our apartment. He’s the only animal I’ve ever had who actually appears to get excited about going home.

So I have had to ask myself, with all the risks, why train him to freefly? With Carly I decided early on I would go as far with flight and recall training as her skill and comfort level allowed, and I would do everything possible to minimize the risks. It was always about her enrichment, not about me wanting to do this as a sport. With the inherent risks of freeflying, should it be encouraged in a bird who seems to be just fine without it? I don’t have an answer to that yet. I believe it is certainly wrong to push a bird in that direction if it’s a poor candidate for freeflying, whether that’s because of poor skills, an unsuitable temperament, or whatever. So like with Carly — initially NO skills — I’m going to take this at Piper’s pace and see what happens. (Another post from Sid related to this is The Right Bird for the Job — The Right Job for the Bird. I have seen these decisions in play with the birds in the San Diego Zoo show, with everything from performing talkers to flying behaviors.)

The first few months Carly took walks with me on the beach (while still young) she was only relaxed if she was on my “shore side.” Now she dives over the waves, chases seagulls, and buzzes surfers in the water. As long as we can do this without undue risk I think it’s definitely worth it. (Much of our training is about minimizing risk — responding to an emergency recall whistle, not flying to strangers — and though the latter was especially challenging it’s no longer something she seeks out.)

With Piper I’ll see how he adapts to being outdoors in general, and how the manner of his startle response develops over time. The training routine is the same as with Carly, just with less attention to flight skills and more to acclimation. He joined the family first and foremost to be a companion with Carly. If that includes flying, wonderful. If not, they enjoy each other immensely many more hours each day than we’d ever be spending out on the beach. I won’t risk that just because it would be cool to have another freeflyer. But I’ll give him every opportunity to progress as far as he wants to.