Monthly Archives: November 2010

Two Tiny Owls, and a Red-tail in a Bare Tree

After a very long trip wherein we counted plenty of wild RTHAs hunting from scraggly winter trees along the side of the highway, the long-eared owl and short-eared owl have arrived. They are teeny, gorgeous, and (as expected) terrified of everything in the universe. It will be a long training process. Unfortunately, the short-eared’s life with us did not start out very well. We had to do an emergency band removal due to a too-tight leg band, with very few tools on hand and little time to experiment. Although she’s safe and sound now and the procedure was under control the entire time, using a rotary tool that close to an owl’s leg is something I hope I never have to witness again.

I haven’t gotten a mental ‘grip’ on the new arrivals yet, so nicknames and further details will have to wait until tomorrow. Hopefully, photos will follow.

Due to the long drive there and back, setting up the owls, and the drama surrounding the bands, I only had the chance to train one bird today– it was dark by the time I was ready, and One-eye was definitely ready to work!


Pretty standard session– I’m still trying to get him to ignore the glove unless he’s given the cue, and I’m still not seeing a lot of progress… that said, he was so keen today that I’m not sure it was a fair trial. Today also marked the first time he has flown to a perch before I’ve called him, and I’m wondering if that wasn’t also a function of the late session and him being slightly too responsive because his dinner was overdue. We worked on the cue/no-cue issue for half the session, and then for the other half we went to moving from perch to perch.

On a whim (which is bad, I really need to write out a training plan and stick to it), I decided to see if I could get him to go to a perch when I pointed to it, instead of by tapping on it. He had it after a few repetitions, although was more reluctant to move from the high perch to the low perch without a tap than to move from the low perch to the high perch. Weird! Still, he did it reliably by the time I was finished, and on his last jump I jackpotted him with a whole chick. In typical red-tail form, he ate it so quickly he almost choked.

Among other things (foremost among them targeting to the giant hood), I would like to get him flying long-distance to whatever perch the trainer points at. He is so responsive that I think it’d work if his weight is managed properly. Already, he’s a completely different bird now that he’s working every day than he was when he was freelofted. Calmer, sweeter, and he’s lost the minor neurological behaviours he used to show when left to his own devices for too long.

I really love this bird.


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Today, we went on a road-trip to meet a potential new education bird, and ended up bringing her home with us. Another RTHA– I’m almost regretting One-eye’s nickname now, as the new bird is also missing the same eye! She’s gorgeous, despite her injury, and is lucky to be alive after being hit by a truck on the highway. She’s pale compared to the rest of our red-tails, and built sturdily. She has one behavioural issue we’ll need to work on pretty quickly– spinning on the glove– but I think that will sort itself out as quickly. I think she’ll be very responsive to training, but, alas, we have rearranged who is training who, and she is not on my list! Perhaps down the road I’ll get to write about her in more detail.

Big Girl:

She was great today, and got to go for a big, long walk with a co-worker while we were on our way to pick up the new RTHA. I managed to get a session in before I left, and she was absolutely perfect. By the time we got the new RTHA home, coped, jessed, and settled, it was dark– Big Girl had to be brought inside to do her session, and she was pretty hungry. Much more controlled than yesterday, though, and we got a full session with great responses in.

  • Big Girl is now a jointly-trained bird, so I may not get daily sessions with her, but I will still be taking a lead role in her training and will write about her often.


One-eye did very well today. We worked on targetting, and on reinforcing the cue. He definitely doesn’t ‘get it’, yet– I’m not sure if it’s because he doesn’t understand what the bridge means as well as I thought he does, or whether the lightbulb hasn’t come on yet.

Today’s neat moment was actually a miscommunication–  I cued when he wasn’t looking at me. The cue is a sharp, double-tap. He heard the cue but didn’t see it, so as he took off he started towards my glove. I’d given the cue on a perch to my left, however, and my hand was in the process of retreating from that perch when, in mid-air, he realized his mistake and tried to correct his aim from glove to perch at the last minute. It was too little, too late, and he bumped into the side of the perch and scrabbled on the table before recovering himself.

Obviously he didn’t get a reward, but it was interesting to see the mental “oops!” and his attempt to fix it. Good, if belated, communication!

  • One-eye is still ‘my bird’ after the training reorganization, so I’ll continue to update regularly with his progress!


Twitch got two sessions today, and was good for both — it was busy this morning, though, and she definitely has trouble with outside noise and confusion interrupting the training session. Her progress is slow, but she goes a little further every day. Today, she did quite a few nice step-ups and some hops to the glove, and lots of repetitions. It was bitter-sweet for me, because:

  • Twitch is no longer a bird I will be actively training– I am reluctant in regards to this, but the staff member who is taking over for me is extremely patient and sensitive, and will be perfect for Twitch’s issues. I will still handle Twitch and keep an eye on her progress, but won’t be doing regular daily sessions with her.

Wee One:

Great, but adorably clueless! Two sessions today, and she’s taking the rewards reliably. I’m worried we’re developing a superstitious behaviour, as she always lifts one of her tiny feet and places it on the glove when she takes the food– it’s cute, but I don’t want it interfering with anything later. We’ll have to monitor it. She definitely doesn’t associate the bridge with the reward yet.

  • Wee One is also off my training list for active duty. That leaves me with only One-eye as a solo bird and Big Girl as a shared priority.


Because tomorrow, we’re road-tripping up north to pick up two new, untrained owls– a long-eared and a short-eared. I don’t know what state they’re going to be in, but the restructuring of the training birds will leave me with the time I need to devote myself to the two new arrivals.

Wish us luck!


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Volunteer Day

Today was not a normal day to begin with, and my attention– admittedly– wasn’t on the birds. We had a crew of volunteers in from another centre for training, which was going to take up most of the day. I did a restraint demonstration, and we did health checks on all the birds in the outdoor pens.

Unfortunately I only had about three hours of sleep last night, and I hadn’t eaten. I was fumbly and muzzy-headed, and manipulating raptor beaks and talons when you’re not feeling well is about as smart as juggling knives when drunk. I have a modest number of punctures and bruises to serve as an abject lesson to myself in the future. That said, I am happy to report that everyone out in the pens is fat and happy, despite the snow and cold.

Due to the heavy workload and the extra bodies, training was hit or miss today.  Still good for the most part, though!

Big Girl:

We definitely crossed a line overnight. The cold weather may have done it– she went from keen to aggressive, and was snappy this morning when I went to weigh her. She did step up nicely, and was good to weigh. I figured the aggression was due to her weight dropping a bit too much overnight, and did a session with her right there on the scale to get some food in her. She was great. No hesitation! But as I knew I’d be busy and wouldn’t be able to get to her again until late in the afternoon, and the food I’d given her wouldn’t last her through the day, I took her for a short walk and then– once she was back in her mew– I wrapped up a food reward in a tube of newspaper and tied it into a knot.

Big Girl is a bird that needs a lot of environmental enrichment in general, but this ‘toy’ was new to her and sometimes she ignores food rewards even when they’re hidden, so I wasn’t sure if she’d go for it. I should probably trust the eagle: when I checked on her a few moments later, a snowstorm of finely shredded newspaper had exploded all over her mew, and the food reward (judging by the content squint she gave me) was eaten.

Unfortunately, by the time I got to her in the afternoon, her patience was long gone. She was far too keen for food, and she met me at the very end of her tether, lunging when she saw the food bag. Although I did get in some hand feeding, it was pretty obvious that she was too irritable and hungry to be in the game. I left her with a large hunk of rat and some chicken, and we’ll see what she’s like tomorrow morning. There’s a pretty narrow line for her between “I will flick this to the ground, because it doesn’t interest me and neither do you” and “GIVE ME THE FOOD I WILL DIE I AM DYING RIGHT NOW WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU GET OVER HERE IMMEDIATELY!” Obviously, neither of these extremes is conducive to learning.

Tomorrow is a new day, and hopefully the larger meal will take the edge off and we’ll be ready to try again.


The champion of today! Twitch was great. She sat on the perch and took food rewards very nicely. I had to do a few at chest height, but mostly she ate them from foot-level. She took quite a few on presentation after hiding (the movement of the glove on reveal scared her yesterday, so I was very slow today and she managed much better). Better, the two step-ups I got yesterday were leveled-up to ten nice step-ups and one good hop.

She did get ‘stuck’ staring twice– I don’t know what else to call her strange shell-shocked behaviour– but she seemed to snap out of it a bit faster than before. I saved some food to reinforce on the way back to her mew (through the scary hallway), which worked well enough that I will continue to do it in future sessions. My food held out all the way through the scary hallway, and she was calm on glove the whole way… but I ran out of food rewards just as I got to her mew, and the anticipation of being free and away from me was too much for her to sit quietly.  Ah well, live and learn– I’ll work on that tomorrow.

For a few seconds today, when she had stepped up nicely and settled on glove, I got a glimpse of the bird I hope she’ll soon be– the one behind all this blank staring and wariness of everything and everyone. Maybe I imagined it, but she seemed entirely different for just that moment in time. I am eager to see that again.


I was a complete jerk to One-eye today. I used him as an ‘example’ training lesson for the visiting volunteers. He was a trooper, targeting very nicely considering there were 16 extra bodies crammed into the room to watch him work. Obviously the extra distraction made things take a little longer, but he was pretty good at ignoring everyone. We did work a bit on trying to get him to come only when cued, and I think I saw some improvement, but it’s hard to tell with all of the other factors in play.

He was being so good and the volunteers were so interested in the training that I let a few other people try to give him his cue to come to glove. This went surprisingly well, but you could almost see the Metal Gear-style “?” pop up over his head when the first volunteer called him to glove. By the end of it, he was distracted and a little frazzled by all the new people, so I ended the session with some short basic hops. Tomorrow, it’s back to just him and I, and I’m looking forward to it.

With all the hustle and bustle, Wee One got the day off. I’ll try to double up tomorrow to make up for it. We’re off to meet a new RTHA that may be coming home with us, so it’ll all depend on timing.

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Turkey (and Chicken)

Although I’m Canadian, and therefore had my Thanksgiving over a month ago, today was festive — on my way home from training today, I turned onto the long, snow-covered laneway that leads up the hill to my crooked old farmhouse only to find a large and rather sedate flock of wild turkeys congregating in the middle of the road. I drove very slowly, and they parted on either side to let me pass. I love living in the country.

The birds were very good today. Progress on all fronts! Everyone got chicken today.


We picked up where we left off– targeting between perch and glove, perch and perch, and glove and perch. He was great. He wasn’t fazed at the height differential I added. Quick and responsive, but not quite as over-reactive as yesterday. About midway through the session, though, I realized there wasn’t much point in continuing until he learned to only come when given the cue, and not just on presentation of the glove. Thus began part two of our session, which did not go as well as the first. I would present the glove, he would come to it. He’d get no bridge and no reward, and I’d send him back. I’d raise the glove again, and he’d come again– no bridge, no reward. Third try, he ignored the raised glove. I gave him the cue, and he came. Perfect! Well, no. The reward that time seemed to erase the reason he’d got the reward from his mind, and he came on the next presentation of the glove without cue. And again. Third try, he ignored the glove again, then came when cued. …And thus started our cycle of it working out every third time. Frustrating for both of us, so we ended the session with some short hops, always with the cue.

I don’t think either of us are going to like the next session, which is going to be entirely focused on getting him to respond only when cued and at no other time.

Big Girl:

Much better today. I continued yesterday’s trend of doing a session with Big Girl between sessions with the other birds. Her first session went perfectly. She was keen and interested, and ate each piece immediately on presentation. I walked away when she’d finished her allotment and when she was still interested, and went to train Twitch. I also corrected my previous error of putting One-eye back in the weathering yard before I was done training Big Girl, so he stayed inside for the duration of everyone’s sessions. Her second session had slight hesitation on beginning, then she did very well for about 10-15 repetitions. As soon as I saw her nibbling and starting to drop pieces, I gave her a particularly nice piece and ended the session. I tried for a third session after training Wee One, but there was no interest at all– I offered three times, got no response, and ended the session. Still, that’s a much longer attention span than she’s shown before, and she was far more engaged than I’ve seen her. Maybe next time we’ll try rat instead of chicken and see what it does to her appetite.


Twitch bailed on me in her mew (she’s freelofted) when I went to get her, and I had to wait for her to return to the perch– on second presentation of the glove, she stepped up nicely and we moved inside to start the session. She was only marginally more relaxed today, but she definitely was more interested in the food. Lots of repetitions at foot level, and I only had to lift it closer to her face a few times when distraction elsewhere in the room got her fixated and ‘stuck’, staring at something. By the end of the session (which was messy– she likes to pop chick heads, so there was brain on her chest, on the perch, on the table, on the floor, and down my leg) she was reaching for the food and putting a foot on the glove. Session ended with two lovely step-ups from the perch to the glove on presentation, which was very nice. She also began to take ‘hidden’ food, but the movement of the glove to reveal the tidbit frightened her, so we’ll go slower with that next session.

Her sessions will eventually have to involve reinforcement for calm behaviour when moving through hallways, doorways, etc. She’s such a stark contrast to One-eye– I hope she learns to trust more readily.

Wee One:

Cut the food much smaller this time, and soaked it– that definitely solved the sticky crop situation, but even the smaller pieces of food were too big. Next time I’m going to really mince them. She cropped up a lot more quickly than I wanted her to. Still, this was a much more useful session than last time. Lots of bridging, some step-ups for visible food, and then some nice step-ups for hidden food that would have gone on longer had she not already been full.

Due to other pressing responsibilities, I think there will be a struggle to find the time to do multiple sessions through the day with most of these birds (which is much better for progress and retention than one longer session, as I’m having to do now). That said, Wee One and her tiny crop will be my first priority if I can find the time to do multiple sessions!

A great day all around. Tomorrow is a big training day for folks from another facility I used to volunteer with, so there will be many extra bodies around– it will be interesting to see if tomorrow’s training sessions are affected by it.

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Round One


One-eye is incredibly quick, in every sense of the word. I have some concerns about setting us both up for failure, but he’s raised my expectations surprisingly quickly. Today’s session picked up where we left off– he associates a food reward with a bridge (verbal click), and last session we introduced the cue– two short, sharp taps on the glove to call him to it. We did a few repetitions of this last time. We have already weeded out having the reward visible, and he’s gotten good at waiting for it to be presented. We’ve moved into variable reinforcement as well. Today we started with short hops and quickly moved to longer flights, always with the cue. He was very keen– almost too keen.

With him, it will be a challenge to train him to come only when given the cue, as I ended up with a hawk unexpectedly scrabbling at my shoulder and upper arm when he anticipated my call and came before I was ready. Neat breakthrough: I reinforced the cue with quite a few repetitions, then transferred the cue to a nearby perch. You could see him thinking about it, but he went for it after a moment’s hesitation and got rewarded. The rest of the session, he was targeting perfectly to anything I cued him to, including calling him to a perch and then to the glove for a jackpot. Great bird! Eager to see if the targeting will work to get him into the carrier…

Big Girl:

Big Girl is a picky, picky eater. We have not gone much further yet than trying to associate the bridge with presentation of food. The challenge is that she rarely wants what she’s offered– and if she does want it, she wants to eat it in large chunks. She was more interested in food bits today, however, so I took advantage of it and did two short sessions with as many repetitions as I could manage. By the end of it, she was flinging them everywhere instead of eating them, but she was looking at the glove when I clicked. We’ll have to wait and see how long it takes to get her ready to work.

The interesting thing was that although One-eye was not able to see myself or Big Girl, he could hear us perfectly well– and the repetition of the bridge was driving him bonkers! Made a note in the log to move him before training her next time.


Twitch is a bit of a mystery to me. She’s a big tough female, but she’s afraid of everything. Despite the nickname, it’s less a twitchy fear than a catatonic one, and she’s incredibly wary of everything. She pulls at her jesses, bates through doorways, flares her wings at the slightest provocation, and despises her carrier. Both she and One-eye came to us recently from another centre, so I’m not sure what her training history is… but for now, we have an anxious but beautiful mess on our hands.

Yesterday was Twitch’s first session — she sat on the perch with her wings out and hackles up and stared at the wall. She would not look at food, even when presented at beak-level, no matter how enticing it was. Eventually she made minor progress, but it was all-in-all disheartening enough that I wasn’t expecting much today.

I started small — she’s decently comfortable eating food from the glove while on the glove, but wouldn’t take food from the glove while on a perch. I gave her a few small pieces on the glove to get her started (using the bridge), then set her down on her perch and offered tidbits at beak level. Success! After a few repetitions of that, we went down to chest level, and then to foot level. There were a few interruptions, but she did very well all things considered, and we are quite a few steps ahead of where we were yesterday. I’m hoping this continues tomorrow!

Wee One:

This was Wee One’s first session. She very obviously had no idea at all what I wanted her to do– and I made a mistake in cutting her food pieces far too large and neglecting to wet them first. She filled up much faster than anticipated and got distracted by trying (and trying and trying) to put her crop over. She’s eager but undisciplined right now. Next session: smaller, slicker pieces, and we’ll give it another go!

Overall Challenges:

  • The birds are all fat. All of them. Not necessarily a bad thing, but response will be a bit slow until the weights sort themselves out.
  • New birds incoming: Two owls arriving next week, another RTHA possibly coming later in the month. I may need to cut down sessions with these guys (transfer them to other staff) to start with the new crew. We’ll have to see.

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Filed under Big Girl, One-eye, Twitch, Wee One

Starting from scratch(es).

Let’s get right into things: this is a place for me to jot down my thoughts on using operant conditioning to train birds of prey. Although the birds have formal logs at work, I mean this to be a somewhat more intimate look at the training process, as well as a place to talk about other aspects of working with non-releasable raptors. Although operant conditioning is well established, it is very, very new to me and to the birds my coworkers and I training — I will certainly make mistakes. Hopefully, I will look back on this blog and see growth in both the birds and in myself.

To protect the privacy of all involved, I will not be naming my work place or my coworkers,  nor will I be using the birds’ real names, as the latter can be easily tracked. If you know me well enough to know the real names of who, where, and what I am discussing, please refrain from sharing them in comments.

I will try to keep things consistent so that folks can follow along with the individual progress of each bird, and I will keep an updated roster of all mentioned birds as follows:

“Big Girl” — Immature female BAEA, 2009 hatch. Shoulder injury.
“One-eye” — Adult male RTHA, 2003 hatch. Hit by car, left eye removed.
“Twitch” — Adult female RTHA, 2001 hatch. Illegal imprint, wing injury.
“Wee One” — Immature female AMKE, 2010 hatch. Captive bred imprint.
“Blinky” — Immature female LEOW, 2010 hatch. Captive bred, parent raised.
“Kohl” — Immature female SEOW, 2010 hatch. Captive bred, parent raised.

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