Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Rookie Files: Learning how to fly 101

The Bald Eagle is onstage, donations are being collected by our Raven, and the post show adrenaline is buzzing through my system. 

The end of a show is always a great experience, not because the show is over, but because now I can interact with the audience on a personal level and answer any questions they many have, and there is always at least one person who asks the question. “How to you get the birds to fly around like that?”

Flying comes naturally to all of our birds, even the rookies. We simply have to direct them where to go.  Birds of prey spend about ninety to ninety-five percent of their day sitting on a perch.  They are motivated to move if they need to flee from a predator, impress another bird because it’s breeding season or for food.  Motivating our birds to fly in patterns for us must be accomplished with positive reinforcement.  For ease of training this leaves us with the third motivation option from those listed above--food.
 Encouraging Hoss to fly to a baited stump

Food is a great motivator. It motivates me to get out of bed in the morning, and it motivates birds like Hoss (our Eurasian eagle owl rookie) to fly to stumps. Using food as part of positive reinforcement, we can encourage our birds to fly where we want them to go. Our birds have the option of whether they would like to fly their pattern or not, but every time they do they get a treat. Over time they learn that by doing their patterns there is a tasty reward in it for them.
 Hoss devouring his reward for executing a successful flight to a perch

Using our motivator/reward of food, we can begin to shape the bird’s flight pattern. For example if I want Hoss to fly across the stage and land on a series of stumps, then I would bait each stump with a piece of rat meat. The key to executing the long complicated patterns that are seen during a show is to start small and work from ending point to starting point. When I first started training Hoss to fly I did not start with him at one end of the stage and his stump at the other. Instead his first flight was more of a hop from my glove to a baited stump less than a foot away. Once he made the connection between hopping to the stump and receiving food, I gradually backed up until he was flying the whole length of the stage.
Hoss attempting a longer fight
In our shows and programs we usually have two types of flying--perch flying and glove flying. Perch flying involves having the bird fly to or between perches. This method is good for larger owls, birds that might become food aggressive when receiving their reward (vultures) and birds that tend to grip with their feet (some hawks).
 Hoss executes a perfect landing on a stump after a long flight

Glove flying, on the other hand, is where the bird flies to or between gloves. It starts out much like perch flying in terms of training, with two trainers standing less than a foot away from one another and the bird hopping from one glove to another ( known as leash hopping). When first starting out, the food is visible to the bird on top of the glove, after a few hops the bird associates food and the glove and so the food can be hidden inside the glove. Glove flying is much more mobile than perch flying and works very well where the program venue changes constantly.  It allows us to go right into the audience and fly birds over their heads.  Trainers can also move to locations away from frightening objects or loud noises, helping the bird to feel safe. Glove fidelity helps especially if a bird has been frightened or blown into a tree.  It is much easier to call a bird to a glove than to try and find or move a perch or stump on which to offer meat.

Training a bird to fly is far more complicated than I have described here.  Entire books have been written on the subject, but it is also incredibly rewarding. There is nothing like watching your bird start to make connections, pick up on cues, or listen to and watch audience reactions as a bird flies right over their heads. No matter how many times you experience it, watching a bird you trained do its pattern correctly will bring a goofy smile to your face, and nothing in the world beats that feeling.

Submitted by Leah Tyndall

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