Archive for the ‘Steve Martin’ Category

The Right Bird for the Job – The Right Job for the Bird

Monday, July 18th, 2011

Just recently I closed a blog post with the following statement:

“Finally, choosing the right bird for the job or even the right job for the bird is probably the most important training decision we make.”

This statement triggered quite an active discussion on one Yahoo group and it was interesting to read the thread.

I also received one question directly about this:

“I would be interested to know more about how you know what bird is right for the job or what job is right for the bird and why?” – Curtis White.

I must admit that the statement was placed into the blog entry to see what reaction it would get, to stimulate discussion. This is why I have not posted any responses to the Yahoo group where it was being discussed, I wanted to observe the readers and gauge if they were able to apply the information that had preceded the statement. It was encouraging that the obvious answer was among the points of view expressed.

That obvious answer is that just like every other training issue we face our decision should be driven by two factors. Firstly the bird’s performance, evaluated using direct observation of the behavior being trained. How is the bird responding to the training sessions in changing environments? Is its focus on the training sessions improving as we work the bird? Combined with this we come back once again to the personal ethical position of the trainer. As I have stated previously motivation can certainly be raised by using deprivation (reducing diet, to reduce weight, to increase motivation). However, there comes a time for me when I am just not comfortable with reducing weight to increase the focus of a bird that is simply not comfortable doing what is being asked of it. In addition, as one increases food drive other less desirable behaviors begin to be presented. For example with a human raised bird these may include gross begging behaviors or with some species aggressive responses to the trainer and others in the presence of food. Before I reach this point it is time to re-evaluate if this is the right bird for the job or ask if the bird is better suited to a different behavior, in this way we find the right job for the bird.

Making the personal judgment call, and that is for sure what it is, requires the same skills that I keep repeating every good trainer needs. These skills include good observation and a high degree of empathy for the animal being trained.

The question was raised in one discussion thread as to how you know whether the poor response of a bird is due to an unsuitable bird or to the lack of skill on the part of the trainer. I would say that every trainer must accept full responsibility for the behavior of their birds and therefore on some level it always the trainer failing the bird. This is why I believe that anyone training animals needs to really study the science and also, perhaps most importantly, keep an open mind. Ultimately, regardless of whether the bird is not suited to the job or the trainer lacks the skill to train the desired behavior it is the responsibility of the trainer to recognize this.

It is worth reiterating that trainers should always keep challenging their own skill level. I mentioned the self-reinforcing dependence of novice trainers on weight management previously; if one is really interested in becoming a good trainer one simply has to let go of this apparent “silver bullet”, this will challenge your training skills and lead to being a better trainer with more engaged birds.

I remember very well a workshop given by Steve Martin for professional trainers where he encouraged everyone to work all non-raptor species without equipment attached. It had been almost standard practice in professional show situations to use falconry style equipment on corvids like crows and ravens. The “take-away” message from Steve for me was that by taking off the equipment the trainer was forced to increase the level of their skills, to make a greater effort to understand the nature of the bird and its behavior, and that by doing so they would become a better trainer. This was a life-changing moment for me and one training journey using this approach is documented in my 2006 IAATE presentation “Strong Foundations and Adjustments – Keys to Training Success.”

Releasing oneself from dependence upon weight management I see in a similar potentially life changing way for novice trainers. Let go of your preconceptions, accept full responsibility for your birds’ behavior, make mistakes, learn from them, and grow as a trainer.


Why did he do that?

Monday, July 18th, 2011

I received the following question about the Steve Martin article “What’s in it for me?” I referenced in my welcome blog

… Steve mentions working with the Harris Hawk who was lazing [in] a tree too much. He said they decided to try increasing his weight instead of decreasing it, but gave no reason why. … Is there some reason why he would try increasing the weight first? Or is it implied that they had previously tried lowering the weight and it did not work? – Dr. Linda Rasmussen.

Before I address the question it is worth mentioning that when we are trying to evaluate behavior it is important to only consider what we can actually observe; the facts … just the facts. If we try to base our strategies on what we think the animal was thinking we are on the road to disappointment.

Also, the subject of weight or food management will be covered in more detail in a future Blog. Reducing weight should not be the first step any competent trainer takes.

When I received this question the first thing I did was to go back and read the article again, this time paying attention to the section about the Harris’ hawk and noting any behavioral observations that Steve reported. All that was mentioned was that the bird was “playing around in a tree” and “taking too much time.” In addition to noting the behavior one should also note what happened right before the behavior, unfortunately the article did not tell us that. Finally one should note the history of the bird’s behavior, once again not mentioned in the article. Given this lack of information (facts) the only recourse was to contact Steve and ask him if he could remember why he had chosen to raise the weight of the bird in this context.

While waiting to hear from Steve and being a curious person I pondered what might have been Steve’s reasoning. The example Steve used involved a raptor (Harris’ hawk) and raptors are highly food motivated. One scenario that came to mind was that if one increases food motivation too much the bird may start to look around for food itself. If the bird had exhibited hunting behaviors this may explain why it remained in the tree, waiting for prey to appear. Indeed this is what Steve reported to me; the bird was seen “bouncing around in the tree, biting at bark, and footing the branches”. Footing is the behavior of a raptor grasping very hard, the action it uses to kill or disable its prey. So it seems my hypothesis was close and raising the weight was an attempt to reduce the food motivation to see if this reduced the unwanted behaviors.

This is a good example of how trainers’ should approach a problem; one change at a time. Too often trainers apply the “shotgun” approach and change several things at the same time. The result being that they may never know the real reason they changed the behavior, and so next time they need to take the “shotgun” out again.

Thank you Dr. Linda Rasmussen,


Most Positive Least Intrusive Trainers

Friday, January 15th, 2010

Using only positive reinforcement seems like the right thing to do, however telling anyone that is what they should do is possibly setting them up for failure by taking tools off the table that in some circumstances may be required. The world is just not built that way; nor are animals “wired” to operate that way. Aversive stimuli abound in nature and all animals encounter them and learn to avoid them. What I would like to discuss here is a more practical, more achievable goal that will yield results without significantly adversely affecting the relationship between you and your bird.

If you visit my Behavior and Training web site you will notice that the banner for each page has a subtitle – “Where least intrusive becomes most effective,” that subtitle is so much more than simply a way to catch your attention, it is a reference to the most ethical way of choosing the strategy used for behavior change and training. The maxim “least intrusive” embodies important principles that as animal caretakers we should follow as closely as possible. Just as in the field of medicine the Hippocratic principle of doing no harm is the basis for the decisions our doctors make when they plan an intervention to correct health issues, we as animal caretakers should adopt a similar principle, that of choosing the least intrusive strategy for behavior change and training.

Those who have read my articles before may look at this proposed principle and recognize a construct. I can hear the questions now, “What does least intrusive look like?” If you are asking that question then you are well on the way to understanding behavior science. However, constructs are useful provided that they are defined and well understood by those who use them, so let’s take a closer look at our adage “least intrusive.”

Dr Susan Friedman published an article in GoodBird magazine in December 2009 that defined intrusiveness by these two criteria:

  1. The level of social acceptability.
  2. The degree to which the learner maintains control while the intervention is in effect.

While the level of social acceptability is a highly personal, ethical judgment, research shows that not only psychologists but also teachers, parents, and children place positive reinforcement strategies ahead of punishment based procedures when considering acceptability. In addition, punishment-based procedures have considerable fall-out, the subject of a future article.

Research into the effects of a learner’s control of outcomes shows that when control is removed and the ability to escape aversive stimuli is removed they give up trying to escape. This effect, known as learned helplessness, has been observed in a wide range of species and it often persists even when control is returned.  To the greatest extent possible we must empower our birds to be able to use their behavior to control outcomes.  This is the function of behavior, to operate on the environment to affect outcomes. A failure to recognize this and the removal of such control may result in one or more undesirable behaviors such as feather picking, unacceptable vocalizations, etc.

I hope that by reading the definition of least intrusive you will recognize that the effectiveness of a strategy is simply not enough. The intrusiveness of the procedure must also be considered. To guide us and to set a standard by which we can judge our techniques Dr Susan Friedman has proposed a hierarchy of procedural alternatives. Below you will see a graphic that shows the strategy hierarchy proposed by Dr Friedman in an article that was first published in GoodBird magazine (Vol 4-1; Winter 2009) that this article is based upon and rather than repeat or paraphrase her information here I strongly encourage you all to read “What’s wrong with this picture? Effectiveness is not enough.

Intervention Hierarchy - Copyright Friedman 2008

To return to the original theme of this article, the statement that only positive reinforcement should be used, I would like to change this. Rather than adopting what may well prove to be an impossible or even impractical goal we should set ourselves up for success with our birds with the goal of maintaining the highest possible ratio of positive reinforcement strategies to other more intrusive strategies. Certainly, when considering a strategy for behavior change we should start at the top of the above hierarchy and only proceed to a lower level when we have exhausted the options at the current level. Also note that before we begin to consider positive reinforcement strategies we have two levels of intervention available to us. Attempting to apply a positive reinforcement strategy to address a behavioral issue that has medical/physical roots does not make sense, nor does it address the needs of the bird.

In applying the least invasive strategy we will begin to build what Steve Martin calls a “trust account” with our birds in his article “It’s about relationships.” Our goal is to make the maximum number of deposits into that trust account using the strategies from the top of the hierarchy down to positive reinforcement. By keeping these deposits high in number our occasional need and application of lower level strategies will make withdrawals from that account but should nowhere near deplete the account. So let’s not be “Positive Reinforcement Trainers” let’s be “Most Positive, Least Intrusive Trainers.” Our birds will really appreciate it!


Bird Tricks to Avoid

Friday, December 12th, 2008

In doing research online about bird training the visibility of several web sites seems to have rocketed over the last few weeks. Because I like to stay aware of who is doing, saying, and selling what into the companion bird community I often follow these links. What I found increasingly interesting was that many, in fact the majority, of search results led in one or two clicks to the same products, those sold by Bird Tricks. A company that promotes some of the poor training strategies that were the subject of my guest blog on the Best of Flock Parrot Blog last week. To be honest that wasn’t surprising to me, as I have said before I consider them company to be Internet marketing specialists and not bird trainers, so of course they should excel in their field of expertise. What did surprise me however was a more recent development in their marketing strategy.

As a part of my research on Bird Tricks marketing strategies I discovered that Womach Productions the owners of the Bird Tricks web site has in fact some 70+ Internet domain names (Internet locations) registered. This one fact alone explains in part how they have raised their Internet visibility. Now there is nothing wrong with this strategy; for anyone whose primary goal is a money making scheme using the Internet it is a great idea. The actual number of domain names registered to Womach Productions may well be even higher because as I researched various web sites I found a new trend, hiding access to the data records of who actually owns the site.


In the past this data has been openly available to anyone to access, one simply uses a free tool called “WhoIs”. Indeed if you go to Google and type “WhoIs” you will find the full data record available. It is my philosophy that “transparency”, the openness that reveals who owns what, is the ethical way to do business. As I have written in the past, do not trust information from “ducklover488”, if they hide their true identity how can you trust what they say. Not only is our own domain name data openly and freely available but also those of you who receive email about this blog or our Safari newsletter will notice at the bottom of each email there is full contact information. This is a requirement of the mailing company we use (Vertical Response) and one of the reasons we chose to use them. Once again it is the ethical way of doing business as far as I am concerned. Now, I do not know for sure that the hidden domain name records are owned by Womach Productions, however I do know that clicking on almost any link on those anonymous sites leads to … Bird Tricks.


Now let me reveal the most disturbing and ethically questionable part of this whole development. Some of these web sites appear to be lists of links to valuable training resources and writings by some of the leading bird trainers and companion parrot advocates in the USA. Amongst them are Barbara Heidenreich, Steve Martin, Dr Susan Friedman, and many others including me. What is ironic is that my article critical of training stategies on the Best of Flock Parrot Blog was referenced! The articles themselves are not available on the web sites, nor are links back to the sources. However if you are searching for these valuable articles you will probably arrive at one of these valueless web sites, just a click away from  … Bird Tricks! Now that really is a trick isn’t it?


From my perspective the use of my name, intellectual property, and reputation to drive traffic to these sites is completely unethical. I do not and will not support, recommend, or promote Bird Tricks or their products. In the past my approach has been to not mention them because that raises their Internet profile. However, from now on I will be actively mentioning them as I encourage each and every one of you to tell your friends to avoid Bird Tricks and their products. We can use the power of the Internet to protect the intellectual property of those professionals in the bird training world who are motivated to help you and your birds rather than line their own bank accounts using ethically questionable tactics.


This latest development once again highlights a subject that I have written about before, and that is separating the noise from the information on the Internet. Once again the golden rule of information validation is the one that should be applied … if the source of the claims made or the identity of the source is hidden then one should always question the information provided. Openness and transparency will always help in deciding what is worth pursuing and what is not.


Knowledge is power; so with your new knowledge of the strategies employed by Womach Productions and Bird Tricks you can decide for yourself if you wish to trust the valuable relationship between you and your birds to them and their products.


Finally, I encourage everyone to spread the word by sending a link to this blog to all of your friends and colleagues. Peer to peer, friend to friend, one link at a time we can keep the spotlight on these questionable tactics and hopefully reduce the reward that I am sure they get for their efforts. As people who understand the science of behavior we know that behaviors that are not reinforced will eventually go away … now wouldn’t that be an ironic turn of events, the science they obfuscate and ignore being their downfall!



Wing clipping

Thursday, May 29th, 2008

Every few months the Internet starts buzzing with a subject that is typically more emotive than most. That subject is wing clipping and it is one of those subjects that eludes logical thought and good judgment.

Now you may think that as someone who flies birds on a daily basis I would be solidly in the “never clip” camp. If that is what you think then I have to assume that your point of view is at one extreme of the argument or that perhaps you have never really thought about it in a non-emotional and logical way.

My position and that of almost every professional bird trainer I know and respect is that the real answer to clipping is not as clean cut, or black and white, as many might expect. There is no always right answer. The truth of the matter is that the choice to clip wing feathers to prevent or limit flight ability depends entirely upon the individual bird AND owner, a unique combination. It is unfortunate that this choice is more and more becoming a “politically correct” question, and sadly a marketing ploy to sell training materials! My friend and colleague Steve Martin wrote an article about this issue a couple of years back, it expresses what I believe is a well considered position, it does it so well that I don’t propose to reiterate the content here, only to encourage everyone to read the article. I support the positions Steve so eloquently expresses.

As I said in the beginning of this article this is a very emotive, maybe the most emotive, issue in the companion parrot community. It is this way I feel because caring owners do become attached to their birds and they are vulnerable to the hyperbole of those at the extremes of the discussion, especially when they are told that their bird will be “happier and healthier” if they don’t clip or “safer” if they do. The problem is that neither extreme view is correct, nor is it based upon facts or science, it is a belief. This reminds me of a quotation that I keep reiterating because it should remind us to be wary of our beliefs as they can, and often do, blind us to the real truth of a situation.

A belief is not merely an idea the mind possesses; it is an idea that possesses the mind.

Robert Oxton Bolton

To make a bird owner feel guilty because they have a clipped bird when it is the safest, healthiest way they know how to keep that bird is irresponsible and to insist that they allow the bird full flight is to set them up for potential heartbreak.

To say that anyone who can not keep a bird flighted should not own a bird is the kind of fanatical point of view that may lead us in the direction of the road to legislation prohibiting keeping bird as pets. The animal rights groups will forever be your friends.