Archive for the ‘Ethics’ Category

14th Annual Raptor Handling Class

Wednesday, June 21st, 2017

The original motivation behind starting to teach this class was to raise the bar for those people working with raptors in public education. What I saw back then was that while driven by the best possible motives many, if not the majority, of those doing this work were unaware of the fact that the techniques being taught to them relied heavily upon the use of coercion and aversives. In fact, when viewed from a behavior science perspective the prevalent technique was that of flooding, with its fallout effect, learned helplessness.

When new birds came to a facility, often from either a rehabilitation facility or department, they were subjected to all kinds of stimuli that the birds were just supposed “to get used to.” The more benign technique was to enter the birds’ housing and sit for hours, reading a book. At the other end of the coercive scale was keeping birds in dark places until they ate in the presence of the “trainer.”

One example of such coercive training I remember witnessing was that of a Great Horned Owl, it was an exhibit and educational bird. I saw the handler enter the exhibit (in public view) and use a large butterfly-type net to capture the bird, equipment was placed on the bird while restrained, and then it was taken to do a program. Again, all of this in public view. When I asked the handler about the catching of the bird he said, “Oh he’s just stubborn, once he’s on the glove he’s fine, look how calm he is.” What I saw was a bird that was terrified and had just plain given up, he had no control over any outcome during this process, a classic example of learned helplessness.

So, here we are almost 15 years into these classes and the sad part for me is that while many facilities have made huge changes to the way they train and handle raptors for programs there still remains a way to go. Part of the issue is what I call the “Always done it that way and it works” attitude. For me it is important to remember that effectiveness alone is not enough. Our primary concern must be the welfare of the birds, their quality of life must be raised to the highest level. Indeed, they must not only survive in our care they should thrive.

I invite you to join us this summer in beautiful New Mexico, attend the 14th Annual Raptor Handling Class and raise the bar for the birds in your care. Please visit our web site for details and to register for the class. Act now and secure the early-bird discount.

Keep soaring,


How can I stop my parrot (insert behavior)?

Friday, September 23rd, 2011

I can’t tell you how many times I have been asked a question like the following:

How can I stop my parrot screaming?

How can I stop my parrot biting?

How can I stop my parrot (insert unwanted behavior)?

I am sure you see the pattern here; asking this kind of questions doesn’t lead to any kind of resolution, only frustration. Simply trying to reduce unwanted behavior somehow misses a couple of important points, not the least of which is that, typically, focusing on reducing behavior leads to the use of aversives, things the bird will work to avoid. Behavior science tells us that such techniques do not lead to a good working partnership with our birds. They in fact work against building trust.

The way to avoid this situation is through a different type of question, one that asks what you want the bird to do. For example if you have a bird that is biting your hands when you try to move him in and out of his cage ask yourself, what do I want him to do? Typically what is wanted is for the bird to step onto the hand without biting when requested. This is a behavior that can be built with patience and a large helping of positive reinforcement. Avoiding force and coercion to get the bird onto your hand gives the power of choice to the bird and through many repetitions of the behavior also builds the bird’s trust in you the trainer and the chances are the biting will be reduced.

My point here is not to teach how to train a particular behavior but to encourage you to ask questions that lead you to using the most positive least intrusive strategies for training. It is through the use of these strategies that you will build a trusting relationship with your bird.

Keep soaring,




Getting your Training Perspective Right

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

Our upbringing and socialization are responsible for the way we approach pretty much everything in life and training is no different. I have written before about the language we use when we speak about training. While watching a PBS program about wild horse management in the western USA I saw an interview with Ginger Kathrens of the Cloud Foundation. She made one very simple and yet poignant statement that I paraphrase here:

 “We don’t have to teach a horse to trust us, we have to demonstrate we are worthy of trust.”

Trust as an important factor in all our training endeavors and we should not forget that it is earned. It is our responsibility to earn the trust of our birds through empowerment and consistency.


Free Flying Companion Parrots

Friday, August 26th, 2011

There is a growing interest in the companion parrot world in keeping birds fully flighted, i.e. not clipping wings. As someone who keeps fully flighted birds and flies them in many varied locations for the public there is a part of me that really thinks this is the only way to go. However, I also know from experience how much time and effort it takes training my birds to fly in strange locations, almost every show we do is in a different venue. I am speaking not only about initial training but also the maintenance of the behaviors trained. During the show season these birds are worked every day, regardless of there being a show or not. The thought of someone who has the pressures of a full time job and perhaps a spouse and family to be engaged with undertaking this quite honestly scares me.

It is probably worthwhile making clear exactly what free flight is. Free flight, also called “at liberty” flying, involves releasing the birds outdoors and allowing them complete choice as to where they go and how long they fly. This is quite different to what most professional bird trainers, including myself, typically do with their birds. The requirements of most shows preclude this particular form of flying in order to be able to keep the shows with some pace and direction. Having said that several professional trainers I know do fly small flocks of birds in a similar manner for show opening and closing sequences. They have five to ten birds fly out and circle the audience until the birds are ready to land on the stage or return to their housing. In fact I am presently working with a facility that will fly a flock of Macaws around their grounds, not part of a scripted show.

It is my contention that if the bird is not to be placed at risk this style of flight demands a much higher level of training for the bird and skill from the trainer. It is also my position that the typical, i.e. majority, of companion parrot owners do not have the knowledge, time, or focus required to achieve this level of training. Further I feel it unethical and professionally irresponsible for professional trainers to promote free flying companion parrots without making the demands of this pursuit clear to all.

This is not to suggest that I am opposed to keeping fully flighted birds, quite the opposite as I wrote in my blog article about clipping.

There are individuals who have proven that a companion bird can be flown free; they may have begun doing this through trial and error rather than formal training knowledge; however they were all dedicated to it, spending large amounts of time and effort on the venture. Most have had scary hours/days when birds have flown away, beyond the recall distance. Some have lost birds.

My position is simple I do not think that flying parrots outdoors is an activity that the majority of companion parrot owners should undertake.


Reducing behavior means punishment occurred – not!

Monday, July 18th, 2011

When there is a reduction in behavior punishment is always in play! Once again I saw this used in a discussion in an Internet group. The discussion centered around the reduction of unwanted behavior, in the particular case it was a free flying bird landing on strangers. I don’t intend to address the poor strategies suggested to resolve this or the much better alternate strategies suggested. Rather I want to talk about the argument put up that even when using the alternate strategy because the unwanted behavior is reduced punishment is still present.

Again, for those who may not be familiar with the use of the word punishment here, I use it in its technical, behavioral sense and that is a contingent consequence that reduces the future frequency of the behavior it follows.

Punishment is a process and not a single event. It is the process over time, by which a consequence reduces behavior. Note that punishment is not the only way to reduce behavior; it is one of several approaches that include differential reinforcement of an alternate or incompatible behavior, extinction, and establishing operations. And this is where the writer who said that even when a positive reinforcement approach is used to resolve the landing on strangers problem, if the landing reduces then it has been punished is wrong. Something completely different and at the totally opposite end of the intrusiveness spectrum is in play and no aversive events are required!

So, let’s think about this a bit. Remember that all behavior serves some function for the subject performing it. So, if a bird is landing on strangers we can hypothesize that social interaction is what is reinforcing (maintaining) the behavior. Rather than punishing the behavior, since this simply attempts to teach the bird what NOT to do; we can devise a training strategy that drains the value of social interaction when the bird is being flown.  This strategy was written about by Raz Rasmussen in her blog and also the basis of a presentation she gave at the recent IAATE conference in Albuquerque, NM. For these reasons I won’t go into the details of the strategy used here. What I wish to focus on is that while the unwanted behavior may have been reduced it was not punished. The principle involved here is an antecedent arrangement, technically an establishing operation that serves to reduce the value of the reinforcer that was maintaining the unwanted behavior. The bird chooses not to land on strangers because doing so would result in a now less valued reinforcer than those available from the trainer and/or elsewhere in the environment.

In our efforts to have the smallest set of simple rules to understand and influence behavior it is easy to grab hold of a rule and use it without thinking it through. I have been guilty of this myself in the past; however, I do pride myself on having a very inquisitive mind and an ability to analyze things pretty well. The simple statement that if a behavior is reduced then punishment is in play is one we must be wary of. It is similar to talking about consequences being reinforcing or punishing without the context of the behavior; we must be specific about context when evaluating if punishment is in play. Ask, was a contingent, contiguous stimulus presented or removed that caused the behavior reduction. Then you will know if the behavior was punished or if some other behavior principle is in play.

In this article I have used terms that are not explained in the text, all the terms used here have appeared and been defined in previous articles and I chose not to make this article even longer by explaining each one. Please browse back to these older articles.

ABCs … a training tool

Positive good … Negative bad

A special thank you goes out to Dr Susan Friedman for reviewing this article and contining to empower and encourage those willing to listen on this journey of learning.

Keep soaring,