By Katie Christman
VINS Education Intern
Have you ever wondered what it takes to get a dog to fetch, your kids to pick up their dirty laundry, or VINS' birds to fly in our educational programs? Well it has to do with some positive reinforcement, a lot of patience, and a willing subject.
In the photo, VINS staff Noella Girard (left) and Kasey Hopkins practice "V-jumps" with our educational harris' hawk. The hawk jumps up from the perch (bottom right) up to the gloved hand of an educator, and is rewarded with food. Watch a video of this hawk in flight training earlier this year.
Now that we’re deep into November, the busy seasons of summer and “leaf peeping” have gone and training season has come. This is our opportunity to work on improving and fine-tuning our educational programs, and to continue to maintain the behaviors that our ed birds have learned throughout the year. Our education birds get a break from the hustle and bustle routine of the summer and fall, yet we want to make sure that their lives are continually enriched throughout the year.
So what does training a wild bird look like? Well, first it’s important to recognize that training starts with the human first! Knowing the natural history of the birds at VINS helps guide our interactions and responses to the birds with which we’re working. When we start training a bird, food is a great positive reinforcement. (Food works great for both animals and humans!) We know -- and our birds know -- that they want to eat. If they do a certain behavior, for instance, fly to our glove, they’ll get a piece of food. If they do an unwanted behavior, (if they don’t fly to our glove, for example), then we don’t reward them with food.
Sounds simple, right? Not always! Some birds need to be challenged more than others and pick up skills more quickly. A well trained harris’ hawk for example can learn a new skill in a week. Other birds like the owls will sit and wait for 10 or more minutes until they take that food (their positive reinforcement). How a bird responds to training has much to do with their natural history behaviors and the patience of their human trainer.
It is our diligence that keeps these birds active, responsive, and stimulated that makes them such wonderful ambassadors of wildlife in our educational programs. And though our busy season may be over, there are still plenty of educational programs featuring our live birds (and other critters and subjects) every day at VINS. Check our web site's calendar for more info!