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The Modern Apprentice



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Raptor training link       Raptor training basics link Raptor training games link Planning your bird's first hunt link
Training a raptor can be accomplished by anyone who is motivated and applies himself. There are a few interesting points about raptor training that I find different from other animals I have worked with.
As a side note, I will make no attempt to not anthropomorphize. We relate to other people and understand them by this mechanism and it can be extremely useful as a way to abstract away the details and discussion of what an animal really is thinking. I personally think of any training session as a conversation between myself and my bird. The more well trained the animal, the longer and more intense the conversation can be, and more complicated. I cannot actually talk with my bird nor "communicate" with her, but some level of anthropomorphism can help keep from getting stuck on the details of what level animals process on.
First, raptors are, generally, not social. Your very presence is not a positive thing to them. Eventually the falconer's presence will become associated with food and therefore will be a positive thing to the bird. However, a bird is generally not going to be pining for your company. Your touch is not a positive thing to her. Unlike working with a horse or a dog that are social and begin to see you as a member of the herd or pack, this is a very different relationship. Many falconers will eventually be communicated with as if they were another hawk and will even be courted by the bird. Even raptor pairs do not spend much time together in close proximity unless they are tending a nest at that moment. At all other times of the year they may hunt and defend the same territory, but they will not be sitting on a light pole together or nuzzling each other at the nest. Likewise, they are not driven to seek this out. One advantage of this to the novice falconer is that there are very few social behaviors that you can emit which will be meaningful to the bird. While certain postures or sounds that we are predisposed to make will be meaningful to a dog or horse, very few are as meaningful to a bird at first.
Second is that these birds are aggressive, and it is that aggression that we do not want to dampen, just focus. We need the bird to be aggressive towards quarry, but not towards our hand. Aggression is a useful emotion for the bird and we can take advantage of it in training. Fear is not useful to us as we cannot train through it. Be aware of the aggression as you will need to direct it, deal with it, avoid it, and acknowledge it in order to be successful. Every falconer will get footed, but careful handling will reduce the frequency.
Third is that these birds need to be exercised and kept in top physical condition. Being able to exercise a bird hard every day means she will have a higher metabolism and can have more food run through her and more opportunity for her body to pick the proper nutrients out of it. Top physical condition also means that the bird will feel in shape to hunt well and will have the physical means by which to take down the intended quarry regularly. And the process of training builds the relationship between falconer and bird and teaches each much about the other.

Conditioned Reinforcer
To begin, we must condition the bird to her Conditioned Reinforcer (CR). A good way to start this is to feed the bird a chunk of food on the fist. The advantage is that you are a part of the meal and can control it. She will pull at it and get bites of food off while you give her the conditioned reinforcer that works for you. Since I use a whistle, from here on I will refer to it interchangeably as a CR or a whistle. As the bird pulls off bites of food and eats, whistle. Whistle as she tugs at the food, whistle as she swallows her food, keep giving her this CR as she eats up. When she is put down she will be filled and content and think through that episode of whistles that just happened. She got a good crop of food and the contentment afterwards. A few feedings like this will set the CR as a conditioned reinforcer for her.
The CR is used to tag an exact behavior at precisely the moment that the proper event happens. Many people will dissect the same action and pick different pieces of it as the "desired response". Many roads lead to Rome and there is no single right answer. Each falconer will have a set of ways which work for him and each bird will have a set of ways which work for her. A good trainer can be flexible and apply the ones which work for a given situation.

Let's look at an action like a jump-up. It's a very simple action - the bird is on a low perch, pushes off and flies straight up to the falconer's fist. The behavior of the flapping to a higher perch could be tagged. Or the behavior of the feet actually touching the glove could be tagged. Pick which section of the activity you want to reward and be consistent about rewarding that part.
Initially to get a behavior to occur you will likely pair the primary reinforcer with the secondary reinforcer - you will give a tidbit with the whistle. In the case of a jump-up, you may start with a tidbit visible on the glove for the bird to see to get her to understand where you want her to go. As she pushes off and jumps to the glove you will whistle and then she will have the tidbit to eat when she lands. At this point the bird is still being lured to the fist to produce the desired behavior, but it is the beginning of the action.
Once she knows what action is expected of her, you will want to move to not showing her the tidbit. Hide it in the palm of your glove or in your right hand. Once she jumps and lands you can then open your glove for her to get the tidbit or hand her the tidbit with your right hand. She is now working for the conditioned reinforcer, but you are still using a continuous schedule of reinforcement. There is no true problem with this, but you are limited in the number of jump-ups you can get by the number of tidbits you have. You can cut smaller tidbits and continue using a continuous reinforcement schedule. There is no problem with that, you aren't going to break your bird or make a mistake. However, if you want to take the bird further, then you will need to change the reinforcement schedule.
The next step is to change to a variable schedule. You can randomly hand out tidbits, but as time goes on the bird will be looking for ways to exert less energy - she will look for ways to cut corners to make it easier on her. If you reward just randomly, then you could end up rewarding her after a poorly executed jump-up. It is better to work on shaping the behavior while you apply the variable reward schedule.
Personally, I have to map out in my head a flowchart of what behaviors I want and how I plan to achieve them. If I want to shape a simple jump-up into a fast jump-up, then I set rules for the training session. If I put up my fist and she does not immediately crouch and respond, then I will count to 3 and put my fist down for 20 seconds. If that happens three times in a row, then I leave the room for 3 minutes. And if I have to leave the room for 3 minutes more than twice, then the session ends. The bird has an option - she can jump or she can sit there. If she jumps, then she gets food. If she sits there (or goes somewhere else) then she gets put to bed without dinner, essentially. For the initial sessions think of it as also teaching the ground rules - you are showing the bird that there are benefits to cooperating and that there are consequences to not. She has a choice, but there are results to her actions. To set the ground rules, set aside a weekend or a few days where you can do many sessions. Start early and give her one opportunity - don't be afraid to let her fail. Frequently trainers parrot the line to always end on a good note. Things don't always end on a good note in the wild and those are lessons the bird learns from. If she doesn't try hard in the wild, she goes to bed hungry. You are taking the role of God in this scenario and letting her hunt tidbits while dictating the rules of the hunt. In order for her to catch them, she has to jump fast.
For the first session, be clear that you have food. She will likely do at least one jump-up well and should get a whistle and tidbit for that. If the second jump isn't fast enough, calmly pick her up and take her to the garage. Set her down on her perch and turn off the lights - she has just "gone to bed" hungry. An hour later come back out and give her another opportunity. If she jumps well, she gets tidbits. But, again, don't be afraid to set her down in the dark again. Having many sessions rapidly like this lets you teach her many lessons fast but without waiting days or risking her not eating enough. If she jumps well, let the session continue and let her get her full feeding of food.

Push your bird to perform more. You need to condition her well, especially if you are not able to hunt as frequently as you would like to. Training sessions like this are extremely effective. Layman has often said that a falconer learns the most from his bird by learning how to get a hundred jump-ups out of his bird, and then a hundred jump-ups in 20 minutes. This simulates a vertical flight from a near stall and is an excellent workout and assessment of the bird's motivation. Any bird can do it, even a Red-Tail. Don't underestimate the Red-Tail - I've had mine do 180 jump ups in an evening, or 120 in 20 minutes. That translates to a strong bird out in the field and a deep relationship between the falconer and the bird.
Very quickly she will figure out the rules of the hunt that you have set and she will operate within them. With just this prescription, you can effectively condition your bird for its entire lifetime, or you can take the training further.

All images and text Copyright © 2004 - 2016 - Lydia Ash