Training Tips Taken From Wild Birds

Training Tips Taken Taken From Wild Birds

 October 11th, 2013
Posted By:
Mel
_MG_2022

Adult raven flying in to his nest (hidden in the thicker foliage) in order to feed his chicks.

 

There are few things that I enjoy more than watching wild birds go about their everyday business. Lately, I have been lucky enough to have a pair of ravens nest within metres of my bedroom window. Ok, sometimes we’ve had our disagreements (any wild bird can attack). Generally though, I’ve been very happy to have them around and have made a point of scaring local cats away from their nesting tree (at all hours of the day/night).

 

This particular pair of ravens has had more than just cats to deal with though. Last year, their nesting efforts failed when their nest was blown out of the tree during a storm. This year we’ve had more storms and more competition between different species of birds for this particular tree. A yellow-tailed black cockatoo flock makes use of the tree as their secondary roosting site (so if they’re disturbed during the night at their primary site, they fly to this tree). Fortunately for the ravens, this doesn’t happen often but I honestly didn’t expect to find the raven nest still intact the morning after around 40 cockatoos descended on the tree in the middle of the night. The ravens were still there though.

 

_MG_1998

Difficult to get a decent shot when the baby insists on hiding in foliage close to the nest, I’ve been waiting for the chick to get to the stage where it ventures further away.

 

When I first saw a baby raven emerge from the nest, I was excited to see it had made it. It stayed close to the nest for a few days and from what I could tell, was the only baby to hatch. Then one day I noticed it was out and about – well away from the nest and in the perfect spot to get a great photo. I ran for my camera. When I got back, the baby had disappeared back into thick foliage where it was impossible for me to get a decent shot. Disappointed, I contented myself with taking yet another photo of a parent calling loudly from my neighbour’s nearby television antenna. What I didn’t know was that I was photographing something a lot more special than just a parent hopping around on an antenna.

 

IMG_2164

Adult raven perched on my neighbour’s television antenna, watching its offspring which is hidden from my view by the thick foliage of the tree it is in.

 

With a clatter, the baby crash-landed on the roof next to the antenna. Without knowing it, I had been photographing a parent raven that was coaxing its offspring to take its first flight. The parent meanwhile, quickly jumped down onto the roof and shoved a small amount of food in the chick’s mouth.

 

IMG_2417

A quick food reward for taking a first flight.

 

The parent then hopped along the roof and grabbed a bit of food out from under a roof tile, it waved the food in the chick’s face and then swallowed it while the chick begged to be fed. The chick seemed genuinely shocked that it hadn’t been given the food but it obediently followed the parent to the next tile, the parent let the chick pull out some food and it played with it for a second, then ate it (while the parent looked on). I began to realize that earlier in the day when I had seen the adult ravens apparently foraging on the roof – they must have actually been stashing food between the roof tiles in preparation for this lesson.

 

IMG_2182

Closely the supervised by an adult (on the left), the chick learns to forage between tiles for food.

 

At one point, the chick nearly slipped off the roof. The other adult raven came from nowhere, swooping in below the chick it planted itself firmly so that the chick fell into the parent, not off the roof. The other adult meanwhile called the chick away from the edge and it obediently followed in search of more food.

 

IMG_2186

One adult watches the lesson unfold on the roof from the nearby “lookout tree”.

 

Later on, I checked on the ravens to see if they’d go back to be near the nest for the night. I was relieved to see that the chick had returned to the tree with the nest in it and appeared to be waiting for the parents to return.

 

IMG_2369

About 4pm in the afternoon (2 hrs before sunset) the chick waits for the parents who have gone to get food for themselves.

 

I was watching the chick when suddenly another chick crash-landed on the branch next to it.  This new chick had a mouthful of mud and bugs which the chick I had been watching immediately made a dive for. I realized that the chick I had been watching earlier was actually the second chick to leave the nest that day and that this other chick was maybe a day or two older and had been going through the same flight training that day. I also realized that the chick I had been watching for a week had actually been two chicks taking it turns to come just outside of the nest.

 

IMG_2377

And then there were 2…

 

The next day, lessons progressed. The parents led the chicks from the roof, to neighbouring trees and back to the roof. They never made the chicks ascend or descend when flying, they stayed at the same height. The interspersed the flight lessons with foraging lessons. One parent was leading the chicks around while the other was frantically shoving food in the cracks in my neighbour’s roof, or alternately mixing insects with mud and leaving little clumps of the resulting sticky mush on thick branches for the chicks to find.

 

_MG_2197

Lessons in foraging and flight continue as a younger (3rd) chick looks on from close to the nest.

 

In the meantime, another much younger chick emerged from the nest. It sat without moving, within half a metre of the nest, overlooking these lessons. The parents would move this youngest chick to a new perch (still close to the nest) roughly every hour. It was at least a week away from being ready to start flight and foraging lessons itself.

 

IMG_2274

A third chick emerges from the next and moves out further from the nest much younger than its siblings did and watchs the lessons unfold on the roof below.

 

Gradually the parents led the older chicks further and further away and ascending and descending into the flight lessons. They took the now juvenile birds back and forth between the roosting tree and another tree about half a kilometer away. You’re probably wondering how I know that? My house is on a slight rise and the tree they were visiting is extremely tall and visible from my yard. The point being, if I can see the tree from my yard, they could see the roosting tree from it, allowing them to still keep an eye on their nest from a distance. Sure enough, if any other bird alighted in the roosting tree, an adult raven would come whizzing back to protect the nest and remaining chick.

 

IMG_2381

An adult raven leaves the older chicks in a distant tree and comes winging back to swoop a pair of wattle birds that have flown in too close to the younger chick still at the nest.

 

Not everything went smoothly for these ravens. This is a house with multiple talking parrots in it. Naturally, my flock picked up on the sounds that the ravens make when calling for their young to follow them; which added considerable confusion to the ravens’ lessons. This resulted in the ravens being drawn to my bird room door where a screaming/cawing match ensued. The ravens appeared to be swearing at my parrots in raven, while more than one parrot excitedly meowed like a cat or beeped like a microwave in response. It got pretty loud.

 

To make matters worse, on the day the older chicks started to fly to this distant tree the weather changed. Weather forecasters appeared on television wearing “We’re all going to die” serious faces as they pointed to maps of the state that were coloured in completely red. Severe weather warning. Think: record breaking winds, golf ball sized hail, trees blowing down, airborne garden sheds, power outages and a backyard you could wade in. The wind in particular stayed severe for an entire week. It wasn’t pretty.

 

IMG_2311

In a brief break between rain storms and adult raven spreads its wings to aid the drying process. You can almost feel the stress radiating from the bird as it tries to cope in a week long storm.

 

In the midst of the storm, I waded out through my swampy yard to check on the ravens. The wildlife rescuer in me expected the nest to be on the ground and the youngest chick to be on the ground with it. The roosting tree had lost branches during the storm and was likely to lose more. To my surprise, a fourth chick had emerged much earlier than it should have. The parents had moved both of their young chicks out of the nest and down into a lower tree, that was sheltered by my fence and the neighbour’s house. It also had thicker branches (so didn’t move much in the wind) and very thick foliage. Surprisingly this foliage was keeping them fairly dry. The youngest was clearly struggling and trying to lie on a thick branch as if it was still in the nest, but it seemed safe enough. The older chicks were there too. Lessons had stopped. The parents were feeding all four chicks again, using the grassy patch I leave to go to seed (for my birds) as their main food source.

 

IMG_2382

Moved out of the nest before it is ready in order to survive severe weather, this 4th chick is too young to even stand properly.

 

There is a reason why I’m rattling on about what I’ve seen with these birds in the last few weeks. I know they’re not parrots but they’re just as intelligent. It’s interesting to see how they go about training their young when the stakes are literally life and death. There are a few take away points that we can use in our own training if we aren’t already.

 

The first is the most obvious. The parent birds were using positive reinforcement with their chicks. When the babies did something right, the adults were quick to shove some food down their throat when they were really young, or they’d drop solid food in front of the chick as they got a bit older.

 

IMG_2432

A week after the storm, the second youngest chick begins rooftop lessons.

 

The second is the fact that they’d found a safe environment for the training; controlling the amount of fear that they exposed their chicks to. A rooftop is safely off the ground away from the local cats and dogs. It was also at the same height as the nest, meaning the chicks didn’t have to deal with the fear of ascending/descending until they had built up muscle strength and confidence.

 

The next thing that was noticeable was that they’d set their training sessions up for success. They’d done the work to make sure that when they were going to teach foraging, there was food there to be found. It also wasn’t just one type of food. One second it was a beetle, the next a worm and then a piece of moss. They kept it easy but interesting.

 

IMG_2435

Searching for food the parents have hidden earlier…

 

Their lesson plans often had more than one goal. The foraging was the easy skill that they started with, but they added it in to the flight lessons. The reward for flying to a new spot was to find the food that had been left there for them. Going back to something simple was useful for building the chick’s confidence when they were doing something as scary as flying.

 

They had small skill building steps built in to their training. You wouldn’t normally find a worm on a roof, but the parents placing it there meant that in later lessons when the babies made it to the ground – they’d know a worm was food.

 

IMG_2515

A little positive reinforcement…

 

Both the parent birds participated in training. It wasn’t a case of the chicks only listening to one parent; they were getting the same message and signals from both. The parents were also there to prevent failure (i.e. to stop the chicks falling off the roof).

 

They made use of learning by observation. They’d train one chick, with the other watching on. In fact, it seems they’d planned to have teams of two chicks to work with. The second pair of chicks was at least a week younger than the older pair. So they watched as the older pair were trained. When the older pair were weaned, the parents moved on to the younger pair – starting the same lessons all over again.

 

IMG_2513

Can anyone say “windblown”???

 

There was one part of the birds’ training that really fascinated me more than anything else. The fact that the parents could leave the chicks on a branch and tell them to stay there and wait until they came back and the chicks would actually stay even when they could fly. Obedience like that is something that I would seriously love to see my parrots have. I’d give almost anything to have my macaw stay on a training perch when I go to answer a phone, instead of flying to the fridge and opening the door to see if he can spill the milk (again). How on earth did these birds get their babies to sit and wait while they went off to find food for themselves and prepare the next lesson???

 

IMG_2477

Three chicks doing as they’re told. Every night they sit on this exact branch (you might even recognise it from earlier pics?) for an hour while their parents leave in search of food.

 

I’m not sure that I’ll ever have a full and complete answer to that but I did work out a main component of how they managed it. The answer was on the face of my watch. I could set a clock by them. They’d tell the chicks to stay put for exactly an hour at the same time everyday. I would assume that started before the chicks even had the ability to leave the nest. These birds might live in the wild, but they have a very strict routine. They leave the chicks alone at the same time everyday. The adults used that routine to teach the babies that they would come back and give them something when they returned. It meant that the chicks recognized the stay command when it was needed at other times.

 

There is one more lesson I can point out from my recent observations and that was that when everything went nuts, when a record-breaking storm appeared, training stopped and basic care resumed. Don’t train your birds in a stressful environment. Wait until things settle down again and then pick up where you left off.

 

IMG_2629

The youngest chick – it’s still a little shaky but a week after the storm, it is learning to fly.

 

Which is what they did, and now a week after the storm has gone, the youngest chick is flying. All six birds still return to the nest/roosting tree at the same time every night. The adults while training their young, are still maintaining the nest and guarding the area; so I imagine they’re planning a second clutch sometime soon.

Facebook comments:

Add New Comment





11 Comments on “Training Tips Taken Taken From Wild Birds”

Dottie Moyer  10/21/2013 10:36 am

Very interesting. Iive on a lake ad have many birds in my Cypress
trees. Also watch the Eagle Video on the internet and was amazed
at all that goes on with the Eagle training. Amazing. And you are
right about the dosmestic parrots. My Grey loves to imitate all the
other birds and had a hawk going crazy. Also i cant stand the imitation]
of the Bluejays. Keep uo the good work. Enjoyed it.


Brian  10/21/2013 10:49 am

Mel, as far as the “stay” thing goes, I think there is also something to be said for the fact that while the youngsters were learning to fly, they could not fly far distances. Therefore, the motivation to follow the parents was low. Whether the parents conciously understand and purposefully manipulate that is the mystery. In addition, the young birds also probably observed the routine of parents “planting food” and learned that was a precursor for flight lessons. If the parents weren’t planting food before they left to go “hunting” for more, then the young birds motivation to fly (follow parents) is again low. It’s kinda like how dogs get excited when you grab their leash before a walk, but don’t always respond when you simply walk to the front door; they learn to discriminate. Grabbing the leash off the wall hook always leads to a walk, where human going to front door does not always lead to a walk. Although fascinating, it’s no surprise to see this because everything we know about learning we, ourselves, learned from nature. BTW…you have phenominal observational skills!


Red Travison  10/21/2013 11:03 am

Loved it Mel. Thanks so much for sharing.


Eric  10/21/2013 11:24 am

Wow this is really cool. I love watching wild birds. Really cool observations. I bet scientists, who only recently discovered that cockatoos can make tools, would be blown away by this information.


Terric story. My 16 yr old actually let. Me take 15 mts Of her Time to read it to her. We have many cats, ravens, fox, woodpeckers,and hawks here. Last year I saw a hawk circling as if he were looking at Our kittens for lunch. Two ravens came swooping aft  10/21/2013 3:14 pm

Terric story. My 16 yr old actually let. Me take 15 mts
Of her Time to read it to her.
We have many cats, ravens, fox, woodpeckers,and hawks here. Last year I saw a hawk circling as if he were looking at
Our kittens for lunch.
Two ravens came swooping after it from a cottonwood tree and flew after that hawk til it left my land.
I was pretty amazed at how fast they were and determined to protect their space


Fawzia  10/24/2013 2:56 am

This is so awesome and informative
stunning pics
thank for sharing


Eveleen Cecchini  10/25/2013 11:09 pm

Where is this?


Mel  10/26/2013 7:43 am

Hi Eveleen, a suburb in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia 🙂


Zells  10/26/2013 8:27 am

Amazing!!!!


Shannon Williford  10/27/2013 9:02 am

Enjoyed this post!!


Dave  10/27/2013 10:39 pm

I enjoyed reading your piece on the baby Ravens and the parents care and teaching of the chicks.
I have a real life experience with a Raven that you all may be interested in.
I have grown up in the Mojave Desert since 1959. I have some experience with Ravens. I know male and female Ravens mate for life and I know they are very attentive and protective of their offspring. I also know that that a Raven raised in captivity from pen feathers to young adult hood is not necessarily taught by the parents.
In the late 1960s I raised a newborn Raven chick to maturity. With some wing strengthening exercises by me and just letting instinct take over he learned to fly. Although he was well fed he did learn to forage for himself.
He was protected at night. Luther had a 12’X12’ cage that my dad built from the ground up surrounding a tree at our house at Edwards AFB. He was released every morning and he returned every afternoon after he was finished with his shenanigans for the day. After a year, one evening Luther did not return home. I whistled and I called for him every morning and evening, but no Luther. We left the cage up and set food out for him every morning and evening.
One year after Luther’s disappearance a pair of Ravens appeared at our back door near his cage. Luther approached me and allowed me to give him food, he still trusted me. His wild mate was very standoffish. He would take my hand outs and offer them to his mate which she accepted. Luther and his mate returned from time to time but never resumed permanent residence at our house.
I suppose instinct got the best of Luther.