Thoughts on Manning, from a Behaviorism Perspective
Okay, so here's a rough, unedited draft of some thoughts on manning I put together today. There are likely some grammatical errors and things that could be better-worded, but this is a start. I'm happy to start a dialogue with anyone who has any questions about this, as some concepts are complicated. For the sake of time, simplicity, and length, I haven't provided definitions for all of the jargon, so you'll have to google them if you're interested in learning more, or I can explain later on.
Most falconry literature mentions that occasionally—despite a falconer’s best efforts—individual birds will not work out for use in falconry. These birds never tame down, these authors contend, and will not respond to glove, lure, or even game without weight being cut to the bone. Many falconers also believe that the traits of a bird are largely inborn rather than learned or cultivated, and that there are a percentage of birds (especially wild eyasses that lack a pedigree) that are destined to fail due to genetic fate.
While there is no doubt that genetics do certainly play a role when it comes to gifted performers, a bird’s physical build, or an unusual level of natural tameness, I contend that with the right early interactions with the falconer, any tabula rasa raptor can be trained to take game, respond well in the field, and otherwise be well-adjusted in captivity. Even if the reader vehemently disagrees with this notion, it behooves him or her to not at least practice a working empiricist’s approach despite his misgivings, as the alternative effectively seals the fate of the falconers’ charge and suppresses the quest for novel approaches that might work where more orthodox approaches fail. It’s the old nature versus nurture argument, and to put it in a different perspective, consider the following: If your child was having difficulty with spelling or math, would you rather have his or her teacher adopt a “nature” approach—that is, the child is just not naturally gifted, so is not worth the effort of teaching—or the nurturing approach which contends that with the right approach, the child can not only learn these skills, but excel at them?
Granted, raising children and training falconry birds don’t exactly harbor the same gravity, but making the mental leap of the empiricist prevents the falconer from prematurely damning his charge. Why is it that a falconer who makes mistakes along the journey of raising an imprint is forced to publicly accept the consequences of mistakes during the raising process, yet those dealing with passagers or chamber-raised individuals are permitted to wantonly disregard potential mistakes or incongruent techniques, and instead place the blame on the animal?
Aside from exponentially increasing the chances that the bird will be successful, this philosophy also fosters an environment conducive to life-long learning, in which the falconer will only become more analytical, self-critical, and ultimately a more accomplished gamehawker.
This is an important point: a falconer cannot “choose” whether or not to use operant conditioning; it is innate and omnipresent in every single minute of every single day of every single animal. Like gravity, its laws and theories hold true even if one doesn’t understand or accept it. To successfully fly a plane, it’s helpful to have a working knowledge on how gravity works, and to fly a hawk, it’s helpful to familiarize oneself with Behaviorism, respondent behavior (Operant Conditioning), and reflexive behavior (Classical Conditioning).
A Quick Overview of Traditional Training Methods From A Behaviorism Perspective
Traditional manning techniques rely on a combination of several passive conditioning techniques that fall under Classical Conditioning, simultaneously paired with respondent behavior conditioning. Early on, when the bird is first unhooded and the jesses are restrained, the falconer is relying on the effects of negative reinforcement. As the bird bates it is restrained by the jesses; the consequences of hanging upside down and the pressure on the legs (negative reinforcement) increases the likelihood of sitting on the glove. Think about the beeping alarm when a car is started and the seatbelt is not fastened: the beeping conditions the driver to buckle the seatbelt in order to remove the aversive stimulus of the beep. In the same manner, the hanging upside down and pressure on the legs is relieved as the bird regains the fist or is placed on the fist with the help of the falconer.
In conjunction with the negative reinforcement conditioning, the classical conditioning phenomenon known as short term habituation begins to take hold. Think of someone popping a balloon behind your back unexpectedly—at first, a reflexive startle response occurs, but if another balloon is popped shortly afterwards, the reflex no longer happens, or the response is weakened.
So, the negative reinforcement of the jesses increases the likelihood of the hawk remaining on the glove (or inversely, punishes bating and decreases the bating behavior), and short-term habituation places a temporary decrease in reflexive startle responses. What the falconer hopes to accomplish, if these effects do indeed occur, is to begin pairing positive reinforcement with the behavior of sitting on the glove in proximity to a human. This is called counterconditioning—a stimulus that once associated with an aversive (the human) becomes associated with a positive stimulus (food). Weight is dropped, which increases the value of the primary reinforce (food). More time is spent with the bird, either on the glove or on an indoor perch, and this solidifies the process of long-term habituation. The net gain of this is what we as falconers refer to as the degree in which the bird is manned.
The other traditional taming technique that falconers use is “waking.” A hawk is “waked” by different means, based on local tradition. In medieval Europe, a succession of handlers restrained the bird in shifts for three days or more, constantly exposing the hawk to unnerving stimuli and depriving it of sleep; in Pakistan and Afghanistan, hawks were casted, the tail wrapped, and were placed in cages in bustling coffee shops or marketplaces. These are attempts at flooding (response blocking), and there are tinges of learned helplessness that begin to creep in. Flooding can be thought of as an animal permanently becoming habituated to certain stimuli by exposing the hawk to inescapable aversive stimuli until it no longer elicits a response. That is, things that once elicited an escape-avoidance response now elicit no response at all. Keep in mind, however, that in learned helplessness and flooding experiments in the lab, most, but not all animals responded to such conditioning. This will be important later.
Most raptors eventually come around to these methods, but there are some potential pitfalls. These pitfalls don’t often cause major unwanted behavioral conditioning in the majority of birds, but they are, I believe, exactly what cause the more sensitive individuals to become maladapted to falconry.
UNEXPECTED PITFALLS ENCOUNTERED IN TRADITIONAL FALCONRY MANNING
The most important thing a falconer can learn about operant conditioning is that the use of aversives in training (negative reinforcement, punishment) tend to cause side effects. These negative side effects include increases escape-avoidance behavior, increased aggression, apathy, generalized fear, and much more. The science is there and proves this.
Next, remember short-term and long-term habituation? Animals tend to habituate to stimuli that are irrelevant or insignificant, for obvious evolutionary reasons. However, animals tend to sensitize to stimuli that are relevant or dangerous in some way. Think of a soldier that slowly becomes habituated to the constant sound of bombs and gunfire far in the distance. It makes sense for the brain to stop reacting to these relatively insignificant sounds. Now picture the soldier when an artillery shell explodes close by, or gunfire erupts in the vicinity—the response is immediate, serious, and for survival. The more times a soldier reacts to these immediate dangers and survives, the more ingrained the particular behavior becomes. By contrast, if a soldier habituated to nearby bombs and gunfire, they would be removed from the gene pool in short order.
Now, consider the soldier who returns home and is affected by Post Traumatic Stress (PTS). What occurs here is the sensitization response has generalized to similar stimuli. For instance, the slam of a car door can elicit a similar response to the behavior exhibited when a mortar exploded in the battlefield. Not all soldiers develop PTS.
Let’s relate all this to our hawks. Remember that animals tend to sensitize to stimuli that are relevant or dangerous? Well, to a wild hawk, what is more “relevant or dangerous” than being fettered to a giant predator, 100 times their size? The biggest mistake a falconer can make is to force a fat, wild hawk to sit on the glove in an attempt to habituate it to people. Even worse are those falconers who insist on manning hawks fresh off the trap outdoors or tether a new hawk to a bow perch. It doesn’t make much of a difference whether or not the hawk is bating itself silly, flaring its wings in “dragon mode,” or in shock and frozen to the perch—the falconer is still running a risk of sensitizing the hawk to humans.
One of the greatest falconry quotes I’ve ever read (I think it was Martin Hollinshead) was that “bating doesn’t make a hawk tamer, it makes it wilder.” This is a falconer who intuitively understands the potential of sensitizing his birds to him. In addition, rehearsing any behavior over and over tends to make it a habit (Guthrie’s Theory), and behavior that leads to survival during times of stress tends to be repeated. Picture our soldier responding to close explosions by hitting the deck and finding cover; if he survives, this it is likely this behavior will be repeated. In the exact same fashion, let’s picture a hawk that bates when the falconer approaches to pick it up from the perch, or a bird that bates and hangs upside down when it is being tethered. Because it survived this “relevant or dangerous” experience by rehearsing this behavior, it will likely become quickly conditioned. Picture our soldier who developed PTS, and imagine how easily fear, escape behaviors, and aggression can become generalized and more prevalent with hawks.
I’ve seen plenty of hawks that—even after years in captivity—still bate away from the falconer and the hood. I’ve seen plenty of hawks that have poor field control or won’t work with the falconer, even though they are very sharp. In my estimation, these are the hawks that don’t tend to become conditioned to learned helplessness or flooding phenomena, and are more likely to sensitize to their experience in captivity unless the utmost care is taken. Not surprisingly, there are a disproportionate number of prairie falcons, cooper’s hawks, and goshawks that don’t work out. Also, not surprisingly, these are the species that have been subjected to the more extreme manning techniques of flooding in stark contrast to the more congenial peregrines, merlins, Harris’ hawks, etc.
BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS BASED ON REPETITION OF POSTIVE EXPERIENCES
Early in my falconry career, I would rack my brain trying to figure out what the best “recipe” was for anti-carrying conditioning, how to best train a hawk to hood, how to step off a kill—and—how to man a hawk. What I realize now is that there are no recipes—it’s all about minimizing negative experiences as much as possible and giving as much control to the hawk as possible, as early as possible. There is no way to force or coerce a hawk into becoming a falconer’s hunting partner; it must make that decision on its own. Building this relationship is where I believe the art in falconry truly lies, as a tame, well-adjusted bird chooses and appreciates living in captivity and hunting with the falconer. Below are some thoughts that drastically decrease the percentage of birds that won’t work out for falconry.
• Minimize bating and rehearsal of escape-avoidance behavior through the use of the hood, especially early on. When I first unhood a new passager, it is in a dim, quiet room with no commotion. Unfortunately, this tried and true advice of the masters of old has fallen to the wayside, and an increasing number of falconers are attempting to man their birds outside or with commotion right away.
The goal is to get the bird eating as soon as possible. The sooner it is eating, the quicker the counterconditioning process can occur. Distractions won’t help here. If the bird is repeatedly bating or shows no interest in eating, it is re-hooded. Feeding can be attempted again in a few hours with smaller birds or those trapped in thinner condition, or the next day with large, robust hawks.
• Once the bird is eating, use washed meat to increase the amount of positive time spent with the hawk without putting on weight. The lowest weight my hawks will ever be at is when they are first learning to jump to the glove and are flying the creance. This minimizes fear and minimizes any negative experience such as the bird flying off and checked on creance, bating, etc.
• Hawks should be kept hooded at all times except training until they begin hopping to the glove. After this, they can be tethered to an indoor perch (preferably off the ground), and offered tidbits/ stepped up throughout the day to condition them to the approach.
• No “manning” on the glove. Unless the bird is eating or being actively trained, it is never walked around bare-headed on the glove. This minimizes any bating that can occur and slants the relationship towards heavy association of positive experiences and minimal negative experiences. Habituation is achieved with the indoor perch.
• Make sure the hawk is 100% reliable stepping up indoors and is hopping to the glove outside before transitioning to the outdoor weathering. Transition to outdoors slowly.
• Make sure the bird is 100% reliable stepping up outdoors without bating before moving on to the creance.
• Make sure response to the lure is instant, and introduce the live lure (if that jells with your ethics). With passage falcons, I find it easier to introduce the live lure, then use a frozen pigeon or quail, and gradually move to a leather lure in time.
• Spend as little time on the creance as possible. This is the age of telemetry—it’s worth the risk. What this will do is minimize the chances of negative experiences associated with the inherent restraint. It will also allow the falconer to exploit the passager’s predisposition to fly wide and high the first few times it is free flown. Toss a bagged pigeon on the second free flight when the bird is a half mile out, and it will learn to eat up the sky without the kite.
• Finally, and most importantly, give the hawk as much countercontrol over its environment as possible. Modern behaviorists cite strong evidence that an animal’s innate desire to control its environment actually meets the criteria of a primary reinforcer (food, water, shelter, and sex). Abberant behavior, neurotic behavior, and depression in animals all stems from one cause: lack of control over one’s environment, or the perception of this.
The best way to get a wild hawk used to traffic, trains, people in the field, or anything else that might cause a nervous reaction is to give the bird power to escape. Don’t hold the jesses—even with food. Let go of the bird. Most often the fear response to strange stimuli is exacerbated by the fact that the bird knows that it cannot escape. Let go of the jesses and watch the confidence of the bird (and response to the glove and lure) grow.
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