Before I start posting about the actual steps I took to train the bird, I figured I should take the time to actually explain the theory behind the training. The training is essentially a variant on Pavlov’s famous experiment with his dogs, in which he rung a bell every time he fed his dogs until eventually, he could ring the bell and the dogs would salivate without being shown any food. The bird is offered food, both from the fist and from a lure, and is called audibly while the food is offered to it until eventually, when it is called to the fist or to the lure, regardless of the presence of food, the bird will return to the falconer.
The main difference between Pavlov’s experiment and the conditioning of a raptor for falconry is that the bird is asked to respond to certain signals over an increasingly large distance. Almost every falconer has his or her own slightly tailored way of conditioning a raptor. The main difference in training styles is between scheduled and random reward systems. In a scheduled system, the bird is rewarded on some type of fixed ratio, whether it is after every successful trial, after every 3 successful trials, or some other number. The main criticism of this is that the bird will learn the schedule and then will only perform the desired behavior when it wants the reward.
The random approach deals with this by rewarding the bird in random intervals; the bird will never be able to learn a schedule and therefore will perform the task every time it is asked to because there is a chance it will be rewarded. My sponsor told me that I should reward the bird after every successful flight, so that was the approach I used. Because a falconer must manage his or her bird’s weight regardless of the preferred training approach, I have found that I haven’t been effected severely by using the scheduled approach. Plus, while I was training Atlas, I did try randomizing his rewards a few times, and I found that on the flights where there was no reward, he could see that there was no food before landing on my glove and chose instead to land further up my arm or on my shoulder. I’m not sure if this was the cause of his strange behavior, but it’s my best guess.
It is important that after a bird has been acquired, its first feeding must be from the falconer’s fist. If the bird is allowed to eat not on the fist, the falconer is simply reinforcing undesired behavior and is working against the ultimate goal. One should also note that raptors do not respond to punishment during conditioning in the way that another animal would. They do not learn to avoid certain behaviors if they are punished for it; they only learn to maintain certain behaviors when they are rewarded. Punishing a raptor only leads to aggression, anger, and added difficulty in the training.