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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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???
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.
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.
Mel Vincent works as an animal rehabilitator out of Australia.