Sunday, 29 January 2012

Goodbye Blondie...

Unfortunately Blondie has passed away. When the lid was off of her cage last week, my feet startled her and she flushed up and hit her head on the underside of the desk. I am very angry at myself for letting this happen because this is something I should have anticipated - I have seen many quail do the same thing over the years. I took a weeks' break from the bird training and even wondered if I wanted to continue it. I have decided that I will continue to work with Brita. I have done a few sessions with her now and she is indeed a very different bird to work with - she is more wary or indifferent of new things and definitely more wary of what's going on around her. She burns out faster than Blondie and is not as fast, and always tries to cheat by trying to find out where the food went. She also insists on picking up a lot of the little granules of food that she spills. She is coming along, though. As a matter of fact, I got her to the point where Blondie was in half the time (but this may be because I too am learning!). What happened to Blondie was a terrible reminder for me to think about things. I had a quail once named Barbara who did the same thing. She didn't die but did damage to her inner ear as her ear was bleeding afterwards. A few months later she started to fall over and eventually could not get back up and I chose to put her down. Hard roofs kill quail. I take every precaution to build their cages appropriately but didn't think about the environmental factors. Under the desk, the desk itself is like a big roof. With animals, a lot of learning has a lot to do with context. I suppose it is the same for people too.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Video 8 - Blondie owns the target

Blondie has been catching on to stepping on the red target to get her food, and when she finally offers the behavior of pecking it, I get very excited and give her a few extra pecks. After a few tries she really catches on and I narrow my criteria - I still click for stepping on it, but she must have most of her foot on it - no grazing. Another session or so of this and she will only be pecking it. I move the target around to force her to actively look for it, and she does! I'm very happy with the progress after only one week. My next challenge will be putting the target on a stick to see if she will peck it off the ground.

Video 7 - Brita gets her chance

Brita finally gets some one-on-one attention. This is a super short session with her very own "clicker" which is an app I downloaded on my phone called Dog Whistle. It has a variety of different settings and I picked a fairly low one for Brita, since bird's ears are quite sensitive to sound. Because she hears the sound of the clicker all the time and gets nothing for it, the sound of the clicker means nothing to her. This new noise will be hers and hers alone. I just have to be careful to hold the button down for the same length of time every time to keep the sound consistent. Sometimes I tap it too lightly and the sound is too short. With a real clicker you don't have to worry about this much.Also, it is very easy to start moving the feeding hand at the same time the sound goes off. Ideally the sound should be first and the movement of the feeding hand after. After watching this video a couple times I realise this is something i am going to have to work on, especially when using my phone instead of the clicker.

Brita is not as "driven" as Blondie but once she gets the hang of it, she might get to be just as good. Her sessions are very short and so far she hasn't shown as much enthusiasm as Blondie. The different personalities of the two birds are interesting to observe!

Video 6 - Blondie narrows it down

Getting Blondie to start putting more or her foot down on the target. Thankfully I have figured out a solution to the "Where's Brita?" problem. When Blondie is having a session, Brita goes into the insulated box that I use to transport my fish. I put a soft towel on the bottom for her to rummage in. The box is light-proof and almost sound-proof, so whichever quail is inside can call all she wants and won't be heard. After 3 minutes, Blondie switches places with Brita and I can start training Brita. When they are both done they go back to their cage to eat their meal. It works great. Without the distraction of the other bird, both of them focus a lot better.

You can see Blondie start to think about pecking the target - the fact that she is offering new behaviours suggests that whatever logic a quail has is starting to kick in, and she is experimenting with new ways to try to get the food.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Video 5 - Blondie gets a target

This is Blondie's second session with a red paper target. I wish I would have filmed the first one. On her first session, I started out with a red circle that was about 8 inches in diameter. It was so big that she was bound to step on it occasionally, and I clicked her for those times. After about four or five clicks she caught on, so I wittled the circle down to 6 inches and tried again. Again, after 5 or 6 clicks, she had it. In this video I have the red target wittled down to about 4 inches. I click her whenever her foot touches it at first, and gradually increase my criteria by making her have more and more of her foot on it. If you watch carefully, you will start to see her actually look down at the target to see where it is and meaningfully put her foot on it. She still does not want to work long without Brita with her, but I have come up with a solution for that! (more later!)

Video 4 - Blondie gets fast

Blondie has learned to eat from the cup and anticipates getting the chance to eat. Both she and Brita have their food witheld about 8 hours overnight and 10 hours during the day. In the morning after each training session they get to eat until they are full and resting, and after each session at night they get a full dish of food for about four hours. In the paper by Ellen and T.W. Reese, "The Quail, Coturnix coturnix, as a Laboratory Animal" the authors found that the optimal time to fast the quail before conditioning a new behaviour was 17 hours. Once the behaviour was conditioned, however, the birds would perform them without any fasting at all. Brita and Blondie are on a similar feeding schedule to most pet dogs, which I think is fair.

I try a couple different things in this video. The first is to try to get Blondie working faster and longer by only giving her one peck at the dish. After a while she learns to make that first peck count. She is still wondering where Brita is when I have her on the table by herself. When Blondie loses focus I trade spots with Brita, but Brita doesn't even know how to get food from the cup and since she has been listening to the clicker for days and not getting anything out of it, the sound means nothing to her. Once I bring Blondie back, however, she starts mimicking Blondie and going for the food. Blondie is once again eager for the food and no longer distressed now that Brita is back. I watched this session several times and did some brainstorming about how to fix these little setbacks. Blondie has to be able to work on her own and must get used to not having Brita beside her all the time. Brita has to be be able to work uninterrupted if she is to learn anything at all.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Video 3: Charging the clicker with Blondie

Blondie seems to be the bird who gets it. She's curious and not afraid to check things out and experiment with her surroundings. I decide to start charging the clicker with her to teach her what the sound means - but there is a hang-up. Blondie gets very upset whenever she is separated from Brita. She starts to call for her friend and ignore the food. In order to get Blondie to focus, Brita has to be with her. I can only work with one bird at a time, however. For the time being I focus on Blondie, but I know I will have to work on separating them in the future. If I only end up training one quail, then that's fine too.

To charge the clicker, I hold the cup out of sight - either behind my hand or under the table - then I click and put the food right in front of Blondie's face where she can see it and be tempted to eat. At first I let her have a few pecks at the food since she misses the morsels with the first couple pecks. My next step will be getting her to work faster. She was completely full/bored by 6 minutes into the session, so I will aim to keep my sessions shorter - other trainers have suggested 2 minutes so that's what I'm going to go with.

Brita has a little slip when I move her away from the camera lens and it seems to startle her. Her body language suggests to me that she is a little anxious about her surroundings. Could there be something up above that's freaking her out a little? The sound of the wind rattling the window cover seems to irk her a little. I might need to work with Brita on her own a bit to get her more comfortable being out on the desk, and get both birds more comfortable being on their own.

I am using finely chopped hard boiled egg with some of their regular crumbles as a food reward.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Video 2 - Exploring Textures

Quail love textures. By textures, I mean things that they can feel - under their feet and beak. They use their beak to explore new things, and if they like it, they get their feet in there.

In the wild, quail have two normal behaviours that relate to this - scratching the ground with their beak and feet to search for morsels of food, and scratching in sand/dirt substrate in order to dust-bathe, which feels good and helps keep them free of external parasites. Both these behaviours are innate, meaning they are instinctive at birth. I have seen quail chicks only hours old "dust-bathe" under the comforting heat of an infrared lamp.

In this video I give Brita and Blondie two objects: a folded terrycloth towel and a flattened plastic grocery bag. They discover the towel immediately and begin pecking and scratching at it. Eventually they begin dust-bathing in it - which is rather counterproductive, since there isn't anything to "bathe" in - but when quail are really happy and feel really good, they dust-bathe, regardless of whether they have substrate. When I used to keep large numbers of quail I had them in large 10-foot cages with wire mesh floors to allow the droppings to fall through, and during their evening meal, some birds were so happy to be eating that they would dust-bathe between mouthfuls on the bare wire.

When I take the cloth away, both birds look a little perturbed for a moment but eventually go to explore the bag. Blondie gets right in there with the same enthusiasm, but Brita gets bored. When I replace the towel, Blondie abandons the bag and goes back to it. I have seen them seek out similar objects in my apartment - fuzzy slippers, laundry, etc. They seem to really like soft and squishable textures. They will also try to dust-bathe in any kind of substrate - fresh pine shavings, house-plant dirt, kitty litter boxes, etc.

I am starting to get a better idea of Brita and Blondie's personalities. Blondie is a lot more needy for Brita's company that Brita is for Blondie. If they are separated, Blondie will call again and again and ignore everything else around her, where as Brita will just carry on. Blondie, however, is usually the first to explore new objects and the most enthusiastic about them, and least likely to get bored. This makes me think that she might be the better candidate for clicker training.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Video 1: Introducing Brita and Blondie

Brita and Blondie are Coturnix quail, often referred to as Japanese quail. They were born on the 18th of November 2011, which makes them just over 8 weeks old at the time of this post. As a project for Animal Science class in my third semester of Animal Health Technology (Veterinary Technology) I built an incubator out of a beer cooler and ordered some quail eggs from a breeder in the Lower Mainland. 13 babies hatched and I raised them at our veterinary teaching facility until they were 4 weeks old. I transferred them to a teacher's house who had a coop for them and when I got back from Christmas holidays in January, chose two quail to take home with me for an extra-curricular project: clicker training quail.

Coturnix are the most remarkable bird I have had the pleasure to raise. They reproduce incredibly quickly, often laying eggs by 6 weeks of age and often out-producing most chickens when it comes to egg production. They are intensely curious about new things and are extremely motivated to find food, making them ideal subjects for clicker training. They are also very tolerant of human interaction. Chickens have been successfully clicker-trained to do a variety of behaviours, but I have yet to find any other videos online of other game birds being clicker trained. There are plenty of academic papers out there that have used coturnix for operant conditioning studies in a lab environment, but I wanted to try training some myself. I have raised hundreds of these birds over the year but never really stopped to explore their intricate behaviours!

Chicken Clicker Training:
(source: Youtube)

Blondie was the only female golden coturnix in the batch of quail I hatched. I wanted two quail so they would have each others' company but I needed to be able to tell them apart, so I took Blondie and a brown quail I named Brita. I needed females, not males, because the males crow loudly and harass the females to no end. Brita and Blondie were staying in a cage in the house and needed to be peaceful room-mates.

Housing and Care:

Brita and Blondie are staying in a clear Tupperware storage box measuring 30 inches long by 18 inches wide. The lid has been cut out and fitted with mesh for maximum ventilation. They have a 1 inch deep bedding of pine shavings with a removable shelf-gripper liner underneath which can be removed and machine washed. The shavings are changed twice a week or as needed. They have two raised water dishes that are cleaned daily, an enclosed sand box containing budgie grit for sandbathing and scratching, a hide-box that they can go in or jump on, and their food, which consists of 17% protein chicken layer crumble, is sprinkled on the bottom of their cage to encourage them to forage through the bedding to find it. This gives them mental stimulation during the day. Most of their daily food intake is given during or immediately after their training sessions, as both chickens and quail need to be a bit hungry to have motivation for food. They can still forage for food during the day, but get their main meal at night. (I have been trained by veterinarians and avian researchers and can accurately assess the body condition score on a bird, and I ensure they get enough to eat.) They also get time outside their room every day to explore around my room, and leave little presents for me to pick up.


In the next few weeks I want to see if I can get Brita and/ or Blondie to be able to perform a behaviour for a food reward. Depending on how fast/slow they learn, the possibilities are endless. This is also a learning experience for me and a chance for me to practice my clicker skills. I am also hoping to catch on video different observations I make about their behaviour. After only a week of working with them I already see many differences in their individual personalities.