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Chet Baker: Training Humans

Sunday, February 1, 2015


This dog has us all figgered out. He knows that he gets away with about anything by being himself, which is to say impossibly cute. Most mornings, I find him lying crosswise, right through the middle of the bed, taking up the room of 1.5 humans. And what does he get for it? He gets called Sugar Peanut, and he gets a kiss on his cold little gumdrop nose.

I could pretty much run video and get good stuff every time somebody walks into the kitchen, because wheedling treats from people is what Chet Baker does best. Last evening was no exception. I made my usual rambling pointless dopey dog video. Brevity, I am not your soul. 

But something really cool happened in this little video. I saw Chet employing what amounts to clicker training on his (admittedly rather slow to learn) Daddeh. Chet was consciously giving Bill positive reinforcement for doing the right thing (making motions to pour a little bowl of milk for Chet). And he consciously avoided reinforcing Bill for doing the wrong thing (pouring the milk in the sink). 

When Bill makes motions toward giving Chet what he wants (a wee bowl of milk), Chet woofs and wags. Bill is encouraged to do the right thing.

When Bill makes motions toward pouring the milk in the sink, Chet sits stock-still. Effectively, he's ignoring the behavior he doesn't want. Bill is not encouraged for doing the wrong thing.

Right there, this dog is a better trainer than most of we humans are. No wonder we scramble to do the right thing in Chet's estimation, which is to give him LOTS OF TREATS.

No wonder he is The Cylindrical Pig.

Better keep running, you little rasher of BACON.


Sucking it in. We all do it.

Thanks to Murr Brewster  for inspirato. If you haven't read Don't Shoot the Dog: The New Art of Teaching and Training by Karen Pryor, well, you should. Right, Murr? Best part: it doesn't just work for dogs. It works on people, too. Ideally.

Macaw Messiah

Thursday, January 29, 2015

I am delighted to say that, in February, I will be returning with a group of about 15 people to Costa Rica. Guiding trips is a brand new thing for me, but I find it suits me pretty well. Why wouldn't it? I guess it's obvious that I love showing people amazing places and creatures.

 It helps to work with Holbrook Travel, which owns a lodge (Selva Verde) along the Pacific coast, and specializes in thoughtful, sustainable eco-tourism worldwide. I respect and like the people I work with very much, and our Costa Rican guide, Mario Cordoba, is the bomb. He's promised to work some more bats into this trip. Squeeee!!

After last winter's trip, I did several posts about Don Alvaro's macaw and wildlife sanctuary on his finca not far from Holbrook Travel's proprietary lodge, Selva Verde. And you, gentle readers, surprised me yet again by asking where and how you could donate money to help him keep these magnificent birds in the manner to which they have become accustomed. I didn't have an answer for you then. Still don't have proper contact information for Don Alvaro. But I'm headed back there in February 2015, and I would be delighted to bring along a gift from you. (Probably ought to have donations in by Feb. 19 at the latest). A recap:

This is not an ordinary man-and-macaw story. The afternoon we visited Don Alvaro's finca in the rolling countryside near the Rio Sarapiqui was one of the most magical and moving of our trip.

This gentle man rescues macaws. Caged, lonely, abused macaws, macaws coming from all over. I saw one with only half a beak, and one that, in its misery in solitary confinement, had plucked itself all the way to fuzzy gray down. Don Alvaro has 19 in all. That's a LOT of macaws. (Just having one around frequently got on my last nerve). But "has" isn't quite the right verb here. 

Because it's what he does with them, how he keeps them that moved me so. These birds are free, flying all over the farm. Flying many kilometers up and down the river, voicing harsh shrieks that, in their harshness, still sound joyful.

Ruckus on the finca! RAAAAWWWK!!!

Great green and scarlet macaws, free flying in the riverine gallery forest, which connects directly to the enormous and well-studied La Selva Bioreserve.

Shots of scarlet and electric blue arrow overhead

But they come back to Don Alvaro for peanuts and a little loving. 

Having lived with a captive chestnut-fronted macaw for 23 years, I could immediately see that this was a much, much better way. Perhaps the only way to "keep" any parrot. Free.

I embrace this concept so fully that I had tears rolling down my cheeks for much of the visit, just watching these birds living as they were meant to live. Well, panhandling peanuts isn't quite their natural state, but it's a lot closer than moping on a T-stand,  wings clipped, in somebody's dark living room or den.

Macaws are widely perceived as so valuable that very few people would dare to release them into the garden, much less the sky.

But Don Alvaro relies on their native intelligence and their attachment to the only home they know. And he hopes they will breed, make more macaws, perhaps in time even repopulate some of the area, perhaps La Selva Biological Reserve, which after all isn't too far away.

As a trained observer can see, one pair has already bred. A great green macaw paired with a scarlet, making some lovely hybrid babies--four in one clutch!

You can't tell someone whom to love.  Mama and Papa, likely the birds to the right in the photo below. Great green x scarlet macaw gives you three sunny rainbow babies. And two full-blooded scarlets to the left. So it can happen, and these birds can multiply in this setting.

Even though this pairing was a bio-misfire, it was encouraging to see that macaws could so successfully breed. I hoped hard that some same-species pairs would follow suit. Don Alvaro has huge nest boxes in the trees around the place, also hoping. The world desperately needs more macaws. Everywhere they once were, they are disappearing.

I've seen so many macaws languishing in iron cages, sitting still and mopey, their colors and eyes dull with boredom. Seeing them swooping and bickering and yelling here, their feathers smooth and in jewel-toned perfection, was a tonic I sorely needed. 

Oh, they were saucy and loud. Yet their screams fit this vibrant place, were part of its music. They dissipated into the open sky. Having to hear macaws screaming indoors is nothing but painful. Even if they weren't as intelligent as a two-year-old human, their screams alone should rule them out as appropriate pets. But outdoors? 

 It's music, parrot punk. Macaw emo.

These macaws have found a friend, someone who understands and trusts them.

Who believes in them enough to set them free.

Though he has very little English, and his Spanish was far too rapid for me to understand, Don Alvaro's kindness and love permeates this place. Just being there with him among the birds, all of them rapidly switching places and flapping from tree to tree, changed me forever.

I believe that this is the only way for macaws to live--together, full-flighted, and free.

 If you agree, please consider a small gift for Don Alvaro, that he may continue to provide a beautiful life for these incredible, but so often abused higher beings.

See the DONATE button on the right sidebar of this blog. In the comment box, be sure to specify that it's for the macaws. Thank you so much. I'll take your gift to him (LUCKY ME!!), and I'll be sure to post pictures from our 2015 visit. With your help, I think I'll be able to get a smile out of him this year.  :D

¿Quién es esta mujer, y porqué ella está llorando?

What the Willet Does

Friday, January 23, 2015


I've been busy in Florida, working at the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival. The weather's been sunny and in the 70's. Liam's with me. We're in heaven. 

This afternoon we raced over to Canaveral National Seashore and watched birds. 
I watched a willet looking a little full in the crop. I don't have time to crop or edit these photos, but I wanted to toss them out to you. Maybe someone out there knows what's going on here. 

It began gagging

and it brought up a disorganized bolus

which dropped on the sand. The willet contemplated this

and then began re-ingesting the bolus, bit by bit.

It ate pretty much the entire thing, in little pieces.

I got the feeling that this is something willets do, because I saw another bird do exactly the same thing on down the beach.

Hmm. I wondered if it was like rabbits, who eat the droppings they excrete soon after a meal, and essentially digest the meal twice. Yuck, but it works for rabbits.

 So the next bird I saw doing this, I apologized to and interrupted.  I ran over and picked up the bolus.

And it was made entirely of tiny perfect baby bivalves, pasted together with willet goo. I don't know enough about bivalves to know what they are, but I run their names: coquinas, tellins, clamlets (I made that one up) around in my head.

I would love to know what's going on here. How does a bird crush and digest these things in its gizzard? It would seem to me to take an enormous amount of pressure to crack and extract the meat from such tiny closed bivalves. Does regurgitating them and re-ingesting them somehow help the process? Is it regurgitating the things it found and ingested blindly in deep sand, then coughing them up to pick the real food (clamlets) out and leave the indigestible rocks and sand behind? 
(I kind of like the feel of this theory in my brain). 

 For that matter, how does it find all those perfect baby bivalves? It probes blindly deep in the sand, picking up what it can feel. It must be able to tell a clam from a rock with the tip of its sensitive bill. How?

The willets aren't talking.
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