Reinforcing Foraging

Jan 2, 2022

This article sets out the steps the author used to train Cricket, the lone quail, to step on the scale for weighing, and how she later applied the same protocol for training chickens and roosters

As a certified parrot behavior consultant trainer, I have had the opportunity over the years to train many different companion birds, ranging from budgies to yellow streak lorikeets. So when the chance to train a quail came up, I could not say no.

Quail Surrender to Rescue

My local rescue contacted me one day to say they had a single male coturnix quail surrender. They did not have any other quails at the time and Cricket had been at the rescue for a while. The rescue staff asked me if I could do some training videos with him so they could use the videos to try to get him adopted.

Cricket was 2 years old when I first met him. Many people keep domestic quails for their eggs, but on occasion they keep them as pets too.

Ideally, a male quail should be with one or more female quails (so they have the job of protecting the flock), but as Cricket was a lone quail, the rescue staff were concerned that aggression or other problem behaviors might occur.

Settling In

The rescue staff recommended setting up a rabbit cage with food, water, and straw for Cricket’s stay in my home. As he started settling in, however, he became very skittish. To help him feel more secure, I added some brush to his enclosure, which gave him a place to hide and rest.

Weight Training

#1: Finding Foraging Items:

I started off by trying to find out what Cricket’s favorite food item was. I would put several different food items in his food bowl, such as chicken feed, millet, mealworms (live and dehydrated) and chopped vegetables. This way, I quickly learned what he enjoyed eating and which items were kicked to the side (literally).

After a week, I learned Cricket’s favorite food items were millet and mealworms (these were the first items eaten from the food bowl), so I started hiding pieces of millet and mealworms in his straw to encourage foraging behavior.

After a month, I was able to hide his day-to-day food in the straw as well, to continue giving him opportunities to forage.

Then, to encourage even more foraging, I upgraded Cricket’s rabbit cage to a much larger 5ft x 5ft enclosure. I continued to hide his daily food in the new brush I had place in the larger area, or under dandelion greens.

Cricket seemed happy with the new arrangement and was always searching for food (and those mealworms).

#2: Mat Training:

Cricket preferred to search for food than eat the food in his food bowl, so my next step was to introduce a foraging mat (i.e. a dog snuffle mat). I placed the snuffle mat into Cricket’s enclosure and hid his daily and mealworms in it. It did not take him long at all to start investigating.

I continued to his hide food and mealworms in the snuffle mat. Additionally, I moved the mat around the enclosure as well as outside.

After about a week, I would constantly see Cricket standing on top of the mat. Once in a while, I would also see him sitting on top of the mat crowing.

#3: Adding the Scale:

Once I could move the foraging mat anywhere and Cricket would follow to forage, my next step was to start the weight training. I placed (hid) the scale under the mat, and continued with hiding mealworms and millet in the it.

Once I started seeing Cricket get up onto the foraging mat more and more with the scale underneath, I was able to set the scale and start weighing him.

There was no force, stress, or coercion. All I did was to consistently use the foraging mat as a reinforcing place to be. And as the mat was so reinforced, I could weigh Cricket anywhere.

Epilogue

This small incremental training only took a couple of months. I also learned that quails love sand baths so I also used these as a reinforcer to train recall and for going in and out of the cage. In the video, Cricket Quail – Calm Behavior, you can see how I worked on training calm behavior when Cricket was going into his sand box.

Very sadly, Cricket passed away before he could go up for adoption but he will always be dearly remembered.

Later on, I was able to use the lessons I had learned from working with Cricket in another training opportunity, this time with roosters and chickens. In this instance, I also started with mat training for weighing, but I had a little fun with it too and created mat races for the roosters/chickens.

You can see in the video Rooster Mat Race Training how I worked on training the birds to target to a mat. This was the first official Rooster-Chicken Mat Races!

References

 

Sheila Blanchette is an IAABC certified parrot behavior consultant/ trainer who has operated her own companion bird training company, Heart of Feathers Education & Training, in Haverhill, Massachusetts since 2015. She conducts in-home and online companion bird behavior consultations. Her love for birds began when she received her first red lory in 1995 and she joined the American Lory Society. She began volunteering at the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and formulating her desire to improve the understanding and welfare of companion birds. She then began her study of avian behavior and applied behavior analysis and started reaching out to animal rescues in the New England to offer assistance with companion bird education and review companion bird cases. In 2017, she was named chair of the Quaker Parakeet Society Rehome and Placement Program, which includes coordinating the surrender and adoption of Quaker parakeets throughout the U.S., organizing and educating volunteers, and facilitating the foster program.