Friday, June 6, 2008

Taming Birds & Animals

written April 11, 2007

I have always been interested in birds and animals, especially dogs, and I have tried to understand them from a very young age. I still remember reading Konrad Lorenz’s “King Solomon’s Ring” and “Man Meets Dog” and marvelling at his knowledge of animal and bird behavior. Those who have not read these books and who wish to understand why and how animals and birds behave the way they do will profit from reading them. I tried hard to learn from books such as these and to apply what I learnt. With some thought, experience and helping minds along the way, I acquired some understanding of why birds and animals behave as they do and I was able to apply what I learnt from time to time.

Let me tell you the story of how I came to own Timo von der Kieffershack. He was one of the most desirable German Shepherd Dogs in Singapore about 20 years ago.

My favourite species of dog has always been the German Shepherd. Not those that were bred in England and known as Alsatians but those from Germany. The difference is that the Alsatians had been bred solely on the English concept of beauty without much heed for function whereas the Germans had bred their German Shepherds on the principle that form follows function. In other words, if an animal is bred for an intended purpose, its form or structure will naturally conform to the requirements of what it is intended to do. This is something that I have borne in mind and tried to apply in my own program of breeding shamas.

Coming back to the story - someone whom I did not know well 20 years ago (but who subsequently became a great friend) had a German Shepherd that had originally been imported from Germany. It was a lovely animal, strong and with a firm temperament, exactly the type that I like in my dogs and birds. The owner was moving to a new home and it was not feasible for him to continue to have the dog. I came to know that he was looking for a good home for it and I offered to buy it. The owner did not want or need money and he would not sell it. Instead, he invited those who were interested in the dog (including me) to visit his home.

I remember that we congregated there on a Saturday afternoon when he told us that he had decided to give the dog to the person who interacted best with it. He informed us that it had been trained by professional trainers as an attack dog and he was concerned that the new owner might not be able to control the dog and it might cause harm. I was also told by my close friend, Kenneth Wee, who was my sifu in German Shepherd Dogs, that the trainers had used an extreme form of the “good guy, bad guy” method of training the dog. In this method (which I dislike in its extreme form) the dog’s handler is the good guy while the bad guy is the “stranger”. Whilst the dog is on the leash, the bad guy will approach it and hit it with a cane without warning. The effect of this type of training is that the dog becomes very alert, defensive and wary of strangers.

The dog was attached to its kennel by a long chain. It was lying on the floor with its feet under it in a somewhat crouching position, watching us. No barks, no growls, just watching us intently. We were invited to take turns to try to make friends with it. The first volunteer approached the dog directly but backed away when it stared at him with unflinching eyes. He said that he could sense that he would be committing suicide if he approached further. The second person approached the dog in exactly the same manner and he also turned back when the dog fixed his stare on him.

And so my turn came. I knew enough about dogs to realise that if I approached him the way the others had done, I would meet with as little success as they had. I decided that I would need to use a different approach. I felt, from what I had heard of the manner in which he had been trained, that he needed and would welcome a friend. With this in mind, I walked to the side opposite him in an unhurried and calm manner. He turned his head to follow my movements but he did not rise. I sat on the floor within his reach if he chose to approach me and, looking at him, called in a friendly and non-threatening voice, “Timo, come”. He looked at me but it was not the fixed look that he had given to the 2 persons earlier.

I was encouraged. I again called to him, more firmly this time, “Timo, come”. He got up and walked towards me until he was in front of me with his mouth and teeth at the level of my face. I looked into his eyes and saw that they were non-threatening. The message that he conveyed with his relaxed body was also non-threatening. Trying not to seem concerned, I stretched out one hand and scratched him just below his ear. He seemed to like this and I did it for a while. I wondered if I should stand and decided against it because of the possibility that Timo might interpret this as a threatening gesture.

After some time, I stopped scratching him and he walked back to where he had originally been and lay down. I could then safely get up and I did so with relief. This was how I came to be the owner of Timo von der Kieffershack. He was with me for many, many years until old age caught up with him as it will eventually with all of us.

The above story illustrates that if we want to gain the trust of any animal or bird we need to understand something of what makes it what it is and what is needed to tame it. I believe that almost any bird or animal can be tamed to a greater or lesser degree (depending on the intelligence and psychological makeup of the species) with sufficient understanding and patience.

I was recently told by someone that he had kept a wild-caught shama for 4 months and it remained as wild as the day he got it. I did not find this surprising as I knew the manner in which he had kept the bird. It was kept in a cage that was hung high and the cage was only brought down once a day, when the bird bathed, the cage was cleaned and food was placed in its cage. Other than this, the bird had little or no contact with people. It was no wonder that the bird remained wild.

To tame a bird means to get it used to the presence of people and to have its cage handled to the extent at least that it ceases to regard people as a threat. This necessarily means that the bird must have contact with people but not so much, especially in the initial stages, that it feels under constant threat. When this happens, the bird is unduly stressed and its body releases adrenaline all the time to make it want to flee from the threat but it is unable to do so because of the confines of the cage. Taming a bird, therefore, requires a balance to be struck between the need to get the bird used to the presence of people and not stressing it too much. I have mentioned elsewhere that I use the ‘controlled, minimum stress’ method to train wild birds.

This method requires that any stress to the bird is always minor and of short duration. If the bird is very wild, the cage should be covered with a cloth which should initially have only a small opening. As the bird gets tamer, the opening can be made larger until the cloth is completely removed.

Last Saturday, my friend William Kwa brought to my home a wild-caught bird. It had been kept for some time and I suppose it was not as wild as when it was caught. It was nevertheless quite wild and would fly about the cage if it was handled. If it was left alone, it would sing a few notes of its loud song. I assessed the bird as wild but not so wild that I would need to cover the cage with a cloth.

I decided to name the bird “Fearless”. He is fearless as, although he was stressed when his cage was handled, he would sing his loud song shortly after his cage was hung. I also saw, or rather heard, that he is one of the most powerful birds that I had come across. Michael’s Bishan Champion was similarly powerful. Every time he flapped his wings, you could hear the “voom” from the rapidly compressed and released air. I would not refer to his structure as perfect but I might be prepared to live with his physical shortcomings if his character and display turn out as I expect. He has tails that were measured at 10”. Bearing in mind that he was reportedly from Grik, tails of this length are acceptable to me.

I placed his cage in the walkway leading from the dining room to the kitchen. The cage was hung so that the perch was just above my eyes. It was not covered with a cloth.

The bird remains on its perch if people pass the cage without touching it. To tame the bird quickly, I requested my family to touch the cage occasionally when they pass it. Also, when they could they should provide it with a white mealworm or other tid-bit. By this means the bird would learn to associate human contact with something good.

It’s been 4 days since Fearless entered my home and I can already discern that he is tamer than he was initially. I expect that by the end of 2 weeks, he should be sufficiently tame to remain on his perch when I carry his cage.

In the mornings and evenings, I hang his cage in the garden. He had been fed a diet of chicken pellets and I changed it to live food as I usually do with new birds to get them strong. His condition is already improving as I saw a little of his display this evening. I expect that after one molt, he should be a top competition bird. Time will tell.


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