Animal training – knowing when to take a step back

There are some days when I set out to work with one of the animals, and from the start I can just tell it isn’t going to work. It could be that they aren’t listening, they’re tired or just simply not in the mood for training – for example some days when I go into the aviary, Beaky (my cockatiel) will come over to say hello and will be very cooperative… whereas sometimes I simply get hissed at as he retreats into a corner. Recognising the signs and being able to take a step back for a little while is essential to successful training: to continue to push and ask the animal will only result in frustration, a loss of confidence and a lack of enthusiasm in the next session.

I would like to think that I am respectful of my animals’ feelings, and Rusty’s agility training is always centred around her having a good time. If I introduce a new challenge, I alternate between that and something that she finds fun and easy. If she starts to get tired, I get her to lie down and have a breather. We don’t train for hours on end: I always stop before she loses interest, to keep her keen for the next session.

Recently however we had one training session that really didn’t work out, and I thought that I would share the experience (and my mistakes).

Due to me being so busy, Rusty and I hadn’t practised agility for some time. This had been a recurring theme over the summer, and every time I had brought out the obstacles she had flown around them as if she’d never had a break.

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With this in mind, I set up a new challenge that would really require Rusty to concentrate and listen to me. I wanted (and still want to) teach her to differentiate between obstacles as she is running, so I placed a tunnel and jump side by side so that I could start teaching her to take the one I gave the command for.

Rusty was very excited to see the agility obstacles out again, and I noticed that once I brought a toy into the situation (as I always do – she picks up speed when I have it) she became very wound up, leaping up at me to grab it and not bringing it back straight away after it had been thrown.

To begin with I warmed her up with each obstacle and she did them perfectly. Then I took her through the weaves and then chose either the jump or the tunnel – making sure I was handling her from the side that the selected obstacle was on so that she took the correct one.

The next step was to stand in between the obstacles and call her to one of them (I chose the tunnel more often because she prefers the jump and will always take it if given a choice).

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Until this point things were working well, but it was at this point that I should have recognised that she had already been stretched mentally and would either need a break or something easier to do. Instead, I carried on and began to move further from the obstacles whilst giving the same commands. 

Rusty became very confused and after me asking her a few times she started to become a little demotivated. She was still very focused at this point, watching me carefully to try to figure out what I wanted – but she was still hyper from the excitement of it all.

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I returned to standing in between the obstacles but she was very worked up and would no longer run through the tunnel, instead flinging herself over the jump a couple of times each way!

Again, I should have given her some release here, but I continued to ask and this resulted in Rusty trying to jump over the tunnel, causing her to stumble over. I felt awful about this, but she was up on her feet again and coming back to me as if nothing had happened before I even had chance to do anything.

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I slowed down and asked for her to go through the tunnel one more time (with more of a run up and handling her from the other side to remove the confusion) and she went, earning lots of praise and treats from me.

I then lowered the jump and calmly walked her round an easy route through the obstacles, before calling it a day and taking her for a relaxing walk instead.

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Rusty and I have had some fun with the agility obstacles since this incident and it’s safe to say that she has not lost her enthusiasm for it. When I feel that she is ready, I will reintroduce the concept of differentiating between obstacles and will write about it here! 

This experience definitely taught me a lot – it’s not something that I ever want to repeat but I hope that sharing my mistakes will help other people in their training. Always listen to your animals and don’t go into training sessions with huge expectations – take each achievement as it comes.

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Wildlife Wednesday – Roydon Common fungi

A couple of weeks ago I hopped on my bike and cycled out to Roydon Common – this is a renowned wildlife hotspot that is just a short distance from where I live.

We’ve taken Rusty there a few times, but have always stuck to the same path: this time I headed off on a different route and ended up making quite an adventure out of it! 

Having crossed a few fields, I emerged onto a sandy track and saw the following view…

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At this point I was a bit confused as to where I had ended up and was slightly worried that I was on private land, especially when a land rover came around the corner. Luckily it was just a couple of dog walkers who kindly informed me that I wasn’t trespassing. 

The scenery on the common was quite incredible: everything is covered with a carpet of heather and the land suddenly starts to undulate, creating lots of interesting features. There is also an old watch tower from the war still standing on the common – it was a little eerie in the mist, but definitely helped me keep my bearings as I explored.

I’ve already seen some pretty incredible wildlife whilst walking on Roydon Common, but one particularly fascinating feature is the abundance of fungi. Having photographed each of the different species that I saw, I decided to expand my knowledge and attempt to identify them.

I use the word ‘attempt’ here, because it turned out that it was easier said than done! If anyone sees any mistakes or can identify some of the ones with missing names, I would be really grateful if they would comment below…

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Amanita muscaria – fly agaric

The fly agaric mushroom is highly poisonous and is a hallucinogen. Its name arose as a result of a European tradition where the mushroom was mixed with milk and used to attract and kill flies.

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Macrolepiota procera – parasol mushroom
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Phallus impudicus – common stinkhorn

The common stinkhorn has an incredibly distinctive scent (when I walking on the common I smelt this mushroom long before I spotted it). This attracts insects which then spread the spores of the fungi via their feet.

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Stropharia hornemannii – conifer roundhead mushroom

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Flammulina velutipes – velvet shank

Thank you for reading today’s post on Wild Call – stay tuned for more! In the meantime you can find me on YouTube using the link in the menu above, and on Instagram (@ wildcallblog).

Wildlife Wednesday – grass snakes

(This is an attempt to revive my ‘Wildlife Wednesday’ series – I can’t guarantee that this will be a regular thing but I will try my best!)

We have three compost heaps in our garden – one that is currently being loaded with waste vegetables and plant material from mum’s flower garden, one that is being left to compost as I write this, and one that is ready to be unloaded.

Dad began to move the compost from the third heap a few days ago, but he soon discovered that just below the surface there were lots and lots of tiny snakes.

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Initially my parents were worried that they were adders (Britain’s only venomous snake) but the yellow band around the back of their heads gave them away as grass snakes. Adders have much darker markings along their bodies as well, whereas grass snakes tend to be more of a brown-green colour. (Side note: I got into a lot of trouble when I was sixteen for picking up an adult adder when I was out walking my dog… I probably wouldn’t do it now as I know how harmful the bite could be, but at the time I just thought everyone was overreacting!)

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Once I had a day off work, I headed down to the compost heap and turned some of it over in the hope that I might find some snakes. I wasn’t disappointed – there must have been hundreds of them in there altogether as they weren’t difficult to find at all.

These grass snakes couldn’t have been more than a couple of days old, as I also found lots of clusters of empty eggs. Due to the rotting vegetation a lot of heat can build up in the centre of compost heaps, which is why they are an ideal location for female grass snakes to lay their eggs as they will remain warm for the eight-week period until they hatch.

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The young shed their skin shortly after hatching – it is easy to tell when this is going to occur because the skin around the eyes becomes looser, causing the eyes to turn a milky blue colour.

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The majority of the snakes that hatched in our garden will have moved on by now: some will still be amongst the long grass in our woodland but they will be forced to spread out as there are not enough resources to support them all in that one area. Unfortunately, I have already found a couple of dead ones out on the road but I am hoping that some made it across safely and have now found a new home in the fields and hedgerows beyond.

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(Once fully grown, female adult grass snakes can reach 80cm in length, whereas males are slightly smaller at approximately 65cm).

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I find snakes incredibly fascinating to watch. Along with birds, they are among my favourite animals and I could see myself becoming more involved with them in the future.

The way that they move is particularly interesting for me: there is a variety of ways in which snakes travel, but grass snakes use ‘sidewinding’ and ‘lateral undulation’ more than anything else.

Lateral undulation makes use of the changing ground and obstructions – for example rocks or tree trunks – so that the snake can keep its forward momentum.

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Sidewinding is generally used when there are fewer irregularities in the ground; the snake lies at an angle to the direction of movement, which creates a better grip for it to be able to continue pulling itself forward.

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UK grass snake populations are not endangered, however the species is protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act so that people cannot harm or trade them without a license. I was pleased to discover this, as in my opinion our species should be protected even if they are at risk: species only become threatened due to the repercussions of our own actions and I believe that we should try to accommodate for their needs and protect their populations instead of simply destroying anything that stands in the way of our plans and livelihoods. Everything in the ecosystem is there for a reason and removing it for our benefit will usually result in an imbalance that then has some kind of negative impact on us anyway.

Thank you for reading today’s post on Wild Call 🙂

Wildlife Wednesday – our resident woodpeckers!

We have continued to fill up the bird feeders over the past couple of months, and the changing weather has brought with it a greater variety of garden visitors including coal tits, chaffinches and greenfinches.

However, the real star of the show has captured everyone’s attention: it seems to be fond of peanuts and is usually seen in the mornings and early evenings, although it is around all day and we can hear it calling from the ash trees over on the other side of the garden. ‘It’ is the great spotted woodpecker.

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Since its arrival a few weeks ago, I have been trying to capture the woodpecker on camera. To begin with I had no success at all, despite leaving the GoPro out for an hour at a time in the mornings. I managed to take some video from inside the house, but it was quite far away and these birds are too shy to come and feed while people are sitting nearby outside.

Eventually last week I managed to get a short piece of footage of a male woodpecker sat on top of the bird feeding station… however then I really got a surprise, because he had brought with him a juvenile bird!

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Although this species isn’t at risk, it is still great news that they are breeding in our area: I am hoping that we might be able to encourage its less common counterparts – the lesser spotted woodpecker and the green woodpecker – into our garden.

Size 23cm
Diet Insects, larvae, seeds, nuts, tree sap vegetable material – will also take eggs and young birds during the breeding season
Population (UK) 140, 000 pairs
Breeding Between 5-7 eggs which hatch after 12 days, young fledge at 20 days old and remain with parents for 7 days

 

Identifying these birds is pretty easy – if you are lucky enough to have a full view of one then it is a pretty distinctive species. It can be confused with the lesser spotted woodpecker (this was my initial thought upon seeing one in our garden for the first time) however having since gone away and read up on them I have realised that there are actually numerous differences between the two, including the fact that the lesser spotted woodpecker has a red poll and has much less contrast between the white and black feathers on its wings.

However, the juvenile great spotted woodpecker does have a red poll and is overall much duller in colour than the adult birds, so this may lead to some confusion unless an adult bird is nearby to the youngster.

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Distinguishing between the male and female great spotted woodpeckers is made very simple by the fact that the male has a red stripe on the back of the neck whereas the female does not.

When there is not a clear view of the bird or you do not have binoculars to hand, it can be a little more difficult to identify the exact species. The fact that it is some kind of woodpecker should be fairly obvious from the way it hops up the trunk of a tree (these birds have particularly stiff tail feathers to aid them in this – if you look closely you will see that the tail is actually pressed onto the tree as the bird moves) and from its characteristic undulating flight.

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The call of this bird is also easy to pick out once you know what you are listening for (I am struggling to learn different bird songs, but the call of the woodpeckers has really stuck with me). It is a loud, singular ‘tick’… that description doesn’t do it much justice, but you can easily find recordings of it on the internet if you are curious!

This species does have more to it than simply brightening up the bird feeders each day: it actually has some very interesting adaptations which I thought I would mention (information courtesy of the books listed at the end of this blog post).

Woodpeckers are probably best known for how they create their nests (by chiselling a hole in a tree trunk). The force required from their beaks to be able to achieve this could potentially be damaging, so the bones and muscles in their heads have evolved specifically to protect them from this – for example layers of spongy tissue ensure that the brain is well guarded.

In winter when food supplies are scarce, great spotted woodpeckers will feed on tree sap, using their long tongues that can reach up to 4cm away from their beaks. In addition to this they will wedge pine cones into small gaps so that they can remove the kernels, and will use branches to crack open nuts and seeds.

I think that in the process of writing this blog post I have discovered another of my favourite bird species… although maybe I would find all of them as fascinating if I discovered more about them!

 

Sources used in this blog post:

The RSPB Book of British Birds

Collins Wild Guide: Birds

Collins Nature Guide: Birds of Britain and Europe

The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Birds