This past week Zoospensefull did some consultation work in a collection in Belgium. The team have a goal of flying their birds of prey without the use of jesses, a great way to raise the welfare of these animals to an even higher standard.

More and more zoos and smaller collections are making the transition to flying their birds without jesses. I’m sure there are many collections that would like to make the move but are unsure where to start. In this article we will share with you the tips and tricks of how we created the programme currently being used at Kolmården Wildlife Park. 

Motivation Strategy

The trainers use a big amount of variety in their reinforcers. Even gelatine is used for the birds to keep their motivation very high!

We started with the idea of trying to communicate to the birds that, ‘when you do something, well you will get something’. Our next step was to identify what that ‘something’ would be. We listed all the reinforcers we had available to us and that fit in with the birds dietary requirements. At this point the list this was based on the food we already gave to the birds. The question became, how much variation can we create with what we have. Different body parts of a mice, chicken or quail, we could give them half or whole body parts one item or a mixture of each. We made sure that we would bring everything with us at all times. This way we would be ready with the appropriate reinforcement if the bird showed us something extraordinary. The variety became our motivation strategy and helped us to motivate the birds to not fly off, in a forest this is sometimes a challenge.

From Baiting to Reinforcing Behaviour 

One of the biggest differences we made was to take away or minimise baiting completely. We saw a huge change in our birds when we just reinforced them when they preformed the correct behaviour. We also became a lot more clear with our instructions and if a bird wasn’t sent but still flew than no attention or reinforcement would be given. We taught the birds, you need to do something to get something. A small change with a huge impact on the learning curve for the birds. 

Baiting is a common practise with birds of prey.
Reinforcement can start when the animal has responded to a given signal.

Terminal Bridge

We added a bridge in our training system, a whistle that would tell the bird good job and reinforcement will be coming. This gave us a head start for medical behaviours we wanted to train with the birds. Small movements were recognised by the trainer and the whistle would be blown. 

Behaviours We Need

We had to review all the behaviours we used in the presentation and in a variety of situations. We applied clear start of sessions signals, stationing before we start, follow, and we reviewed our A-Bs. We made sure that every trainer understood the criteria when asking for a behaviour. In some cases we had to retrain our birds for some foundation behaviours. We looked into what is necessary for each individual and where each individual was. We reviewed the programme on a weekly base to see if we were progressing. 

Emergency Recall

To manage the instances of birds flying off we decided that training a transport box would be important. The transport box was being conditioned for each individual already, but it was decided that the birds had to see this box as the best and most reinforcing behaviour. We started to think about the signal and the trainers came up with showing the transport box and putting it on something (didn’t matter what) would give them the security of calling their animals back. In this moment the motivation technique is very important, we wanted to communicate to the bird that recalling to the box is better than anything currently happening for you right now. A couple months ago this was tested when a falcon “Mary” flew off. The trainers found her near the hotel and before they had time to put the box somewhere she was already down and ready to get in.

Adding a Transponder

Another change that was made is the transponders. We used to have them attached to the jesses but we weren’t able to do this anymore. The trainers did their research and decided that a backpack would work. The trainers trained this behaviour and now we have a couple of animals successful having the backpacks. 

Backwards Shaping or Chaining

To get the birds fly from A-B we used a strategy called backwards shaping or chaining is where we start at the end and work our way to the start of the behaviour. This gave the birds an understanding of what we want way faster then we thought. The history of a behaviour is stronger when working it backwards. The steps are repeated in such a way that it is easier for the birds to understand what we want and therefore the history of the behaviour will be a lot stronger.


To get the birds used to the presentations and other situations we started to use desensitisation as a concept. This meant that we did sessions where we made a lot of noises and movements with different objects which helped us having calmer animals in new presented situations. Working this way is a necessity for a successful programme.

Training the Trainers

Each of these techniques come with their own challenges. Even though the system looked simple and easy to implement we had to pass this knowledge to the whole team. The team does have some incredible experienced bird trainers that had a specific goal. This goal was free flying without traditional equipment and they were passionate about reaching this goal. This made everything a lot easier. 


The video below shows a how the training has worked. In the top corner 2 trainers walk onto the show area. The 2nd trainer loses her bird and it flies to a station where another trainer is present. This trainer completely ignores the bird and the bird flies back to the original trainer. Later on in the video the trainer sends the bird to the trainer It flew to at the beginning to show that the bird can only go on signal. This shows us that the hawk understands the system. When you are correct you get reinforced and when you are incorrect you get ignored. When the animal then chooses to fly back to where it came from it confirms to us that the birds understand what we want from them.

Any questions about training birds? Send us an email or join our Facebook group. Zoospensefull is an international animal training and behaviour consultancy, for more information or to book Zoospensefull, please contact us at or visit our website 

Categories: Trainer Talk


Peter is a passionate Animal Consultant that beside teaching you about Operant Conditioning makes sure you will go home motivated and inspired. Make sure you read his Bio!


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