Target Training with LA – the beginning.

by Nathan Thoele, 
Environmental Educator

What are you doing? I’m convincing this black vulture that right now, in this moment, in this context, there is nothing in the world more important than touching this ball with her beak. I’m building up my relationship with her by reminding her that, when I’m around with my trusty tennis-ball-on-a-stick, she gets food. Los Angeles (LA) is a black vulture and this tennis ball is her target.

‘Targeting’ is the behavior of touching an object with a part of your body. You ‘target’ when someone holds their hand out for you to shake. LA targets when I hold a tennis ball out for her to touch. The thing with black vultures is, though, that you can’t just tell them to put their beak to the ball. You have to shape the behavior with them.

Positive reinforcement is the behavior shaping technique I like to use. In short, positive reinforcement is the act of adding something pleasant to the trainee’s environment as a consequence of their performing the behavior the trainer wants – poking a ball. In practice, it’s the act of giving the vulture a piece of food for poking the ball. 

This method helps me build a nice relationship with LA and helps me inform her that she’s done something right, something she wants to do again.


“Even once the behavior is established,
a trainee may find other activities more interesting.”

The first step I took in target-training LA was to find what her motivation is. That shouldn’t be hard. She’s a vulture. She loves to eat meat in large quantities, right? Well… I found that she doesn’t like mice all that much. Or rats. Or rabbit. Chicken is okay. Quail is alright. Insects are useless. Organs. Loves organs – slimy and mushy organs. That is her favorite meat. Now we can continue.

After finding her motivation, I found myself in her mew, tennis-ball-stick in one hand, clump of organ meat in the other. She wasn’t about to poke that ball for no reason, so I took it upon myself to poke her with it first. It’s okay, it was a gentle poke and she immediately got a juicy clump of organ meat for it. I did it again. She got more food. Again. More food. Was that drool coming from her beak? This next time, I held the ball a few inches from her face. After a few seconds, she leaned forward and poked it.


I cued her to the ball again, this time a few inches farther away. Reluctantly, she stretched her neck as far as she could without moving either of her feet and poked it. Once again, she was promptly rewarded. I cued again, farther still. Now she had to step toward the ball. Then again, two steps. Again, three steps. Each time she poked the ball she got a piece of meat. By the end of ten minutes, she was chasing the ball all around her mew. 

“Because LA is so quick and sloppy in her eating, it’s easier for me to hide
the food in my hand and let her fish it out with her beak.”

Thus concluded the first session of target-training with LA. The future holds many more similar sessions but with more activity. Using a tennis ball, I will be able to train her to step onto a scale for her daily weighing, walk into a crate, participate in natural history programs at VINS, and explore new places. I suspect it won’t always go so quickly as it did in this first session, but that’s half the fun of it all. While she learns, so do I.

Stay tuned for future blog posts on Nathan and LA…

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