Steve Martin: Training Birds with Trust Accounts

Kroger Birds of the World Show at the State Fair of Texas

I love hearing Steve Martin speak. (the bird trainer, not the actor!) He was one of my favorite speakers at the 2009 Art and Science of Animal Training conference and I enjoyed his talk at this year’s conference just as much. These are a few of my thoughts from his talk.

Steve Martin is a bird trainer. Specifically, he works mainly with free flight bird shows. Free flight bird training is a lot like training a dog, horse or dolphin. A good trainer has to understand about positive reinforcement, stimulus control, shaping, cues, etc. Here’s a big difference–at any point your trainee can take to the wind and fly away. (Of course, a dog or horse can run away just as well, but we employ lots of solutions to prevent this, fences, leashes, lead ropes and the like.)

Most bird shows keep their birds hungry. They keep the birds below their natural weight so that the birds are eager performers and willing to quickly come back for any bit of food. Steve Martin’s bird shows fly their birds at or above their natural weight. By manipulating the environment and when food is available, he is able to keep his birds motivated and happy, without having them in a constant state of hunger. And his birds perform amazingly. For instance, at the State Fair of Texas Birds of the World show, part of the show involves releasing a bird from a top car of the Texas Star ferris wheel. The bird swoops down from the car, flies across the park and lands on the show’s stage. (Pretty impressive, especially considering that the Texas Star, at 65 meters, is the largest Ferris wheel in the Western Hemisphere.)

Texas Star Ferris Wheel at Fair Park

Part of Steve Martin’s talk focused on building trust accounts with our animals. A trust account is like a bank account, when we’re training with positive reinforcement or doing things the animal likes, we’re making deposits into that trust account. When we’re using aversives and punishers or doing things the animal doesn’t like, we’re making withdrawals from that trust account. If we have a large, positive balance in our trust account we’re going to have willing, eager animals that want to be around us.

One interesting point that Steve Martin made was that sometimes we don’t recognize when we’re making withdrawals from the trust accounts we have with our animals. I think this is a really important point to consider, especially when training isn’t going as smoothly as we would like. Just because we think a request is reasonable or just because we think an animal should be okay with something, doesn’t mean the animal feels the same way! Even when we’re clicker training or attempting to train with mostly positive reinforcement, there are still plenty of opportunities for our animals to get frustrated, annoyed or scared.

A good trainer is able to give the animal power over their environment. This builds confidence and trust. We can do this by taking responsibility for what the animal does and giving the animal the right to say no. When things go wrong, it can be really, really easy to blame it on the animal. The animal is being stubborn, hard-headed, a jerk, pushing your buttons, messing with your mind, trying to annoy you, the list of labels goes on and on.

The classic example is the horse who can’t be caught. The rider usually ends up annoyed and frustrated at the horse, who is being “bad.” The rider usually doesn’t stop to think that maybe there have been one too many withdrawals and the horse wants nothing to do with the rider. Of course, it’s easier to blame the animal. It’s pretty humbling to admit that an animal actually wants absolutely nothing to do with you.

However, when our animals misbehave, they’re trying to tell us something! It would be good of us to listen to what they have to say.

Good training is about communication, confidence and motivation. The animal must clearly understand what we’re asking, believe he is able to perform the request and be properly motivated to complete the task. When we build up that trust account, we create a willing partnership with our animals. Do you have a bright-eyed, enthusiastic animal who gets excited about training? Or do you need to reevaluate the balance in your trust account and what’s motivating your animal?

If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy the rest of my notes from the 2010 Art and Science of Animal Training Conference or my notes from the 2009 conference. Better yet, bookmark the ORCA website and come to the 2011 conference next spring! Sign up for e-mail updates to make sure you don’t miss any of the great posts from

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