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Contrary to common knowledge predatory animals don’t eat the sick and old, but like the old lady at the grocery store are very picky about what they choose. Steve Layman lives with wild animals and especially birds of prey, and he speaks from personal experience when he says predators only eat poor quality food when they can’t find something better. When they have killed an animal and discovered that it was sick they will abandon it and search for a better meal. Only if they can find nothing better will they return to an inferior animal.

A goshawk being displayed during a lecture

Steve Layman holding his goshawk during a lecture in Father Luke’s Room at McMenamins, in Bend, Oregon

He mentioned that it’s the females who do the mate selection, with goshawks. It’s the same old story, the boys chase and the girls choose the best from what’s available. He implied that this was true of most species including humans.

There are a couple of millennia of hawking traditions, and considerable lore about how to train birds of prey, but with his experience with operant conditioning derived from his own experiments Layman can get his birds to do hunting activities even while flying over a crowd of a hundred humans in a large room. That would be very distracting for a bird, but it was able to follow commands even in that situation, such as fly this way or that and fly to some height, high or low. This was all done with visual and aural commands.

One of his training techniques was to get this normally predatory bird to consider Layman as non-threatening. It’s a problem because wild birds are naturally afraid of humans, so how do you train them to come to your leather-covered arm on command. It is done by convincing the bird that you are afraid of him, with conditioning. The bird on a line is brought closer to your face, which would normally terrify the bird, but when he makes an aggressive behavior you jump back and give him a food pellet. It takes a while, but after a while the bird feels he is in control, his fear goes away, and then he will learn to come on command. Layman said he was training emotion and not behavior.

It is wonderful listening to someone talk about a subject he really knows and on which he is doing experimental research. It makes for a far deeper moment than hearing someone lecturing on book learning, because in this situation there is an attitude of exploring, and a willingness to live in the moment of not knowing quite what’s going to happen in the next moment. Thus everyone pays close attention and a deeper relationship unfolds.