Raptors spend a lot of time on their feet. If they’re not flying or incubating eggs, they’re standing on a perch. It makes sense, then, that we need to make sure our birds in captivity have comfortable perches. Perches need to be the right size to fit the bird’s feet and have a variety of textures, but maintenance is an ongoing project as they wear down. Rope wrapped around a 2×4 needs to be re-wrapped when it becomes smooth or loose. The rougher Astroturf gets replaced when many of the plastic tines break off. And sometimes the whole perch needs to be replaced. We recently had help from a chainsaw to cut new natural stumps for each mew. The birds certainly appreciate having a new perch, especially one where they usually find their food!
Aldo, our American Kestrel, has been very busy preening. Even in front of a group, he will tuck his head behind his wing to organize his fluffy down or twist his tail forward and pull his beak along the length of each feather. Birds preen constantly to keep their feathers “zipped” together so they remain strong for flight, stay waterproof, and keep the bird warm. Aldo will also do a good imitation of a dog shaking off after a dip in the lake when he shakes out all of his feathers. Instead of water spraying everywhere, a cloud of white dust puffs around him. This is an indication that he is going through a molt, or the annual dropping and regrowth of all his feathers. New feathers are protected by a thin, waxy sheath as they grow to prevent breakage. This sheath will eventually be pulled off by the bird while preening or it can break down on its own. These crumbled bits of sheath get stuck in the layers of feathers until he gives a good shake to send them flying. Occasionally a little downy feather pops out, too, and is carried away with the breeze.
Birds can be picky eaters just like some humans you probably know. Food preferences vary by species and the individual bird. Falcons, for example, are built for speed so they are great at catching fast prey, like other birds. Aldo, our American kestrel, doesn’t follow the falcon trend, however. He often leaves pieces of quail or chicks leftover, preferring to indulge himself on mouse day. Carson (red-tailed hawk) has similar preferences during training sessions. She moves slowly when she finds out quail is on the menu, but nearly falls off the perch reaching for a bit of mouse or rat. That’s not surprising since she would focus on small mammals if she were in the wild. Other birds are easier to please. Great horned owls are beasts: known as “tigers of the night,” they will eat anything they can get their talons on. Theo (great horned owl) is happy to take any piece of food we offer.
When I first met Carson (our red-tailed hawk), I raised my leather handling glove to her feet and she hopped away to the other side of the mew. That’s one of the unique challenges of a living collection: the bird can choose whether she wants to participate or not. Carson was telling me that she was not comfortable stepping on my glove and immediately the gears in my training brain started turning. Why did she avoid my glove? How can I make the glove a positive place? Operant conditioning, positive reinforcement, bridging, and shaping discussed at length in my books and papers on animal training hold most of the answers to these questions. I decided to start from a different place, however. I’ve found that for all of these technical theories to work, you need one simple thing: two-way communication. I was already listening to Carson’s body language, which told me I needed to back up in our training. I also need to be consistent with my actions so she knows what to expect. If she steps on the glove, I give her a piece of food; if she does not step on glove, I leave the mew along with her opportunity to earn treats. When I am consistent and respect her body language, she gains the power to control the outcomes and will work harder to earn the positive ones. We established a training station, a specific perch where we train. This allows her to choose if she wants to participate in the training session. Training with respect to the bird’s comfort level may take longer than other methods, but it is less stressful for the bird and we will build a strong relationship.