Reading body language

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Examples of stress, comfort, and ultimate relaxation in great horned owls.

Body language is everything. It tells me when Theo is comfortable with the situation. It also tells me when I have pushed him too far past his comfort zone, potentially deteriorating the trust between us. When it comes to reading these stress signals, owls tend to be very subtle. A kestrel might alarm-call loudly and fly away in a stressful situation, but an owl might stand perfectly still and simply wink one eye. They may rely on blending into the background to avoid confrontations; great horned owls will raise the tufts of feathers on top of their head to enhance their camouflage. They will even hiss and clack their beak if the threat continues. These three responses can be seen in the example photo on the left: winking eye, feather tufts raised, and beak open in a hiss. This is not a happy owl. When I see these signs in a training session with Theo, I listen. I slow down to make him feel more comfortable.

Now contrast that with the owl in the center photo. He is standing comfortably with feather tufts lowered and is watching something in the distance, not the photographer. He is calm and not worried about anything around him. When Theo is not interested in training, he will often turn away and look outside. Ignoring me is one of the biggest signs of trust he can give. One behavior I am still waiting to see with Theo is a stretch, like the one pictured on the right. Stretches and preening are comfort behaviors that can make the bird more vulnerable, so they are only done when it feels extremely safe. When I see Theo reach out a wing and a foot, I’ll know that I’m okay in his book.


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