Aldo and Mollie

Over the past few weeks, Aldo has quickly made friends with the Museum’s Curator Naturalist, Mollie Kreb. We had a bit of a time-crunch when she started in February since I planned to leave two weeks later for a conference in California.

She worked with the birds daily, quickly learning how to prep food, use raptor equipment, and weigh Aldo. Luckily Aldo seemed quite happy to hop on Mollie’s glove and I didn’t doubt that the birds – and Mollie – would be just fine when I was traveling. She will continue working with the birds so they know another familiar face when I’m out of town.

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IAATE Conference

In late February, I checked into the hotel in Redding, California and tracked down the registration table. I received a warm welcome to the International Association of Avian Trainers and Educators (IAATE) annual conference and learned the details of schedules and meals for the 3-day event. And the host added, “feel free to sit in on the end of Steve Martin’s workshop in the ballroom, there’s about an hour left.” My ears perked up because I knew she wasn’t talking about an actor/comedian. This Steve Martin is a well-known bird trainer and leader in the organization. I have read his articles on trust accounts, weight management, and connecting with audiences; I couldn’t wait to hear his presentation.

An hour later, pages of notes were filled and new ideas were already swirling around my head. That trend continued over the next three days as bird trainers from around the world shared their training and education success stories. I came away with ideas to improve our programs and ways to change our birds’ perching, enrichment, and training to make the wildlife program at the Museum more effective. It will take some time to implement any changes, but these ideas should keep me busy for a while!

It was great fun to see and hear about the amazing things trainers are doing with their birds. Some of the highlights included:

  • Conference host Turtle Bay Exploration Park showed off their program animals with a Crested caracara demonstration. This bird was trained to pick out a purple wooden block to demonstrate birds’ color vision:IMG_2333.JPG
  • Educators at the Oregon Zoo found that parrots displayed on natural perches, rather than on the presenter’s hand, had the most impact on the audience’s desire to help wild parrots.
  • Research by the Peregrine Fund shows a slow and steady decline of American Kestrels over the past 50 years. Since 1966, kestrel populations have declined 47%.
  • American Kestrels at the Peregrine Fund and Cascades Raptor Center were trained to hover on cue, a behavior wild kestrels use while hunting. I think Aldo could do this someday!
  • A flock of penguins at SkiDubai (in United Arab Emirates) learned many husbandry behaviors so they can willingly participate in their own health care. They allow nail trims, eye drops, and even x-rays without restraint, making their lives more stress-free.
  • Though not bird-related, one of the highlights of the conference was meeting Timber the Beaver! Born at the Minnesota Zoo, Timber was hand-raised and loves people, as long as you have a tasty biscuit! Turtle Bay Exploration Park offers Timber encounters to the public as a fundraiser.Image may contain: Haley Appleman, smiling, outdoor

I had some time for birding and sight-seeing between conference presentations, and a few days of vacation north of San Francisco. It was my first time in northern California and the landscapes were stunning! Here are a few more photos from my trip:

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Water

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With her confidence growing, Carson has been taking each new step of our training like water off a duck’s back.

Like ducks, all birds have to work to waterproof their feathers. By rubbing their head and beak in an oil gland at the base of the tail, birds spread the water-repelling oil to all of their feathers while preening. Drops of rain will bead on the surface of the feather, rather than sink in, and roll right off. Waterproofing keeps the fluffy down feathers dry underneath and maintains their insulative qualities. The bird stays warm and dry even through heavy showers.

From beak trimming to meeting groups of visitors at the Museum, Carson doesn’t seem to mind. She is still eager for training even after these mild stressors. Just like waterproofing takes some effort to maintain, building our relationship and Carson’s confidence in new situations took time. But we are seeing the rewards now as she takes everything in stride, like water off a hawk’s back.

Rouse

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It is officially one year since I rolled into Cable and presented a raptor program with Aldo and Carson on my first day of work at the Museum. It has been amazing getting to know these birds more closely and see their progress over the last year. Carson the Red-tailed Hawk has come the farthest her training. A year ago, she ran away from me when I got too close with the glove. Today she ran toward me before I was even ready to start. She stepped on my glove (and got a chunk of rat for her effort) and we went outside to get weighed on the scale and enjoy the sun. A chipmunk rummaging through the garden piqued her interest. Every time I moved, she craned her neck to keep her eye on the little rodent, so we stayed outside to take advantage of the free entertainment. Naturalist Intern Bethany even snapped this photo as Carson roused and shook out her feathers to get comfortable. It took time – and a lot of quail, mouse, and rat tidbits – to get to this point, but seeing Carson rouse on glove is all the reward I need to know that the effort was well worth it.

Basking

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Animal training is never a linear line; there are always ups and downs. One day Carson runs to greet me, ready to train. The next day she might ignore me completely and tuck her foot into her belly feathers, telling me she’s not going anywhere. Despite the occasional setback, I was reminded last week that our overall progress is overwhelmingly positive.

When I started working with Carson last July, she ran away from me multiple times before stepping on my glove. She remained uncomfortable when we came outside, often trying to fly away after any noise or sudden movement. I decided to “go back to kindergarten” with her training. We started with basic trust building and slowly reintroduced the glove, this time letting her tell me when she was ready to move to the next step.

We reached a huge breakthrough last week: we finally made it outside. She ran to me when I entered the mew and stepped on my glove right away. She stayed with me as I attached her leash and we stepped out the door. We basked in the sun for a few minutes as Carson calmly looked around the backyard and ate some rat tidbits. Not only was she calm that day, but she decided to do it all over again the next day. I couldn’t be happier or more proud of how far she has come. (I tried to be professional writing this article, but rest assured the original entry in my training log contained a plethora of incoherent exclamation points and smiley faces. 🙂 )

Steps Toward Flight

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To prepare for a training session, I closed the blinds in the classroom and set out a step stool – just in case. I brought Aldo into the room and carefully closed the doors behind me. I removed the metal swivel and leash that normally keep him secure on the glove if he tries to fly away. He needs this level of freedom – in a controlled room like the classroom where he cannot escape or hurt himself – to accomplish his new training goal: to fly!

I let Aldo step onto the perch and take in his surroundings. He has seen the classroom many times before, but he was curious as he looked around the room, his head bobbing up and down. After a moment, I raised the glove to his feet once again. He looked down at it and stepped up with both feet. I bridged and gave him a few mouse tidbits, then set him back on the perch to try again. While not very exciting yet, this is the first step in flight training. I will gradually move the glove farther and farther away so he has to take a big step, then hop, then finally fly to the glove. Eventually, he will fly across the room during raptor programs to demonstrate falcon speed for audiences!

A Big Step for Carson

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I have taken Carson’s training nice and slow. I go at her pace and let her tell me what she is comfortable with. But sometimes I have to take a risk. When Carson was inside last week to escape the cold temperatures outside, I decided to leap ahead in my carefully sequenced training plan to see how she would do in front of a group of people. We have spent months building trust in the mew, but I didn’t know if that comfort level would transfer to the classroom.

I was relieved to have a small group of well-behaved adults for Saturday’s “Talon Talk” program; it would be the perfect audience for Carson’s latest debut. Her first test was coming out of the crate. Just like we had practiced over the previous week, she hesitated at first, looking between the glove and the room outside the crate door. After a moment she set one foot on glove and tested its stability. My hand held her weight without wavering so she peeled the second foot off the perch and placed it on the glove.

Her next challenge was staying calm in front of the audience. I watched her body language out of the corner of my eye. She stood up straight, looking around at each corner of the room, and even took a few mouse tidbits. I was impressed; she didn’t seem concerned about a thing. After a few minutes, I brought her back to the crate while she was still comfortable, completing her portion of the program as a fun, positive experience for both of us.