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Learning something new

As animal care professionals, it is always our responsibility to constantly strive for new information and better ways to take care of the animals we work for. The animal care world is always evolving. As new methods and techniques arise, we share the information through workshops, conferences, papers, etc. I recently had the opportunity to attend Natural Encounters’ very first Bird of Prey Workshop. This workshop focused around bird of prey training and well-being. We were separated into groups, and then within each group, we were assigned a specific bird to work with for the week. We were also allowed to work with birds outside of our direct assignment to get experience we desired. While working with everything from eagles to vultures, hawks and falcons, we focused on relationship-building techniques, working with individuals who have had historical challenges, and novel behaviors.

The bird I worked with was a Harris hawk. This hawk has a history of being uncomfortable around new people. My goal was to build a relationship with him and ask him to kennel by the end of the week. Working with birds has changed a lot over the years. Twenty or so years ago, the go-to method would have just been me going in, grabbing the bird and attaching him to my glove. Now we have learned that building a positive relationship at the bird’s pace makes for a much less stressed and ultimately healthier bird. My first step was to watch the bird’s body language when he saw me. With that, I could establish how close I could get and have him still be comfortable. That’s called threshold. If I saw any leaning away, turning around, head moving quickly looking for somewhere else to go, I knew I was too close. Once I found out where his threshold was, I could pair myself with something he wanted (in this case, a food reward). From that distance, I would toss him some food. If he readily took that food, I would inch a little closer. If he looked as if he was still comfortable, I tossed some more. I worked until I was close enough to ask him to step to my glove and take food from my hand. From there I was able to move on to kenneling him. Again, this is all asking him to do so, rather than “telling” him. I put the crate at the bottom of his habitat and opened the door. As he approached it to check it out, I gave him a food reward. I worked that process until he was readily entering the crate and I could close the door while seeing all the signs that he was comfortable.

Outside of this bird, I and the group also had the opportunity to work with a black vulture learning to do a loop in the air, a pied crow to retrieve a dollar bill, kenneling a tawny eagle and milky eagle owl, step-ups with Bateleur eagle and harpy eagle, flying an aplomado falcon and a fish eagle, as well as have some social time with baby toucans.

This workshop was unlike any I have ever attended. It was highly individualized, which ensured personal growth and development. Also, it was simply a blast! I was able to work with species that have been a dream of mine since starting my career. I can’t wait to apply what I have learned here at Zoo Atlanta and make the lives of our ambassador birds that much better. 
Justin E.
Lead Keeper, Ambassador Animals

Connect With Your Wild Side #onlyzooatl