Thursday, May 12
I’m a recent addition at Zoo Atlanta and have been a Seasonal Keeper with Birds and Program Animals at the World of Wild Theater for the last month. I worked mostly with dogs prior to joining the Zoo, so this has been a bit of an adjustment. Fortunately, I have a background in animal training, so everything isn’t completely foreign to me. It has been interesting seeing training methods that I’ve used with dogs be applied to our feathered friends. I find myself regularly comparing and contrasting my prior experience with dogs to my new adventure in bird training.
Even though none of the birds are domestic, they can be trained using similar methods as pet dogs. Keepers at the World of Wild Theater use only reward-based training methods so the birds have a choice in whether or not they will participate in training sessions or shows. The birds quickly learn that they will be rewarded for their efforts, so they’re quite motivated to participate. I’m sure you already know what we use to reward the birds since it’s the same as what you often use with your dogs at home — food!
The food we use for our birds probably looks a little different from the hotdogs, cheese, and treats you use when training your dogs since all of the food for training is part of the species-appropriate diets that we prepare each morning. Our owls, vulture, falcon, hawks, kookaburra, and hornbill are offered a variety of meats (mice, rats, fish and chicken) while the toucan is offered pellets and fruit and the parrots are offered parrot chow, seeds, fruit and nuts. These birds have favorite food items just like your dogs! As the keepers have gotten to know the birds, they’ve learned what foods they most enjoy and include plenty of those favorite food items in their daily diets.
Most of the food that we prepare is used for rewards since all of our “working” animals — the ones actively training to participate in shows and encounters — have multiple training opportunities throughout the day. We start each morning by weighing every bird and they are rewarded for going to the scale and standing still enough for us to get an accurate weight. Once we know their weight, we can compare that to their target weight and decide how much food they will be offered for the day. We want our birds to be as close to that target weight as possible, because an over or underfed bird will not be as willing to work with us. We don’t have quite the flexibility that you have with your pet dog (he can fluctuate a few pounds and still be at a healthy weight) since our birds are very light; many of them don’t even weigh one pound!
Weighing is just one of many “basic” behaviors that the birds are trained to participate in. Our parrots are trained to step up to our hands, into their kennels, and back to their perches in their enclosures. Abby (Abbysinian ground hornbill) is trained to sit before we open his enclosure. Lupe the toucan is trained to fly to our outstretched arm and then to her kennel or a perch. Our owls, vultures, falcons, and hawks are trained to go in a kennel and also step up to or fly to our gloves so we can safely attach or remove their telemetry and move them from place to place. These are behaviors that keep us as well as the birds as safe as possible and assist us with their daily care. I compare these behaviors to the basic behaviors you learn in your first training classes with your dog, like sit, wait, come when called, and go to crate/kennel.
If you’ve been to our Fantastic Flights show, then you know that the birds are trained for much more than just weighing, kenneling, and stepping or flying to our hands. They have learned to offer other behaviors that allow our Zoo guests to learn a little more about them. Our birds of prey fly from place to place on cue so everyone can see how they move. Tahoe the Harris hawk catches a piece of thrown food to demonstrate his keen eyesight and flying skills that make him such a great hunter, while Mandela the milky eagle owl soars silently around the theater to demonstrate how owls can hunt so successfully at night. Our parrots unroll a sign at the beginning of each show by using their beaks to pull a washer off a hook to demonstrate how they can use their beak as an additional appendage to assist them when foraging and moving through the forest. These behaviors are entertaining for us to see, but are not considered “tricks” since they are natural behaviors for the birds. We didn’t have to teach them to perform these behaviors, but we did have to teach them to offer these behaviors in response to specific cues.
Unlike dog training, where you fade out the treat reward for learned behaviors, we continue to reward our birds every single time they correctly offer the behavior. Even though we are regularly working with and building relationships with the birds in our care, they are not domestic animals like dogs, so they don’t have that inherent desire to please us. We must keep the rate of reinforcement high so they are motivated to continue working with us. Eventually, many of our birds consider the additional time and attention they get from us to be rewarding since we have been associated with those food rewards all along.
I have thoroughly enjoyed learning how to work and train the variety of birds at the World of Wild Theater and I hope that you enjoyed reading a little bit about that training. I look forward to seeing you at one of our Fantastic Flights shows this summer!
Sara Beth Pinson
Seasonal Keeper, Birds and Program Animals