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Learning From Some Amazing Birds at NEI in Florida - Again!

Carlos the Toucan flying to me. What an incredible experience!

If you've been following my blog posts, I probably don't need to say, one more time, how much training with birds teaches me about training dogs.

Here's the deal. The rules of behavioral science apply to all species; learning theory is true of all animals. An animal's behavior is never random. It has a purpose for the animal; to gain something or avoid/escape something. In order for me to work with any animal, I need to know at least a little bit about the ethology of that animal. I need to know how it moves because I need to know what stress looks like in that animal. I need to know what the animal is motivated by and what he will work to avoid; definitely, this last one because I don't want to be something he feels he needs to avoid!

Training mammals is easy for me because I have studied them all my life; in zoos, on television, and through my personal experience with them. Because of all that I have learned, I would, with great confidence, walk up to and clicker train with a tiger, an elephant, an Ocapi (a big dream of mine), a warthog, and on and on.

In March 2023, I treated myself to ten full days of learning, minus the necessary travel time. From Oregon, I flew to Washington DC to attend the four days of Clicker Expo 2023, and from there directly to NEI for my week with them. On the day before the Expo started KPA CTPs were given the opportunity to spend the day at the Smithsonian Zoo, complete with opportunities for behind-the-scenes presentations by the keepers with some of the animals. The zoo is large, so there were times that a choice had to be made; attending one presentation might mean missing another that would also be cool to attend.

Did you know binturongs can catch COVID? I didn't.

Well, I have a thing about binturongs. The binturong, also known as the bearcat, is a viverrid native to South and Southeast Asia. I had never been near one but was intrigued by seeing them in nature shows. The binturong presentation competed with the tiger one, I think. Oh, thank you universe, I was the only graduate that wanted to see the binturongs! The keeper who works with these animals allowed me the incredible opportunity of feeding one of the binturongs his morning meal, one piece at a time.

I suspect he thought I would just feed the little guy, but since it was probable that the animal had been taught targeting behaviors, I asked the keeper for his permission to experiment with training with the binturong. The binturong was all for it, and the keeper stood there next to me, grinning and amused. Did you know that binturongs smell like popcorn? I didn't know that, but they do.

Once I had established my "string" with him, I began to move him using targeting. I think this was a lot more fun for him than just standing and eating; back and forth, up and down, under an edge, waaay stretched up, tummy against the wire, and on we went until the fruit and veggies were gone. What an incredible privilege that experience was. As I left the enclosure, I was teary and trembling. It means so much to me that animals are willing to interact with me.

"String Training" - Building a Connection Between the Trainer and the Learner:

On to Natural Encounters, Inc. (NEI)

This course, called the "Immersion Workshop," is an advanced course for the graduates of the course I attended here in November 2022. You will find more information about that in the blog post below. As with the first course, it is necessary to apply to attend. The Immersions course was a maximum of four students, and I was one of them. Wow.

Being Trained by Rufio – My Natural Encounters Adventure:

The trainers we worked with were Dan Blair CPBT-KA and Amy Fennell CPBT-KA. Here are my favorite personal photos of them:

This is Dan teaching a goat to kiss on cue. He is a humble and funny man!

Amy with a colorful vulture, a very sweet bird!

This course was not taught by Steve, but he turned up in all kinds of places to contribute, or simply admire the interactions between the students and his beloved birds. I have never been near a trainer that I admire more. He is humble, kind, generous, and extremely talented.

The amazing Steve Martin, President and Chief Executive Officer of NEI.

NEI's focus is on animal conservation and welfare. Every staff member I have ever encountered there gives 110% of themselves; in how they treat each other, the students, and the animals in their care. It is a beautiful thing. In another life, I would beg to be hired there.

The Immersions course

For five days, eight hours a day, we shadowed the trainers as they cared for the birds as well as participating in training sessions alongside them. Every bird at NEI is weighed every day; there are 500 birds there, I think. All of them have been taught this voluntary behavior. Their daily diets are based on their weight and are measured in grams. Preparing raptor diets is quite the production; cut up mice and baby chicks, fresh - never frozen.

The habitats for these animals are not only spacious but great attention is paid to making them interesting for the animals, with enrichment items added daily.

What are these birds taught? Why?

NEI serves as a model for zoos all over the world because of what they have learned, and teach others, about training animals to voluntarily participate in necessary husbandry behavior. This is a daily quality of life issue for any captive animal. These birds are beautiful, but they can also be dangerous. A keeper who isn't comfortable working with an animal is less likely to provide the highest level of care possible, and an animal that feels scary to a human is probably afraid, or feeling threatened himself.

Walk the walk. Steve, and his staff, have proven over and over that even very difficult birds can learn to safely participate in their care. It all has to do with minimizing aversives and maximizing reinforcement - and understanding the ethology of that animal.

Bird shows!

Steve and his trainers are also performers, creating shows for zoos across the country. The bird show at Disney World is managed and created by NEI. One of the things NEI is known for is their free-flight demonstrations. Why would a bird, when offered his freedom, come home to NEI again instead? I learned a lot about that.

At Disney World, the flock of Macaws flies two miles every day. Twice a day, in the bird shows, the birds fly half a mile in each direction. They leave their large aviaries like screeching rockets! They fly in, swooping low over the crowd waiting for them, loop around, and head back to their aviary with just as much enthusiasm. Every time they return to their aviaries, a special opportunity awaits them; special snacks, but also an opportunity to play with favorite toys hanging on the walls or placed on tables. They look, for all the world, like a pack of happy Kindergartners! I'll tell you more about how this behavior is taught later.

A few of NEI's trainers, with a group of birds they have trained specifically for the shows they have designed, travel to a zoo destination where they will stay for several months at a time, putting on two shows every day. A week after the course, Amy and Dan, along with several other trainers, were headed to Rhode Island for six months to put on bird shows. My training partner Rufio, from the time before, is among that group. Wow.

The bird shows are not full of parlor tricks. They are designed to teach the public about the needs of the birds and an awareness of the importance of respect and conservation. Donations are accepted to raise money for conservation efforts; people in the audience hold money over their heads to be picked from their hands by a group of talented ravens. Pretty cool!

Now, let's meet some of the residents at NEI

This is Carlos. He is a show favorite and was certainly a favorite of mine. He would fly from student to student for a chance at tossed blueberries, and other fruit handed to him.

Carlos catching a blueberry.

This is Bao, AKA Big Ass Owl. He is a permanent resident and is handled only to teach him husbandry behaviors. He does not participate in shows. One of the things common at zoos is Animal Ambassador shows. This gives the public a more up close and personal interaction with zoo animals that are well suited to this. NEI teaches a course about how to host these kinds of interactions with the welfare of the display animals foremostly considered. In Steve's opinion, owls should never be used this way because they are shy and sensitive. I didn't know that about owls!

Bao is a big bird! He was heavy. That beak is some kind of impressive, that close to my face, arm, and hands. His claws, the length of them, and the strength in his feet, even just felt through the protection provided by the raptor glove, made me appreciate what training a novel owl must be like for trainers. Did you know that owls cannot see well and their range of vision right in front of them is very poor? I tapped the platform to ask him to step down. Didn't work. Amy tossed a piece of meat on the platform. That worked because he could see the movement and he could smell it.


Owls move and learn slowly when compared to what it is like to interact with a raptor such as this beautiful hawk. She was FAST, and her vision is excellent. Having a bird of prey on my hand wasn't on my bucket list, which just lets me know that I need to stretch that list. It was an incredible feeling to have this bird fly to me and land on my arm.

This beautiful little hawk is a very different animal to work with than Bao.
Here she is up close.

I wish I could remember what kind of a hawk she is. I do know her species is on the Endangered list. Having her at NEI as a potential breeding bird is part of her purpose there. There are many kinds of birds at NEI being produced and raised there with the goal of releasing them into wild populations.

This crown crane just captivated me. She was fast, curious, precocious, and very willing to play games with us. Watching her hop down those stairs when asked, rather than just fly to the ground, was entertaining because she is a big bird with very long legs!

Teaching the young Macaws how to fly out to a target and back

Both of these blog posts provide more information about how to build a reinforcement history to an area:

Being Trained by Rufio – My Natural Encounters Adventure:

"Chicken Camp?" Training Chickens Can Make You a Better Dog Trainer:

My beautiful Rufio is among this group of thirteen Macaws being trained for a free-flight show in Rhode Island, headed there with Amy and Dan.

The very first step is to teach the birds to be operant; that their behavior can make peanuts show up. That is done, for months or years, within the safety of the aviaries. Once the birds learn this, when humans show up with peanuts, it's "game on!", and they know it! They get excited and congregate nearby, watching for their opportunities.

Inside the aviaries, there are perches. The birds all have a high reinforcement history with being on a perch, so seeing one looks like an opportunity for reinforcement for them; it becomes a target. See the perch just outside the aviary? The birds are on a perch just inside the aviary, with Dan feeding them peanuts. When the big door is opened, Kayla will call them to the perch in front of her. This is the first time the Macaws have ever flown outside an aviary. This can be scary! You ought to hear the Macaws scream from inside the aviary when an eagle flies over!

So, a reinforcement history is built from the perch in the aviary to the perch outside, and the birds fly back to Dan. The door is closed. Ultimately, the cue for the birds to fly to their target outside is the opening of the door. The next step is flying to Amy, standing in the lift. At first, the Macaws fly to the perch and then on to Amy, but after just a few times payment stops happening on the perch near the aviary. This is part of shaping a behavior.

Step #1 in the free-flight training with the Macaws.

Once the birds understand that the perch on the lift pays big, they look for it as they fly out the doorway. The lift is moved farther away, and positioned higher - and then out of sight and around the corner!

This is a friend of mine in the lift. Look at those birds go!

This is me in the lift. Here's what's true. I am afraid of heights. I can't stand on the top step of an eight-foot ladder. The lift is sixty feet in the air. Don't care. I was prepared to die - I had to know what it was like to have those Macaws fly right to us. Yes, I closed my eyes when the lift went up, and when it went down, but when the birds were part of the experience, nothing else mattered.

What an incredible learning opportunity. I will never forget my time at NEI!

Hornbills are serious birds!

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