Turkey Vulture Boot Camp: Part II

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Our turkey vulture lived at our Brighton facility until he was full-grown, when he moved to our new facility in Dow a few months ago.  He didn’t yet have a name, because the necessary paperwork and permits to keep him as a permanent resident had not yet gone through, and we wanted to be sure we would be keeping him before giving him a name.  Although his head is still mostly black—mature adults have red heads—he has reached his full size.  It was the beginning of winter when he moved in, so we installed him in one of the deck cages, enclosed in plexiglass, for the remainder of the season.  (Because of their bald heads, turkey vultures need pretty solid shelter in the winter.)

From the beginning, his behavior clearly marked him as a human imprint.  He showed no fear of humans, instead spending most of his time right at the sliding glass door looking into the education center, intently observing all of the goings-on.  Every day, someone (most often, me) would have to go into his cage to feed him, dispose of the previous day’s leftovers, and mop.  Mopping quickly became a real problem, but not for the disgusting reasons you might expect.  At first, he was obviously afraid of the mop.  His first impulse when I entered the cage was always to approach boisterously, with his wings slightly outspread and his beak partly opened, trying to grab at my shoelaces, or my jeans, or the furry lining around the top of my boots.  But if I placed the mop between myself and him, he would immediately tuck his head down and shuffle backwards, his head turned slightly to the side so that he could keep his eye on the mop the entire time.  Unfortunately, his initial dread of the mop was short-lived.

Before two weeks had passed, he had begun gathering the courage to test the mop and find out whether it really was dangerous.  He started launching quick, darting attacks on the mop head, tearing at it with his beak and then running back to the other side of the cage.  Apparently, it didn’t take him long to put two and two together and realize that the mop was not fighting back, and when his focus started to shift back to my feet and the backs of my knees, I realized that it wouldn’t be much longer before my shield was completely ineffective.  It was around this time that I remembered a large, bad-tempered crane at the St. Louis Zoo whose keepers are forced to actively fend it off with a broom every time they enter its enclosure.  I fought the urge to actually shove the vulture away from me with the mop, seeing clearly the downward spiral that would eventually lead to me being forced to adopt the same extreme tactics as that crane’s keepers.

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So, caring for the vulture became an increasingly hazardous ordeal, as he escalated his attacks and began going primarily for the backs of the legs, eventually drawing blood from several volunteers.   Every time anyone had to go in his cage, they would rush to finish up as quickly as possible, while spending the whole time shoving the vulture away with their feet or the food bucket.  The vulture would pursue them all the way to the door, biting at their heels as they went, and even after the door was closed with the volunteer safely on the outside, he would remain at the door, tilting his head and putting his eye right to the glass.  Most of us came to see this behavior as aggressive and threatening; it seemed as though he was running us out of his territory and then guarding the entrance, challenging any would-be intruder.  In contrast, most birds—those imprinted on their own species rather than humans—retreat as far from a human entering their cage as they are able.  If a human chases or attempts to capture them, they will respond aggressively, but their first reaction is to avoid contact with humans.

Finally, enough was enough.  The vulture’s behavior was only getting worse, and we had no idea what to do about it.  Then, one of TreeHouse’s board members, who also works with the animals regularly, contacted a bird behaviorist who has a business training parrots.  (You can visit her website here.)  Although Lisa had never worked with raptors before, she was excited to give it a try, and after doing some research and discussing the situation with various experts, she came to TreeHouse about two weeks ago for our turkey vulture’s first training session.

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Turkey Vulture Boot Camp: Part I

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You might think that a bird whose primary means of defense is to vomit on its enemies wouldn’t rate too high on the animal intelligence scale.  On the other hand, there’s not really anything to do to come back to that.  So maybe it’s actually a very smart move.  And, speaking from unfortunate experience, when a turkey vulture throws up on you, there really is nothing to do but run away.  It’s pretty horrible.

This bird will vomit rotting meat on you if it feels threatened.

All in all, vultures have a kind of unsavory reputation.  The ominous feeling associated with vultures circling in the sky is not surprising, given that this behavior indicates that something has either just died or is nearing its last breath.  Their featherless heads and powerful, hooked beaks give vultures an appearance many consider grotesque.  Their tendency to assume a hunchbacked posture and to hold their wings out like a black cape make them look right at home in the setting of an old horror movie.   They gather in loud, raucous groups to feed on particularly choice carcasses.

In fact, it is precisely this last behavior that makes intelligence such a vital adaptation for vultures.  Vultures are highly social animals, and as is the case with many animals that live in groups, a high level of intelligence gives them the advantage of being able to analyze complex social situations.  It’s very difficult to measure animal intelligence, because it’s difficult to assign objective values to different kinds of skills.  Studies have shown that chimps outperform humans on tests designed to gauge short-term memory, and rats can learn the correct path through a complex maze in an incredibly short period of time.  As humans, we are naturally inclined to favor human-like intelligence—namely, a skill for problem-solving—when observing animal behavior.  This is exactly the kind of intelligence that vultures possess to an amazing degree.  When living with a large group of birds with beaks specially adapted for the purpose of tearing flesh, the ability to analyze social dynamics and solve social problems provides a distinct advantage.  Intelligence confers the ability to form mutually beneficial alliances and to resolve conflicts without sustaining serious injury.

Last summer, a young human-imprinted turkey vulture was brought to TreeHouse.  “Imprinting” refers to the process by which young birds establish their social identity.  A bird of the age at which visual focus develops forms a social fix on whoever is caring for it.  In normal circumstances in the wild, this will be the bird’s parents, so it learns to identify itself as a bird of the same kind as its parents.  But when a bird at this age is raised by humans without the help of a foster parent, the bird “imprints” on humans.  Unfortunately, as we were soon to experience with our human imprint turkey vulture, just because a bird thinks he is human does not mean that he understands that humans don’t usually play by attacking each other’s legs.

In the next few posts, I will be telling you more about this vulture, the problems he caused for us, and the incredible solution we’ve finally found.

Welcome!

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Hello, and welcome to TreeHouse Notebook!  My name is Jennifer, and I am the intern at TreeHouse Wildlife Center.  TreeHouse is a wildlife rescue and rehabilitation center located just off the Great River Road near Grafton, Illinois.  We are dedicated to the rescue, rehabilitation, and release of injured and orphaned wildlife, and to raising awareness of environmental issues through education.  Each year, we take in hundreds of birds and mammals in need of assistance and help enable them to return to the wild.  Our new facility houses our hospital, our education center, and our non-releasable permanent residents on display to the public.

As an intern at TreeHouse, I have had the unique opportunity to experience all facets of the operation of a wildlife rehab facility.  In this blog, I will be sharing some of those experiences with you.  An ordinary day for me might include anything from building a new cage to retrieving an injured pelican from the middle of a lake.  Stick around to find out more about what’s going on at TreeHouse and read some amazing stories about our animals—and don’t forget to check out our website at www.treehousewildlifecenter.com for info about visiting or making a donation.

TreeHouse Wildlife Center, Dow, IL