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.