Those of us being trained to work with the vulture were initially a bit skeptical, and our trepidation was not lessened by Lisa’s insistence that she wouldn’t need to wear gloves when working with him.  To our amazement, when she stepped into the cage and held out bits of chicken liver to him, he took the treats straight from her hand with the utmost precision and delicacy.  In addition to the treats, she held a clicker like those used to train dogs and a stick with a bright red bead on the end of it.

She began moving around the floor of the cage, holding out the stick with a treat right next to it.  Each time she moved the stick, she would say “Target,” until he brought his beak up to the red bead, when she would immediately click the clicker and give him a treat.  She continued this for several minutes, moving around so that the vulture had to come to her from increasingly far away when she told him to target.  She also stopped holding the treat next to the target stick, only taking one out of her pouch after he performed the required behavior.

Over the next hour and a half, she had him fly onto various perches by targeting on them, including one perch that was actually above her head.  Each of the vulture handlers-in-training got to take a turn putting him through these exercises, and it was really incredible to watch him figure out what he was being asked to do and decide each time whether it was really worth his while.

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From time to time, he would get bored with the new game and go back to his old favorite of attacking our feet.  The first time this happened, when Lisa was first walking him around the cage, she immediately got up and walked out of the cage without saying a word or reacting in any other way.  I could hardly keep from laughing as the vulture’s entire demeanor unmistakably expressed bewilderment.  Instead of chasing her to the door, as he ordinarily would have, he remained at the back of the cage, head cocked and body slightly shifting from side to side, as if he was unsure of what to do.

He never took his eyes off Lisa as she explained to us that as a social animal who believes he is a human, all this vulture wants is to interact with “other” humans.  When he bites our legs and feet, he just wants to elicit some kind of response, so when we react in any way we are essentially rewarding him for this behavior.  The only way to get him to stop is to teach him that attacking is no longer an option for forcing an interaction; his attacks will now result in the interaction ending.

After a few minutes, during which the vulture was clearly at a complete loss as to why his playmate had left, he flew up onto one of his perches.  Lisa immediately clicked the clicker and went in and gave him a treat, and then resumed the exercises.  He had done precisely what we wanted him to.  Our goal is to train him to sit on that particular perch whenever anyone enters the cage—the idea being that if he isn’t on the ground, he can’t bite our legs.

The biting will be the hardest habit to break him of, since he has had several months of interactions reinforcing the idea that by biting he can initiate a reaction—usually a rather loud and animated one.  Still, at the end of the session, Lisa—not to mention the handlers—was amazed at the progress the vulture had already made.   She said that with most of her parrot clients, it would take two weeks to get to the point our new vulture friend had reached in just an hour and a half.  Although parrots are themselves highly intelligent birds, she said that this was the most intelligent bird she had ever worked with.  In just ninety minutes, our whole demeanor toward this bird had changed.  He was no longer the obnoxious jerk of a bird whose care was the worst part of everybody’s day.  He was now full of intriguing possibilities—the smartest bird this obviously experienced trainer had ever worked with.  And suddenly, we had a name for him: “Einstein.”

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