Turkey Vulture Boot Camp: Part VI

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It’s been a while since I’ve given an update on Einstein’s training progress, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t been working with him.  In fact, Lisa has come to TreeHouse each of the last two weeks to work with him, and she plans to come for training on a regular basis this summer.

Overall, Einstein’s demeanor is vastly different from what it was last fall when he first came to Dow.  The difference is partly in his behavior and partly in the way we respond to it.  He can be stubborn, and he is always trying to make everything into a game, trying to manipulate our behavior through his own actions.  He understands the cycle of events in which his attacking our legs causes us to walk out of the cage, then his returning to the correct perch causes us to come back in, give him a treat, and start the process over.  So, he often turns it into a game in which he chases us out, then almost immediately goes back onto the perch, asking us to come back.

Of course, in a way I think it’s great that he wants to play with us and he makes up his own games.  But at the same time, when we’re trying to work on getting him to go in the crate or let us put jesses on him, it’s not very conducive to a productive training session if he’s constantly trying to play tag with us.  So, now we’ve changed up our strategy a bit—we hold our ground when he starts to play his games, pushing his head away with the target stick and reminding him that we’re bigger than him and he is not the dominant one.

We also hit a bit of a road block during early spring, when he suddenly became extremely territorial and aggressive.  We quickly realized what was going on—it was breeding season in the wild, and our confused, captive human imprint didn’t seem to know quite what to do with himself.  Once when Lisa came for training during this time, he actually flew onto the top of her head and started beating at her with his wings and trying to pull at her hair.  Luckily, Lisa is pretty unfazed by anything any bird does to her.  Also, I should note—although I typically refer to Einstein as “he” for the sake of convenience, we actually have no idea whether “he” is male or female.  His behavior is an oddball mix of behaviors that we would typically consider “male” and “female”.  During breeding season, his intense territorial aggression might lead us to believe that he is in fact male, but he also displayed nesting behavior, and he does a strange little twirling dance with his tail feathers raised, leading several of our volunteers to believe he is female.  Ultimately, behavior is NEVER a reliable indicator of sex in birds—even wild birds.  And a human imprint like Einstein is just extra confused and even more likely to throw you a behavioral curveball.

Einstein in territorial aggression mode, saying “Get out of my house!”

Anyway, breeding season is over now, so he’s gone back to his usual behavior and we’re back on track with his training.  The crate that he was so terrified of when we first introduced it is still causing some problems.  He isn’t really afraid of it anymore, and it is now basically a permanent fixture in his cage.  I’ll often walk by and see him standing on top of it.  He will also go inside the crate, but only if there’s food inside, not just because we ask him to.  That’s OK, really, except that he also refuses to go all the way in if we’re in the room with him.  He’ll stretch his neck in there to reach a treat, and he’ll even take a step over the threshold if we’re really patient, but he won’t go far enough in for us to shut the door.  It seems that he doesn’t quite trust us—he seems to think that as soon as he goes all the way inside we’ll close the door and he’ll be trapped in there.

Of course he’s right.  That is exactly our plan.  But it’s only because we need him to learn that the door can be closed and he can be stuck inside and nothing earth-shattering will happen, and we won’t keep him in there forever.

Lisa tries to coax Einstein into his crate.

Once he learns to go into the crate without making trouble, we’ll be able to focus on getting jesses on him.  Jesses are leather straps that go around a bird’s ankles, allowing us to tether the bird to an anchor, sometimes on a perch stand and sometimes on our belt.  When we can get him jessed up and crated up, we’ll be able to bring him along when we set up booths at events and give educational programs.  We’re all pretty confident that Einstein will find that absolutely wonderful.  Most of our education birds merely tolerate the crowds, but Einstein is a social bird who thinks he is human, and he loves nothing more than being the center of attention.  Any time we have visitors in the education center, where his cage is, he is always right at the glass, peering through at anyone who will come down to his level.

There have been times over the past months when Einstein’s stubbornness and sporadic aggression have made working with him pretty frustrating, but most of the time it’s a lot of fun.  Every day when I go in the education center, pick up the target stick and clicker and clip the pouch of treats onto my jeans, there he is on his perch or at the door, watching me with his head tilted to one side, asking me to come in and play.  It’s hard not to like a bird that so obviously wants to be friends.

Einstein wants to play.

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Chuckles Moves to Dow

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We hit a landmark in the move from Brighton to Dow this week—TreeHouse’s Internet celebrity, Chuckles the red fox, finally came to our new facility.  Her cage is not totally completed yet, but it is operational, and we were anxious to bring her over because she acts as a foster parent for any orphaned foxes we admit.

We currently have two young foxes that were ready to move outside, and they joined Chuckles in the new cage today.  As any of our current animal care volunteers at Dow can attest, these two REALLY needed to get outside.  They’ve been so rambunctious and playful that their freshly cleaned cage would be torn apart before we could even leave the room.

The new cage is much more spacious than Chuckles’ old cage at Brighton was, and she seemed pretty delighted by it.  We gave her a little while to get used to her new surroundings before we introduced the two kits.  The two are near the same age, but they are not siblings, and they have very different personalities.  The first one we admitted, which you can see here, is very bold and constantly in motion.  As soon as we opened the crate we had used to carry them outside, he darted out and started running up and down the length of the cage.  The minute he saw Chuckles, he ran up to her and greeted her as though she was his long-lost mother.

The older kit tries to get Chuckles to join in the fun.

The second kit is much more timid by comparison, and it was a few minutes before he left the crate.  Still, when he did, he too began running around and around throughout the whole cage.  The two kits always got along reasonably well, but the shyer one, who is slightly older, sometimes would be obviously annoyed with the younger one’s antics—the younger one never gave him a moment’s peace.  But when they were both running around outside, chasing each other and playing, all I could see was pure joy from both of them.

For hours, they ran and ran—around logs, up the ramps and onto the shelves, into the den box, around Chuckles.  When I checked on them just before dark, they were still at it.  For the most part, Chuckles just watches them, though every once in a while one of them will try to get her to join in.

You can see a video of Chuckles and the two kits here.  If you come out to TreeHouse, you will be able to see them, although as long as we have orphans getting ready for release in there with Chuckles, there will be a fence around the cage to give them a wider perimeter.  Visitors can view them from outside the fence, though, and Chuckles is always worth paying a visit!

The youngest fox plays with a tee-ball.