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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Turkey Vulture Boot Camp: Part V

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This weekend, Lisa the bird behaviorist came back to TreeHouse for her second session working with Einstein.  We’ve spent the last few weeks practicing the behaviors we started working on the first time she came—getting him to go to one particular perch before we enter his cage and then “targeting” to various locations around his cage.  We’ve also worked a little bit on “eagle,” which is asking him to spread out his wings.  In order to teach him this behavior, we wait for him to do it naturally (usually when he is trying to regain his balance on a swinging perch) and then mark the behavior by clicking the clicker and saying something like, “Good bird! Eagle.”  He has now done the “eagle” behavior on command a few times, but it is something we’ll have to continue to work on in order to get some consistency.

During this session with Lisa, our plan was to work on getting him to go into a crate of his own accord.  If we can teach him to crate up on command, volunteers will be able to go into his cage to clean without worrying about him harassing them, and we will be able to pack him up to go to events like booths and educational programs while eliminating the stress that accompanies being captured and forcibly placed in a crate.  The door of the crate will be modified with a magnet to hold it closed, and, ideally, we will eventually train Einstein to swing the door shut himself.

When Lisa first introduced the crate into Einstein’s cage, his reaction was totally unexpected.  In the past, he has shown a high level of curiosity about new items in his cage.  But as soon as Lisa set the crate down, Einstein reacted with what we can only interpret as terror—he immediately fled to his highest perch, and from there proceeded to fly around the cage, crashing into the mesh that creates a barrier in front of the glass and only barely avoiding flying out the door of his cage.  (Interestingly, it appeared intentional that he did not fly out the door—he veered to the side at the last second.  He definitely knows his boundaries—more about that later.)  I had never seen him panic like this.  Some of the other birds do regularly fly into the mesh on their cage walls, but not Einstein.  He knows where his cage ends, and he seems to realize that trying to get through is futile.

The intensity of his reaction to the crate leads us to believe that he has had some kind of strong negative experience with a crate.  Most likely, the people who kept him as a baby (and on whom he imprinted) kept him in a crate like this.  Even if he wasn’t really mistreated, if he was kept in the crate and rarely or never let out, it could create the kind of strong negative association we saw.  Turkey vultures are highly intelligent animals with long memories.

We spent the rest of the session trying to get Einstein acclimatized to the presence of the crate.  After seeing his initial reaction, Lisa cautioned that we may ultimately find that our original goal of teaching Einstein to shut himself in of his own volition may be untenable.  Still, we certainly weren’t ready to give up yet.

Marcie trying to get Einstein to come closer to the crate.

At first, Einstein wouldn’t do anything.  We tried to work on his old exercises, but he just stayed on one perch, watching the crate out of the corner of his eye.  He actually wouldn’t turn his back on it, but he wouldn’t really look directly at it, either.  Finally, Marcie, the woman who originally contacted Lisa, got Einstein to target to her on the floor by holding out a treat very near the base of the perch on which he was standing.

After that, it was a gradual process of bringing the target progressively closer to the entrance of the crate.  Eventually, we were able to crouch on the side of the crate and hold the target stick right in front of the crate’s opening, and Einstein would come right to the edge of what he evidently saw as some horrible dark abyss to take the treat.  Still, immediately after grabbing it, he would beat a hasty retreat back to the opposite corner.

We also attempted to reassure him that the crate was not a threat by touching it to show that it wasn’t dangerous while saying things like, “It’s OK, Einstein.”  As a human imprint, Einstein, at least to some extent, takes behavioral cues from humans, so if we show him that we are not alarmed by the crate, he may see that it is nothing to be afraid of.  For now, we are going to be leaving the crate in his cage for a few hours every day to allow him to get used to it without stressing him excessively by its constant presence.

At the end of the session, while all the vulture handlers were standing outside Einstein’s cage talking, he did the funniest—and coolest—thing I’ve ever seen him do.  We had left the cage door open and had not yet taken the crate out of the cage—we wanted to see if he would investigate it if left to himself.  After a few minutes of poking around, he came to the cage door.  We often leave the door open when working with him, because we go in and out of the cage many times.  He never crosses the threshold.  As I mentioned earlier, he knows his boundaries.  There is a metal track for the sliding door, and I’m not sure whether he’s afraid of it, or it hurts his feet, or what exactly the reason is, but he never crosses it.

This time, though, he really wanted to be a part of the gathering that was happening outside his cage.  After standing there for a moment watching us, he started tugging at the rug that’s outside the door.  He’s done this before, so I didn’t really think anything of it—until he pulled the corner of the rug over the threshold and used it as a bridge.  He then stepped into the middle of the rug and looked around at all of us as if to say, “I’m here—what are we all doing?”  He never stepped off the rug, but after a couple of minutes he started tugging at my jeans, and Lisa marshaled him back into his cage.  The whole thing was pretty unbelievable.

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It’s likely to take a while before Einstein is actually willing to enter the crate.  If we try to force him into it, we’ll only undo all the work we’ve done.  Still, it will be worth it, and anyway he’s so fascinating to work with that none of us mind the extra time we spend with him.

Turkey Vulture Boot Camp: Part IV

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We are now about three weeks into Einstein’s training.  It’s still going well, but I do get the impression that he’s getting bored with doing the same thing day after day.  There’s a certain perch that we make him go to before we enter his cage each time, and he’s gotten to the point that he will fly onto that perch any time anyone is in the room his cage is attached to.  He always wants to play!  Still, when I’m actually working with him, there always comes a point when he hesitates and just looks at me, head cocked to the side, then he flutters to the ground and makes a charge at my feet.

Still, even when he does go back to his old tricks, it somehow doesn’t seem as aggressive as it used to.  I’m genuinely unsure of whether the change is more in his behavior or in my attitude toward him.  I still can’t get over how gently he will take a treat from my hand.  A few days ago when I was working with him, he was on his high perch reaching down to get a treat, and he started to lose his balance.  So, he simply stepped onto my wrist.  I had my sleeve pulled up, so he was on my bare skin, but he kept his talons outstretched rather than digging into my arm for stability, and after I lowered him to the ground he hopped off without leaving a mark.

Turkey Vulture Boot Camp: Part III

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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.”

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.

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.