I wanted to talk today about the role that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) plays here at the Oregon Zoo. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 states that it is illegal to take, possess, import, export, transport, sell, purchase, or barter any migratory bird, or the parts, eggs, or nests of any of these birds, unless you have a valid permit. This act is enforced and regulated by the USFWS. Over 1,000 migratory birds are currently under the protection of the act. Some of these include Eastern Bluebirds, California Condors, Peregrine Falcons, Great Horned Owls, American White Pelicans, and Field Sparrows.
In order for zoos to have any of these protected species, they must apply for the proper permits. For example, there is an application for a Federal Eagle Exhibition permit for use of Bald and Golden Eagles for educational purposes. The requirements are lengthy, just to name a few: at least 300 hours of previous experience with eagles (both husbandry and educational presentations), a recommendation from another eagle permittee, and a commitment to giving at least 12 presentations a year with the eagle. There are also housing and husbandry standards established by USFWS that must be followed in order to continue possessing the bird. The bird is still technically property of USFWS, which has the right to remove the bird if it is not being provided the proper care.
In our department at the zoo, we have quite a few of these protected species, including the American Kestrel, Bald Eagle, Golden Eagle, Turkey Vulture, Western Screech Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Harris’s Hawk, and Red-tailed Hawk. We are not allowed to maintain possession of any feathers these birds molt (artifacts like feathers, bones, eggs, and nests require their own special permits). So, every day when we clean, we have to collect any feathers and put them in each bird’s proper envelope. When any envelope fills up, it gets dropped off at the appropriate office at the zoo that processes it to be sent to the USFWS office in the area. Once there, each feather will be catalogued into the USFWS system, and redistributed for other permits.
Most of our birds have health complications or other obstacles that prevent them from being released (this is always the case with housing Bald Eagles). For instance, our Kestrel and Red-tailed Hawk are both imprinted on humans. This means that they look to humans to give them their meals, instead of hunting for themselves. Unfortunately, they are perfectly physically fit, but would starve in the wild without a person’s help.
Many times, this happens when well-intentioned people find a bird on the ground and think that it is injured. For the majority of cases, the bird is simply a new fledgling that is learning how to take care of itself. But, when removed from its natural setting, it is unable to complete this critical stage of its life. Instead, it is brought to the person’s home to be “cared for.” Unfortunately, this well-meaning act produces the opposite of the desired outcome: now the bird cannot take care of itself in the wild and will not survive on its own. And that’s not even taking into account the fact that, under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, people are doing this illegally if they don’t have the proper permits. Therefore, if you ever find an injured bird, or suspect a bird is in need of attention, always call your local wildlife rehabilitation center first! These centers are qualified to take care of the bird and can make the proper assessments for the care it needs. In the long run, this is the best thing you can do for any injured or abandoned wildlife, bird or otherwise.
This past week was all about bird health and housing. In the wild, birds will hide any symptoms of illness they may be experiencing for as long as they possibly can. If a bird acted sick, it would be an easy target for a predator. This is an instinctive response, so it’s something that you have to be aware of with captive birds, as well. By the time a bird starts exhibiting symptoms, that usually means that the illness is now well-developed, and the bird is sick enough that it can no longer keep some of the signs hidden. Therefore, it is really important that you know what kinds of behaviors are typical for each bird. If you are able to pick up on very slight changes in behavior, you may be able to catch the illness before it progresses too far. For example, if the hawk is suddenly more quiet than usual (or the opposite: more loud) for a particular situation, this may be an indication that something is wrong.
All of the birds in our collection at Oregon get a routine physical examination every week, just to make sure nothing is abnormal. Their keels are checked (The keel is a projection on the sternum where the flight muscles attach. If the keel is very pronounced, this can indicate weight loss.), as well as their nares, eyes, feet, and the status of new feather growth. Every few months, the birds get their beaks and nails trimmed. The process of filing down a beak is called coping. For the larger raptors, it can be helpful to put a hood on them, which is a little cap that covers their eyes. Not being able to see exactly what is going on allows them to relax more. The macaws and mammals here are trained for voluntary nail trims. For the birds of prey, this is a more difficult task, as you do not want to be footed by their talons! On my list of things to accomplish next year: finish training our birds at school for voluntary nail trims!
How you set up a bird’s mew or enclosure can also have a great impact on their health. Birds of prey are susceptible to a foot infection called bumblefoot. It is impossible to completely get rid of once contracted, and can only be managed to prevent flare ups. It causes the feet to swell and form sores, making standing uncomfortable for the bird. Bumblefoot is often caused by not providing suitable perching. Perches should have different widths, be covered with different materials (like rope or artificial turf) if they aren’t natural perches, or be real branches and logs. The best thing is to make sure that there is still airflow to the bottom of the feet while the bird is on the perch.
Other aspects to take into consideration when housing a bird are providing different heights for perching, a water bowl that is not kept under a perch (no one wants to drink soiled water!), proper temperature conditions, shelter, and proper substrate (no one wants to walk on concrete or bars!).
Last week was my final week of structured themes for the internship! Now, I am in maintenance mode: I will keep doing everything I have been taught up to now, and will also get the chance to go into more detail on the things that interested me the most! I have also been signed-off for handing the American kestrel alone and am starting to work with the Western screech owl!!!
I can’t believe I only have one more month to go, when there is still so much to see and learn!
I have reached the next big step in my internship: handling! I have never handled raptors before, so all of this is entirely new for me. I’m so glad I’m getting the opportunity to learn. The bird I have started the process with is our American kestrel. For now, staff members watch me handling to make sure I am doing everything correctly. Once I get signed off on working with the kestrel without staff supervision, I will be able to start handling training for the next bird (not sure yet which one this will be).
For those of you who know as little as I did about raptor handling, it involves some special equipment. The birds have bracelets of leather attached to their legs, called aylmeris. The jesses are leather straps which are attached to the alymeris and hang down from the bird. Sometimes, the jesses wrap directly around the leg without using an aylmeri. Each jess has a slit at the end (kind of like a button hole) where the swivel is strung through. The swivel is a little piece of metal with a ring on either end. The rings get put through the slits in the jesses in such a way that the swivel is secured in place with one ring exposed on the end. Then, you can clip the string from your leather glove onto the swivel’s ring. Now you have a closed system with everything connected: the bird sitting on your glove, the jesses looped between your fingers, and your glove clipped to the swivel. But, this whole process has to be done with one hand! Once you have a secure hold on the jesses, the bird steps up onto your glove before you attach the swivel. So, while keeping your left hand stable for the bird, you have to use your right hand alone to get the swivel on!
The jesses should have some slack, so that the bird can still move around on your glove. When preening, a bird may use its foot to scratch the back of its neck. If you have the jesses pulled too tightly, it wouldn’t be able to raise its foot. I suppose this would be the equivalent of someone really needing to scratch their nose, but someone else has this person’s hands tied behind their back. Definitely not fair! However, having slack means that if the bird wanted to fly, it would manage to get off the glove. It won’t be able to fly very far because the jesses are acting as a leash of sorts, but it means that your bird will have to right itself back onto your glove. The act of a bird trying to fly off the glove is called bating. It does happen, occasionally, but primarily when there is something that is making the bird anxious. If you can eliminate the potential for anxiety from the bird’s environment, it will be perfectly comfortable staying on your glove.
Since I am working with the kestrel, I get to handle him for the displays! I am still showing biofacts for at least one display, so that he gets a break. When I do have him out, though, I get to talk to visitors specifically about kestrels and answer any questions they might have. This has been fun for me because it’s forcing me to learn some things about other types of birds, instead of focusing just on owls (my favorite!).
In this case, practice makes perfect: I have been working on the whole process for the past two weeks and am getting close to being signed off!
Apologies for a pretty long post, but the past week has given me plenty to think about! I’ve now been introduced to the main concepts behind animal training which are essential for having a good show program.
For the past month, I’ve been reading a book called Don’t Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor. This book covers the main aspects of animal training such as positive and negative reinforcement, how both of these are different from punishment, how to shape behaviors, clicker training, and how to eliminate unwanted behaviors. I know that a few of these terms may be unfamiliar to some, so let me break them down for you!
Reinforcement is anything that is given in conjunction with or directly after a behavior is completed that will increase the likelihood that the behavior will happen again. If you are adding something to the subject’s environment, it is considered positive reinforcement. For example, if my roommate finally does her laundry after it’s really been piling up, I will make a big deal of thanking her. Now she may be more likely to do her laundry on time in order to receive my compliments of a job well done! Reinforcement can also be negative, if you are taking away something from the environment that the subject had found disagreeable. If you don’t buckle your seatbelt right away, I bet your car responds with a blinking icon on the dash and maybe even an annoying beeping sound. In order to get the beeping to stop, you buckle your seatbelt. That’s negative reinforcement!
Punishment involves adding or removing things that will decrease the likelihood of the behavior happening again. Punishment is not as effective as reinforcement because punishment often occurs too late after the behavior in question happens. Punishment only teaches the subject what they did wrong and not what behavior you actually want them to do that is right. So, it will take a lot longer to teach an animal a behavior if you are teaching it using punishment.
Shaping a behavior involves taking a small tendency an animal (or person!) might have and slowly expanding it, step-by-step, until you have molded the entire behavior you want to see happen. For example, say I want to train my dog to balance a treat on his nose and only eat it when I say to. I may start by reinforcing him for even letting the treat touch his nose without trying to eat it. Once he does this consistently, I’ll go to the next step: I will only reinforce him for letting me place the treat on his nose. The following step could then be letting the treat stay there for even just a second. Slowly, I’ll increase the time the treat stays on the nose, until it’s the length of time I want!
A training method that really helps with shaping behaviors is called clicker training. It first started out being used by dog trainers, but it’s expanded now to trainers of all different kinds of animals. Basically, the animal is taught that the clicker’s noise is a form of reinforcement, by pairing the sound with actual reinforcement. I could teach the dog that a click from me equals a piece of food. Once this relationship is established, I can use a click to let the dog know that he has done the behavior correctly. To him, a click means I’m saying, “That’s right! Your reward is coming!” Now he knows that he can stop the behavior. In theory, if I trained the behavior well, I could get him to hold the treat on his nose indefinitely until I clicked! There isn’t anything magical about the clicker alone, though. You could achieve the same results by using any kind of signal marker. Some trainers prefer a whistle or even just a word, such as “good.”
This book has been really helpful for me in thinking about how I approach training our birds at the Malone Zoo. I’m already coming up with ideas about how to best go about training them next school year and how I can be a better trainer for them. Pryor had a list in her book of “do’s and don’ts” for behavior shaping, and unfortunately, there were a few rules I was breaking! She also had a list of ways to get rid of unwanted behaviors—which a few of our birds have, too. I am looking forward to coming back next semester and putting what I’ve learned to the test!
In the meantime, for my training project, I will be training one of the Oregon Zoo’s ducks to target. This means that the goal behavior is for the duck to “target,” or touch, her bill to a tennis ball on the end of a stick. Ultimately, I would like her to hold her bill still on the ball, but that is a behavior that can be hard for ducks to master. But, we’ll give it a shot!
Targeting is great for helping with animal husbandry tasks. If you have an animal that can target, you can get it to move to different locations in its enclosure without force, have it step up onto a scale to be weighed, and hold still for weekly health checks. Targeting for these activities helps reduce the stress for both the animal and you!
I trained two of our parrots to target last semester, but haven’t gotten them to hold the target…yet. That’s on the agenda for next semester, too! But the behavior has already been helpful. I can now have them step onto a towel that we will be using to cover them when we do beak trims. Without the targeting, it would have been impossible to get them to stand on the towel without force. Now I just need to train them to let me wrap the towel around them!!
When training animals for shows, it’s important to train natural behaviors. Sure, it may be fun for people to watch a parrot skateboard or put a ball through a basketball hoop, but what is this really teaching your audience about the bird? The impression they get is that parrots are fun to have as pets and are there for their entertainment. In the end, have they gained a sense of awe and respect for the bird, or have you only fueled the illegal pet trade? For now, I fear for the latter. Every time we bring either of our macaws to the displays, the majority of the questions we get asked are what tricks it can do, and can we make it talk. I fear that people have forgotten that parrots are wild animals still, and not conventional pets like cats and dogs. If taken care of correctly, parrots can be amazing companions. But, they require immense amounts of attention, responsibility, and commitment (many can live 50+ years!). I end up promoting those messages to zoo visitors every chance I get.
Alright, I’ll get off my soap box now. I hope this post has given you some food for thought (I know, I definitely have some things to ponder this summer). If you want to learn more about training, I highly recommend Pryor’s book!
Our displays out on the zoo concert lawn officially started Monday! Unfortunately, we won’t be doing the regular free flight bird shows because of the construction going on nearby for the new elephant exhibit. But there are still going to be plenty of opportunities to educate people about the birds this summer!
Last week, I gave a mock presentation on adaptations of owls for my practical exam. I told the staff my talk was geared for third graders. So, wouldn’t you know, they all started acting “their age!” If I can manage to keep my composure around adults behaving like nine-year-olds, I know I can handle talking to people at the zoo!
Now my afternoons are going to revolve around the shows we give at 11:00, 12:00, and 1:00. For half an hour the staff members stand throughout the lawn with the birds. I also have my table at one end of the lawn with the “biofacts.” I brought different feet, feathers, and skulls to help compare some of the species we were displaying. So far, it’s been a really fun experience getting to talk to people. Of course, there are children who are far too little to understand anything you could say to them about the feather (other than, “Yes, you can touch it.”). I quickly lost track of the number of times I had to say the words “delicate” and “fragile.” But it is also incredibly rewarding to see realization light up a face when you ask a child a question, and they know they’ve come up with the right answer! Being a self-declared bird nerd, I also forget how some people may know relatively little about birds. And that’s why this is so enjoyable! I have a chance to teach people about something I am truly passionate about.
There’s that tried-and-true cliché that your perfect job won’t feel like work to you at all. I have been pondering that idea for a while, wondering if I was going to hit the point where it became more of a chore to get up so early and navigate through Portland’s speedy drivers to report to the zoo. However, I am on week five of my internship, and I have yet to hit that point. And I don’t think I will. The zoo has done a great job of increasing my responsibilities just enough each week to prevent any monotony from setting in, but also from making me feel overwhelmed by too much happening at once. As a result, I look forward to going to work every day, because I know that there will always be something new to learn and try. Every day is just different enough to keep me coming back for more!
Each week of my internship is given a particular focus. For this past week, I continued my regular duties for diet, enrichment, and cleaning, and started my enrichment project. It was a more relaxing week because no new concepts were introduced that required training. Instead, I had to do some reading on my own time about ornithology (the study of birds) and learning specifically about the species in the show collection. Fortunately, this didn’t feel like homework at all because I am always jumping on an opportunity to learn more about birds! And I supplemented the readings they gave me with my own bird books I brought with me this summer (6 books in all, in case you were wondering. Yes, I just counted them. No, that is not excessive…I think…). So, I thought I would share with you all some of the cool facts I got from my studying:
1) There are over 9,600 species of birds!
2) Birds will periodically shed and replace their feathers in a process called molting. Some birds, such as penguins, will molt all of their feathers at once
3) Owl can turn their heads up to 270 degrees
4) Peregrine falcons can reach speeds of 200+mph when they dive!
5) Birds of prey have a visual acuity (seeing for distance) that is eight to ten times better than ours! And to top that off, their eyes are about 100 times better than ours at detecting motion!
6) Eagles and hawks have a bony ridge above each eye that provides the eyes with protection, but it also gives them that serious-looking gaze!
7) Bald eagles will often steal prey from Osprey for an easy meal
8) When prey is abundant, Northern saw-whet owls will cache extra food to save for the winter
9) A Toco toucan’s bill accounts for a third of its total length and 1/20th of its total weight!
I could keep on going, but I will spare you all that.
During this week, I will get to put my knowledge to the test, as I am moving on to the interpretation portion of the internship. This is the part where I get to practice my public speaking skills, so that they can make sure I am ready to be out on zoo grounds educating people about how awesome birds are. Then, the real fun will begin, since our displays out in the zoo will be starting next week! Until I am checked off on handling some of the birds, I’ll be participating in the displays by bringing “biofacts,” such as feathers, skulls, talons, etc., for people to touch and get a closer look at. I can’t wait to get out there and have a chance to interact with the public!
Now that I’ve mastered diets, it’s time to work even more on my enrichment skills! Interns are required to complete an enrichment project before we can move on to learning about presentation skills and handling the birds. For my project, I’ve decided to work on record keeping.
Like I mentioned before, enrichment is an important part of zoo work. A zoo can lose its accreditation with AZA if it doesn’t have an enrichment program for its animals! So, what goes into creating an enrichment program? A lot of creativity, patience, and paperwork! Once you have thought of an item you would like to use as enrichment, it needs to be properly approved by certain people within the zoo. For example, let’s say I wanted to spear fruits and vegetables on a metal kabob to hang in the parrot enclosure to increase foraging behaviors. I would have to get the item approved by the veterinarian (in case the parrot could potentially harm itself after the food was all gone), the nutritionist, (the food on the kabob would have to come from the bird’s daily diet, instead of giving it extra treats), the senior keeper, and general curator. Once the item’s approved, it is assessed to make sure the animal won’t react inappropriately with the item. So, I would place the kabob with the food on it in the enclosure and record at timed intervals how the parrot interacts with it. If the parrot uses the kabob safely, it can now become an official enrichment item to be used.
This is the part where I come in for my project! I will be taking all of the newly approved enrichment items and inventorying them, taking pictures of them for our enrichment binder, properly labeling a storage space for each item, and finally getting the items cataloged into the computer system!
I am really looking forward to doing this because it is going to increase the number of enrichment items that each of the animals can have. Also, this will expose me to a variety of different enrichment options and give me some good ideas of enrichment for the animals at the Malone Zoo. Taking a look at Oregon’s enrichment program got me thinking about our own program we started at Malone. Since we just put the basic framework into place last semester, it’s still in its infancy. But I’ve got plenty of ideas now for how we can make it even better next year! For instance, it would be really helpful to inventory all of our items and list which ones are specifically appropriate for each animal. That way, if one of the team leads is not on shift to answer a question, workers can look up that information themselves!
I will have a few weeks to work on this project before I begin learning how to handle the animals, and especially since this will be quite a time-consuming task. But I am up for the challenge! Let’s see how many new items I can get cataloged by the time my project’s due!
Things I have learned at the Oregon Zoo so far:
1) Cleaning 12 mews in one day is guaranteed to give you blisters
2) Bald eagles are messy messy birds!
3) Kinkajou feces looks suspiciously similar to the food they eat. Save yourself the internal debate, and just wear gloves the whole time!
4) Turkey vultures have beautiful feathers
5) It is perfectly acceptable (and highly encouraged) to make snowmen for raptors on snow enrichment days!
I have successfully made it through my first week here at Oregon, and I am loving every minute of it! As promised (and expected), it’s been a lot of hard work. The first week for interns is always devoted strictly to cleaning duties. So, for four days, I did nothing but hose down, scrub, and disinfect mew floors, walls, perches, water tubs, and crates (a mew is the name given to an enclosure for raptors)! I ended up with blisters on my hands and sore muscles I didn’t know I had!
Growing up, I’ve been to quite a few zoo camps and visit days over the years. One thing that really stuck with me was that the keepers I talked to always said: “We do this job because of our love for animals.” And now that I’ve had my first taste of working at a zoo, I can definitely say that they were right! Many people think that zoo keepers get to play with animals all day for a living. In actuality, the majority of the day is spent cleaning and feeding. I might spend quite a significant amount of time getting a mew spotless, just to come back the next morning to clean it again! No, it’s not that we are the only people crazy enough to take on the job. It’s because we really do love the animals that much! Sure, my body’s tired by the end of a long day of cleaning. Yet, walking by a mew door and seeing a bald eagle looking back at me, and knowing I cleaned his area to the best of my ability to provide the best possible care for him makes it all worth it!
After passing my assessment on cleaning, I am now moving on to diets! I get to be the chef for the day and prepare all of the diets for the 19 animals in the show collection: from the northern saw-whet owl to the hooded vulture. Sometimes I think the two macaws eat better than I do!
I am also helping to carry out the enrichment schedule for the day and planning what enrichment will be given in the afternoon. Enrichment is anything that changes an animal’s environment and provides the animal with physical and mental stimulation, as well as a chance to exhibit natural behaviors. The ultimate goal is to enhance the quality of life for the animal. Enrichment can be food-oriented, scent-related, environmentally-based, or include a novel, non-food related item. Examples of just a few of the many things that are enriching include scattering food in the mew to promote foraging, adding new browse, rearranging perches, using spices to add new scents to leaves in the mew, providing nesting material, etc. And those are only a few of the many options! When coming up with enrichment ideas, it’s best to let your creative side run free. I will continue working on my enrichment prep skills for the next two weeks!
Here is some background information about the Oregon Zoo, so you can get a snapshot of the where I will be interning! The Oregon Zoo, located in Portland, Oregon, is an Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) accredited facility. The zoo spans a total of 64 acres and is home to roughly 232 different species of animals! In 2012, they had about 1.6 million visitors come through their doors. The zoo began in 1888 with just a single grizzly bear in a park. But, with a few name changes and a move to a larger property, it has expanded into the wonderful zoo we know today.
In fact, the Oregon Zoo isn’t done expanding yet. In 2011, a 20-year master plan was approved to update the zoo with renovations and new exhibits. By 2012, a brand-new Veterinary Medical Center (VMC) was up and running. This Memorial Day weekend, the new Condors of the Columbia exhibit will officially open, housing California Condors as part of the zoo’s membership to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service California Condor Recovery Program. Other exhibits and facilities included in the overall plan are Elephant Lands in 2015, a Zoo Education Center in 2017, a new polar bear habitat in 2018, and new rhinoceros and primate habitats in 2020. Whew, that’s a lot!
Central to the vision of these updates is the Oregon Zoo’s commitment to sustainability. The VMC’s roof directs rainwater into a 30,000-gallon water silo that can be utilized for restrooms, landscape irrigation, and cleaning exhibits. The zoo also composts its food waste and herbivore manure (called ZooDoo), to be used for horticultural purposes around the zoo. The majority of the zoo’s landscaping is also filled with native plants, instead of invasive or exotic species.
Speaking of native wildlife, the Oregon Zoo is also involved in quite a few conservation projects for threatened and endangered native species. These include the California condor, Western pond turtles, the Oregon spotted frog, and the Oregon silverspot butterfly. With the zoo’s help, in 2011, the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit had a complete breeding season in its historic range for the first time in over 10 years!
Educating the public on the importance of conservation and appreciating these amazing animals is what the Oregon Zoo is all about. And that’s where I come in! I will be working with the “Wild Life Live!” show department which gives outdoor educational presentations to zoo visitors. Not only will I be learning all about how to take care of and train these animals, I will also have the opportunity to teach others about them, too! Some of the animals that participate in the shows include the Blue and gold macaw, Golden eagle, Red-tailed hawk, Turkey vulture, Kinkajou, Kookaburra, and much more! The first day of my internship is this Sunday. Just two days away!! I am definitely nervous, but also beyond excited to have this crazy journey begin.
Below is a link to the Oregon Zoo, so you can find out more information about the zoo and its animals!
Hello everyone! My name is Rebecca, and I am a sophomore Zoo and Wildlife Biology student at Malone University. Starting next month, I am going to be completing my very first summer zoo internship with the Oregon Zoo! That’s right–Portland, Oregon! I will be working in their wildlife show department, learning the ins-and-outs of animal training, as well as all of the husbandry care for their show animals.
Growing up, I always knew that I wanted to have a career involving animals. After a short phase of wanting to become a veterinarian, I decided on being a zoo keeper, instead. Upon coming to Malone, I got involved with the animal collection on campus and training the birds for shows and presentations. Of course, this piqued my interest, and now I’m trying to decide if I would rather be just a zoo keeper or an animal trainer. Regardless of what I end up choosing, I do know for certain that I want to work with birds!
I am so excited about this internship because it is going to be a combination of both training and husbandry! I will get to see both sides of the coin which will help me decide which field is right for me. I’m anticipating that this summer will be a wonderful growth experience, and I wanted to share what I learn with everyone else!