Raptor Rehabilitation and Environmental Education in Western Australia's South West
LEGEND OF THE AMAZING ONE-LEGGED BARN OWL
(Birds, Stress and Interaction with Humans)
Sometimes, when Shadow the Barn Owl is on display, she behaves in a way
that worries some people: she tucks one foot up into her feathers and it disappears into her thick white down
so that it appears that she only has one leg.
Most, if not all birds relax in a very similar way. Adult birds
rarely "sit" or lie down for two main reasons: their tails get in
the way, and it makes them vulnerable. This is why, when a bird
wants to rest, it usually tucks one foot up and leans back so that its
other leg takes the weight of its body. Every now and then, they
will swap sides and tuck up the other foot to give that one a rest, too.
So, if you see us at a display or a school visit with what looks like a
one-legged barn owl, don't worry. Shady is simply so unconcerned
around human beings that she is perfectly happy to tuck up a foot and
chill out. If she was feeling nervous or under stress, she
wouldn't do it.
relaxes on one of her customised perches
takes a nap on the glove at the Perth Royal Show
Black Kite is curious about cameras
How to tell if your bird is under stress (this applies to most birds,
including your pet bird at home):
If ever our birds are uncomfortable in their environment, we return
them to their travel boxes to sit quietly and settle down.
Sometimes, if there is a specific thing worrying a bird, we may persist
for two or three minutes to see if the bird will get over it and accept the
environment, or we may change the layout of the display to see if the
bird accepts its situation with modifications. A bird is never
left out on display if it is stressed or frightened. A constantly
bating bird is a danger to itself and its handler.
- The bird flattens its feathers tight and hard against the body
- The bird opens its eyes wide and acquires a "pop eyed" look
- The bird is tense and grips its perch or the handler's fingers
tightly with both feet. It may stand with its feet wide apart.
- The bird "bates" - that is, attempts to jump or fly away from
its perch or handler.
- The bird "gapes" - it holds its beak open and pants (if it is
hot, the bird will do this as a normal cooling mechanism because they
- The bird demonstrates a "gular flutter" - the feathers at its
throat flutter in and out.
How to tell if your bird is relaxed (again, these signs are fairly
universal for most birds):
- Feathers are loose or even fluffed, particularly under the beak
(lores) and around the legs.
- The bird tucks up a foot, sometimes to the point where it
- The bird preens.
- The bird "rouses" - it raises all its feathers on end then
shakes all over from head to tail before settling again.
- The bird goes to sleep.
- The bird engages in play or bonding behaviour with its handler.
- The bird exhibits signs of curiosity about its environment and
tries to explore (this can sometimes be mistaken for bating but is an
attempt to fly toward something rather than away from something.)
How to tell if a bird is hot:
How to remedy this:
- The bird holds its wings away from its body
- The bird "gapes" - it holds its beak open and pants (birds
don't sweat the way we do, so they pant to cool off.)
- Some species exhibit a colour change to the cere or feet as
they pump blood into exposed areas of skin to facilitate heat exchange.
At our displays, we have a small bath behind the screens, out of sight
of the general public, where the birds can rest in private and cool off
if they so desire. At Garden Week, in the Ecotopia feature in
2003, we had one day where it was thirty seven degrees and a lot of
people came and spent time with us just to catch the fine mist of cool
water and the air from our fan that was keeping the birds cool!
Finely misted water beads on the birds' feathers and evaporates
quickly, cooling them off without wetting them down. The body
language they display in response to this suggests they like it.
- A household spray bottle with cool (but not cold) water can be
used to very gently mist water around the bird.
- Some birds will tolerate sitting in front of a fan. On
very hot days, Shadow loves to sit in front of the air cooler with all
her feathers fluffed out to catch the breeze.
- Provide a shallow bird bath with cool (but not cold) water.
All our education birds have been "manned" and "trained" using a system
of trust and positive reinforcement. Behaviourists call this
"operant conditioning," and it is a technique used by top trainers of
both animals and people. We teach our birds to trust us by giving
them food and by gradually decreasing the distance between us and them
without ever making sudden moves or behaving aggressively. They
learn that we bring them gifts and never associate us with things that
frighten them. Once the trust is established (this can take
months of very patient interaction between handler and bird) the next
phase begins, and we ask them to approach us to receive their
food. They still get fed (we do not withhold food) but they get
fed faster if they come up and get it, so they learn that if they
behave in a certain way, there is a reward. The next phase is for
them to eat a snack while sitting on the glove. By this time,
bird and handler have developed a bond. After months of careful
training, the bird trusts the handler to protect them from anything
strange or frightening, and is ready to meet the rest of the
world. They learn that if anything bothers them, their handler
will take care of it, either by changing the situation, removing the
offending item or by taking the bird away to another place where it
Raptors never become "tame." They develop a trust relationship
with their individual handlers and are prepared to tolerate strangers
to a point on the strength of that trust. They do not make good
pets. The companion animals we regard as pets, like cats and
dogs, have been interacting with humans over thousands of years and
have become radically altered from their original wild ancestors
through many generations of selective breeding. Other companion
birds like parrots have a naturally gregarious temperament suited to
interaction with humans.
Raptors are predators, and good animal trainers always respect the
innate nature of the animals they work with. Every relationship
with our birds begins and ends with respect, and it is this respect
that leads the birds to trust.
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