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Raptor Rehabilitation and Environmental Education in Western Australia's South West


(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.

Kicking Back at Home Napping at the Perth Royal Show Cetan is curious about the digital camera
Shadow relaxes on one of her customised perches Shadow takes a nap on the glove at the Perth Royal Show
Cetan the 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.

How to tell if your bird is relaxed (again, these signs are fairly universal for most birds):

How to tell if a bird is hot:
How to remedy this:
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.

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 feels safe.

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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