Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Rookie Files: Mia

How to teach an old dog (or owl as the case may be) new tricks.

Thus far the birds that I’ve talked about were completely new to shows this summer.  Some of our rookies, however, were previously in shows but it had been a while since they performed.  One bird however has done shows for most of her life, but last summer was only her second year doing a completely new behavior.

Mia is a sixteen year old spectacled owl.  This species is found in the rainforests of Central and South America.  They are easily recognized by their dark head with white markings around their eyes.  These markings strongly resemble a pair of glasses or spectacles, giving the owls their name.  Juveniles are not so easily recognized since they have the exact opposite coloration of the adults. They are white bodied with a dark facial mask.  In fact, they look so different from the adults that when scientists first saw them they thought that they were looking at two completely different species of owls.  It actually takes anywhere from one to five years for the juveniles to molt into their adult plumage, rather than one year as in other owl species. 

Spectacled owls also differ from most owls in their call.  Rather than the customary hooting we associate with owls, spectacled owls are nicknamed the knocking owl because their primary vocalization sounds like someone knocking on a pane of glass.  This can be a little disconcerting when you are alone in the building and your spectacled owl begins calling unexpectedly.  Spectacled owls will eat crabs (their favorite tasty treat), rodents, and occasionally birds.  There is even one recorded case of a spectacled owl catching and eating an adult three toed sloth!

Mia never snuck off to eat the zoo’s sloth, but she did love to fly for rat meat.  After spending most of her life and show career as a walk on bird (aka sitting on the glove and looking pretty) Mia free flew for the first time in the summer of 2008.  It was a very simple pattern, only one or two hops.  Last summer we were a little more ambitious.  Mia hopped from the trainer’s glove to a flat top perch.  From here she made her entrance onto the stage usually prefaced by an excited “wooo!”.  First she flew to a stump where she was rewarded with a piece of rat meat, and then she hopped to a second stump.  From there she flew back to the first stump before revving up her rocket boosters (figuratively) and flying offstage(literally)to a stool where she was picked up and escorted back to her perch.

 Mia did an excellent job last summer, although she had a few issues on windy days.  Sometimes she would be blown unexpectedly by a strong wind gust and end up on an unintended perch(or fence), but she usually recovered quickly.  She even reprised her role as a walk on bird on the occasions that she took a very long, wet bath right before a show.  Oddly enough she was still a fan favorite, even when she looked like a drowned rat.

In the off-season Mia spends her time in her specially constructed indoor flight cage, since she can’t handle Missouri’s cold winter climate.  Most of the day is spent sitting and preening, with the occasional bath thrown in every now and then.  In March she makes a special guest appearance at the International Owl Festival in Minnesota and then relaxes till the summer.  This summer we are hopeful that Mia will be able to fly a more complicated pattern and end on a trainer’s glove rather than a stool.  Who says you can’t teach an old owl new tricks?  Well no one, and maybe Mia and her flying prowess are the reason.

Submitted by Leah Tyndall, World Bird Sanctuary Naturalist


Erin said...

I also work with a spectacled owl, and wonder how Mia was trained to fly to designated perches? The bird I work with will step onto the glove, but little else. How long does it take to train these birds, and what are the key points in training?

Photog said...

Thanks for responding to our Blog about our Spectacled Owl. Your question is hard to respond to because there's so much detail and information you would need to know to manage and train a bird to free fly. It would be impossible for me to try to describe it in an e-mail. Please consider coming to our raptor workshop this November. From A to Z, we go over all aspects of managing raptors and many other birds in captivity, including giving information on training birds to free fly. For more information about the workshop you can go to our website and use the Contact Us link to request an information brochure. Hope to see you in November, and again, thanks for visiting the WBS website. Sincerely, Jeff
Jeffrey S. Meshach
Assistant Director
World Bird Sanctuary