Friday, December 28, 2012

The Rookie Files: Training Clark

I’m sure I’ve mentioned Clark the Bald Eagle in previous blogs, but he is one of my favorites.
 Clark, one of our magnificent flying Bald Eagles
I know, I know, parents aren’t supposed to have favorite kids, and trainers are not supposed to have favorite birds--but we often do, and Clark is one of mine.

My Clark fan club membership was recently renewed because I got to work one on one with him for the first time in years.  The first year I worked with Clark I was but a young rookie myself.  Fresh off my second internship and summer at Grant’s Farm I was told we were going to fly Clark at Silver Dollar City, Branson, Missouri, in the fall of 2009.

When he first arrived for preliminary training at WBS’s Milwaukee County Zoo bird show (where many of the staff who would eventually work at WBS’s Silver Dollar City bird show were stationed) I was a little on the nervous side.  A Bald EAGLE was going to be flying towards me!  It was a little unnerving to say the least.
 A Bald Eagle in full flight heading straight toward you can be a little unnerving!
Luckily for me at that point in my career, Clark was first trained by our excellent Bald Eagle trainer, Roger Wallace, and then continued his education with our amazing ETC supervisor; so no Bald Eagle landing on MY head!  …well, there was that one time when he didn’t really understand that we were calling him to a stump rather than the glove, but that was a fluke.  He was amazing to fly at Silver Dollar City, never missed a beat, and had the most incredible flights!

I was able to work with Clark a few more times over the next couple winters.  I only heard about his great double flights with Lewis the Bald eagle, but overall I did not work with Clark in a show capacity again until the summer of 2012.  We flew Clark at WBS’s Stone Zoo bird show in Stoneham, Massachusetts, near Boston.

This time I was the one in charge of Clark for the summer--his training, his pattern, his health and wellness.  To be honest, I was a little apprehensive, but felt confident that I was up to the challenge.  And then I remembered all of Clark’s delightful little quirks that I had completely forgotten about during the winter!  Clark loves to rip, tear and shred—it doesn’t matter what, just as long as he can turn it into a chew toy.

As I mentioned in my earlier Enrichment blog we had to provide Clark with a variety of different things to distract him at night so that he would not destroy his anklets or jesses.  Due to his “chewtastic” nature, Clark has to have special woven, nylon jesses instead of the usual leather ones.
 The goal was to get Clark to cue to the word "feathers"--and only to "feathers"
Clark is also very smart and very good at picking up on patterns.  At the beginning of the show we would ask the audience a question, the answer to which was the word “feathers!”. Once this guess was confirmed by the speaker, Clark would be cued for his exit.  Clark first picked up on the connection between the audience speaking and his cue for food.  When the audience would guess incorrectly, Clark would still try to leave.  Clark then learned that his food cue was connected to the word “feathers” itself.  By the end of the season, Clark would be ready to exit if the audience yelled “feathers”, but only “feathers”.  If, for instance, they yelled “wings” Clark would sit patiently until they guessed correctly; only then would he be primed to leave!
 Clark launching himself from the second story window of our Nature Center
Clark also started to anticipate his end pattern and became bored with it, forcing us to come up with new and exciting patterns to keep him engaged.  Birds of prey may not be as intelligent as some parrots or corvids (crows, ravens, jays), but don’t ever let anyone tell you that Bald eagles are dumb.  Fortunately it was this pattern recognition and intelligence that allowed us to be able to do an incredible release for WBS’s Open House this year--flying Clark out of our Nature Center’s second story window and out over the audience in our amphitheater!
 Our Open House audience experiencing a Bald Eagle flying just a few feet overhead
Clark and I have both come so far since we first met.  I became a supervisor and trainer in my own right; he flew in tandem with another Bald eagle and before a Saint Louis Blues hockey match.  He is a challenging bird who keeps me on my toes, and for enrichment purposes, I keep him guessing as well.  We may not always be working together due to scheduling conflicts, but when we do I think Clark and I bring out the best in each other.

Submitted by Leah Tyndall, World Bird Sanctuary 

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