Saturday, March 7, 2015

Graduation Day

In this blog I’ve talked quite a bit about Zeus our Golden Eagle over the last couple of years. 

His training has been a huge part of my job, as well as a milestone in my life.  Last summer he completed another landmark by working at his first World Bird Sanctuary zoo show program at the Milwaukee County Zoo, and I couldn’t be more proud of that bird.  WBS has presented a bird show at the Milwaukee County Zoo for 30 of the last 31 years.

Zeus peering curiously at the camera (photo: Erica Fenske)

Last year was all about helping him to feel comfortable around people, especially large crowds.  We started him out small, placing him in our public weathering area every morning for increasingly longer periods of time.  Since there were many new things (vans, strollers, lots of people, construction equipment, etc.) we always had a pouch of treats to reward him for calmly tolerating all of the above.  This caused Zeus to associate going out to the weathering area with getting food, making it a very positive experience.

Being a clever eagle, Zeus would sometimes use these rewards to his advantage.  The big cat exhibit was under construction and many of the front loaders drove on the main road behind our weathering area.  This frightened Zeus at first.  We started rewarding him for jumping back up onto the perch once they went past and then for staying on the perch as they went by until he didn’t even flinch when he heard them coming.  Problem solved!  However Zeus remembered that we used to give him treats for hopping back up onto his perch (a subtle training error by me).  So, he started to jump off his perch for seemingly no reason, looked at me (and my bag of treats), hopped back up to his perch, and then looked at me again.  From then on we only rewarded him while he was sitting on his perch, which put a stop to this particular behavior.

Once Zeus was comfortable in the weathering area, we started putting him in shows as a walk on (he perched on our glove and we walked him around the theater).  His first audience was 68 people, but he quickly worked his way up to triple digit audiences.  We continued to reward him while he was being walked around so that he would want to be on stage, since it meant he was going to get treats.  The audience loved seeing a Golden Eagle, and we loved showing him off.

Zeus was unruffled by all the equipment and strangers (photo: Leah Tyndall)

Zeus became so famous at the Milwaukee County Zoo that Marquette University wanted to use him in a photo shoot (their mascot is the Golden Eagle).  I have to admit at first I was incredibly nervous.  Yes, Zeus had made great strides, but a photo shoot had all sorts of variables that could frighten him.  Cameras are strange, the backdrop might scare him, he was going to be surrounded by people he didn’t know, and a lot closer than he was used to.  What if a peacock wandered in…the list went on and on.  Turns out I need not have worried!  Zeus was amazing, he sat perfectly on his perch, didn’t seem bothered by the camera and no extraneous peafowl were afoot.

In the beginning Zeus eating from my hand was cause for celebration (photo: Mike Cerutti)

I cannot even describe the sense of pride I felt watching him.  This was a bird that trusted no one when I first met him in a huge free flight chamber.  He had to watch me for several minutes before he came down to eat the food I offered him.  Now he was sitting with a seemingly curious expression in front of cameras and strangers-- he even started preening; the ultimate sign of comfort for a bird!  He had come so far!  Sorry, I’m gushing, but I’m just so proud of this bird.

Zeus had a terrific season up in Milwaukee.  He learned a lot, he taught me a lot and he educated thousands of people about Golden Eagles.  Based on his performance and progress last season I am incredibly confident about his first flying season this year.  That’s right ladies and gentlemen.  For the first time in the history of the sanctuary, we’re free flying a Golden Eagle…stay tuned!

Submitted by World Bird Sanctuary Naturalist/Trainer Leah Tyndall

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