Monday, October 26, 2015

Aggression: Part 1

There is a very common question that we get at zoo show programs, especially when we have a bird on the arm.  “Does the bird ever bite you?”  The short answer is yes, but the better question is “why does the bird bite you?”

I hate the phrase “aggression” or “the bird was being aggressive”.  Okay, allow me to rephrase, I dislike when people, especially new trainers use those phrases as they tend to lump together any sort of negative display from the bird. 

Over the years I have found that birds may be aggressive for a number of different reasons, and unless the reason is identified, curbing the negative behavior becomes increasingly difficult. 

Questions that I like to ask both myself and people that I am training when trying to identify the cause of aggressive behavior are:  How was the bird “being aggressive”?  What exactly was it doing?  When did the negative behavior start exactly?  Was there an instigating moment?  What was the trainer doing?

Feed me human!  (photo: Leah Tyndall)

The first form of aggression is food aggression.  This is when a bird tends to react in a violent manner because it wants food.  Everyone gets a little grumpy when they are hungry and birds are no exception.  Food aggression can vary from rushing a trainer who has food, to biting at the glove when it does not contain food.  The key is to reward the birds not when they are charging or footing, but when they are exhibiting calm behavior. 

We also redirect their aggressive tendencies into a different behavior.  For instance one of our Black Vultures used to rush at people all of the time since he had accidentally been rewarded for doing so at his previous location.  We taught him to perch on a branch or stump, wait for 10-15 seconds and then he would be rewarded.  He found this to be a much faster and easier way to get his breakfast, rather than charging at people.  That often caused them to leave, taking the food with them. 

Training Zeuss (photo: Mike Cerutti)

Birds that become aggressive to the glove are no longer rewarded from the glove; instead they eat from a cup or a “food glove” which is on the opposite hand from the handling glove.  This is how we trained Zeus, our Golden Eagle.  The use of a food glove also had the added benefit of creating a disregard for our bare hand.  This allows us to check his feet and change his equipment without any issues.

Birds also become defensive if they think you are trying to take food from them.  This often leads to a behavior called mantling.  This is when a bird hunches over its food and droops its wings so that the food is not visible to other birds.  If any creature dares approach their prize there is usually a loud vocalization followed by the bird striking out with either its beak or feet. 

Yup...looks like a rat to me! (photo: Leah Tyndall)

On occasion it does not even need to be food, the bird just perceives it that way.  The other day Buford our Bald Eagle was sitting backstage on his perch and he relieved himself.  I decided to grab a paper towel to clean it up once I picked him up.  Apparently that paper towel looked exactly like a rat because Buford immediately jumped for it, feet first.  He didn’t stop until I tossed him the paper towel, he realized it was not a rat and promptly spit it out.  After that he was a prince.

Aggression is sort of a catch all term for a bird reacting in a hostile or violent way.  It can have many root causes, only one of which I have touched upon here. Come back next month as I discuss territorial aggression, perceived threat aggression, and dominance aggression.  Actually, maybe come back for several months, this might take me a bit.

Submitted by Leah Tyndall, World Bird Sanctuary 

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