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  • How did they get those birds to do that?
  • We take our time.
  • An enrichment for the birds and an inspiration for our visitors.
  • Becoming a zoo animal trainer

    How did they get those birds to do that?

    Photo: Crow collecting dollar billThe National Aviary’s staff is made up of some of the best bird trainers in the world. They spend large portion of each day training birds on and off-exhibit to do many different behaviors. When you visit the National Aviary you will have the opportunity to see our birds demonstrate trained behaviors during our many daily encounters. One of the most often asked questions during these encounters is, “How did you get the birds to do that?” or, “Why don’t they fly away instead of coming to you?” The answer has to do with the way we have trained them.

    A rewarding experience for the birds.

    The National Aviary trains birds using POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT TECHNIQUES. Positive reinforcement training means that whenever a bird does something that we want them to do, they get a treat or something that they really like (a positive reinforcer). That treat might be a sunflower seed or nut for a parrot, a grape for a toucan, a piece of mouse for an owl, or a fish for an Inca tern. Some birds, like our African penguins, will complete behaviors just for the extra attention — they are motivated by a scratch on the head!

    The most important aspect of positive reinforcement training is that it’s positive! We work hard to build trusting relationships with our birds so that they look forward to interacting with us.

    We take our time.

    If we’re training an owl to fly from a stump to a branch and the owl decides not to fly we don’t try to force it, instead we ignore the behavior of sitting still and remove the opportunity to earn the piece of mouse. We call this closing the bird’s window of opportunity. Think about it from a wild perspective. In the wild, if an owl sees a mouse in a field but decides to wait before trying to catch it, the mouse may go down its hole and the owl loses it’s chance at a meal. The owl has waited too long and its window of opportunity has closed. The next time the owl sees the mouse in the field, it is less likely to hesitate. So, we close our owl’s window of opportunity, wait a minute (often until the owl is looking more interested) and offer the cue to fly again. This time the owl flies to the perch and we give it the piece of food. It has just learned that quick responses earn a tasty treat and slow responses mean a lost opportunity. Next time it is likely to be quick the first time!

    We train our birds in small or steps. If we want our owl to fly from a stump on stage to a perch at the back of the National Aviary’s Rose Garden, we don’t ask it to fly the full distance the first time. Instead, we’ll move the stump close to the perch and ask the owl to make small hops back and forth. As the owl becomes confident with small hops, we scoot the stump backwards and increase the distance little by little. Over time the owl will learn to fly the entire length of the garden.

    An enrichment for the birds and an inspiration for our visitors.

    Training birds enables us to offer visitors an up-close, interactive experience with rare and beautiful birds that most people would never come in contact with otherwise. We believe that if you have the chance to connect with a bird emotionally (by feeding it, having it sit on your hand, seeing it fly low over your head, etc.) you’re more likely to want to do something to help protect it in the wild.

    Training makes it possible for our staff to directly handle the birds, and this in turn makes it possible for us to take better care of them. We are able to get accurate daily weights, we can monitor and assess them more easily because they allow us to get close, and the regular interaction with humans makes the birds more relaxed when we move through their exhibit areas.

    Training is also enriching for our birds! It keeps them active by requiring them to think and react to the cues and reinforcements that they are being offered. It encourages them to try new things and builds their confidence through positive human interaction.

    Becoming a zoo animal trainer.

    Photo: Bird trainer with vultureIn order to become an animal trainer in a zoo, you need to go to college to earn a degree in a biology or environmental education related field. Our trainers have degrees in zoology, animal science, wildlife management, psychology, and education to name a few. Our trainers who have degrees in other, non-animal disciplines had experience working with animals in other settings before coming to the National Aviary.

    It is also important to gain as much early experience working with animals. Many of our trainers started out in various zoo teenage volunteer programs while in high school, and completed multiple internships while in college. In fact, many of our hardest working interns have become full-time employees at the National Aviary.

    The most important aspect of becoming an animal trainer is to have experienced mentors. Experienced National Aviary Trainers spend time working with and guiding less experienced trainers. Most of our Trainers have attended conferences, seminars, and workshops that are geared towards training professional animal trainers.

    To learn more about training animals:

    1. Come to our indoor free-flight bird show in cooler months or our outdoor free-flight bird show in warmer months. See our birds performing their trained natural behaviors and stick around after to talk to our training staff.

    Button for In-House Programs

    2. Sign up for our Trainer for a Day program to experience what it is like to be atrainer at the National Aviary.

    3. Read the books “Don’t Shoot the Dog” by Karen Pryor or “Good Bird! A Guide to Solving Behavior Problems in Companion Parrots” by Barbara Heidenreich.

    4. Go to an animal training workshop. If you have a pet parrot at home, Natural Encounters, Inc. offers a workshop series on “The Art and Science of Training Companion Parrots.”


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    The National Aviary is supported in part through membership, donations, and funding from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and the Allegheny Regional Asset District.
    © 2009 National Aviary in Pittsburgh