Wildlife Rehabilitation and Companion Animal Behavior Consulting: Opposite Yet Complimentary Applications
I am lucky enough to have worked with birds, in particular parrots, for over a decade, and have built a business that incorporates my passion for conservation and for training and behaviour. My passion has always been birds, since graduating with a post-graduate diploma in zoology from Massey University (New Zealand), which has a strong avian conservation focus to the curriculum, then working to develop a free-flight bird show at Rainbow Springs Wildlife Park. There I started learning about animal training and behaviour modification, which was vastly different from the field techniques and wild animal behaviour observation methods I had studied in my university career. While the messages in zoological animal displays and shows are centred around conservation and have a very important role in education and stewardship, the actual practice of working with tame captive animals is very different from working hands-on with their wild counterparts.
After moving to Perth, Western Australia, in 2013 and struggling to find job openings in either of my fields, I began Parrot Life® Behaviour and Training and began working for myself as a professional avian behaviour and training consultant. Parrot Life offers in-home and online consultations for companion parrot owners, often on referral from avian vets. In the last five years Parrot Life has grown to three consultants and one intern, we have opened in New Zealand, and will soon open the third “branch” in Brisbane (we also now offer a range of workshops, courses and an online parrot product shop). Needing a conservation aspect to feel whole, I began volunteering at Kaarakin Black Cockatoo Conservation Centre, and Parrot Life was offered the Avian Management contract there from 2014 to now. At Kaarakin we work intensively on onsite husbandry, site diet, volunteer training, black cockatoo clinic set-up and procedures, cockatoo rehabilitation and movements, release assessments, and training of non-release birds for display and education. So on any given day I could be taming down fearful companion birds in someone’s home using R+ methods, restraining and crop-feeding an injured wild black cockatoo in Kaarakin’s clinic (and teaching volunteers how to handle them safely), using R+ and P- hand in hand to modify an attention-based scream in a pet corella, or teaching hand-reared juvenile black cockatoos to be wary of people and bond with each other instead, so they can have a chance to be free (using R- and very mild P+). Having to assess every different situation on the short- and long-term goals, modify environments, interactions, and personnel behaviour appropriately to support those goals, and apply the LIMA principles ethically to every decision gave me a much greater appreciation for behaviour change. I have been forced to challenge my biases and preconceptions in both fields. Let me explain in more detail.
Black Cockatoo rehabilitation
Injured or debilitated black cockatoos come in after a call from the public when Kaarakin’s cockatoo ambulance will pick them up and provide first aid, then get the bird to the veterinary team at Perth Zoo. Sadly, around half don’t survive their injuries, but those that do are stabilised and returned to Kaarakin’s black cockatoo clinic with care instructions that involve handling, medications, force-feeding via crop needle, and teaching how to eat the site diet while monitoring their weight. This year, 58% of intakes have been juvenile (less than 3 years old) and many of those are dependant fledglings, so hand-rearing until weaning is a major part of the rehabilitation process. Once the birds have recovered from their injuries, are weaned and converted to a pellet-based diet, and are out of quarantine, they are then moved into larger flocking aviaries with varying goals – depending on what skills they need to learn, or what behaviours we must modify to get them prepared for life in the wild.
Working with wild cockatoos is vastly different from working with companion parrots. When I began at Kaarakin I had little experience in handling and medicating wild birds and had to learn on the job while helping to train others; luckily a background with parrot body language sped this process up significantly. I did find it very uncomfortable initially to handle an unwilling bird because I had worked as a trainer—where birds are given the choice to participate in their own husbandry—so working with wild birds that you cannot tame down was the opposite end of the spectrum. The experience I gained in handling and basic medical understanding in this clinic setting was invaluable, and not something you get exposed to often when working with tame birds. When handling a sore wild bird with a 2000psi bite pressure from a small hospital cage, your stress-behaviour identification skills get honed pretty quickly, as you have to read when and where a bird will lunge when it feels threatened or you can be seriously injured.
Subsequently, you also become very sensitive to ways you can reduce the stress of general husbandry with your actions and environmental set-up. These are skills that you don’t often get to see or practice when working as a behaviour consultant, even with a fearful companion bird that you want to tame down, as you are using positive reinforcement techniques and giving the bird choice, something that you cannot do with a wild bird that needs treatment in a small time-frame. However, drawing on experience working with fearful companion birds led to us spending a large amount of time modifying clinic procedures to train volunteers to identify behaviour in the recovery aviaries and identify changes in behaviour and demeanour quickly. We also taught them ways to minimise stress to the birds when performing daily husbandry by using simple techniques like modifying perch placement and our body- and eye-position so that the birds are less likely to startle unnecessarily.
Funnily enough, the main challenge with these birds is training the human personnel, volunteers who often have no background in rehabilitation or working with animals, let alone awareness of the processes we use to achieve our rehabilitation and behaviour goals. They tend to join Kaarakin because they love and want to interact with cockatoos (especially the young ones!). This means we need to stay very mindful of their motivation and human behaviour identification, and positively reinforce the volunteers with things that we can offer such as advancing their skills and responsibilities as they are ready, giving them interaction time with the tame ambassador birds after a shift, inviting them to open the crate door to free a cockatoo on release day, and always providing lots of chocolate at the morning tea table! They need positive reinforcers to stay enthusiastic in a challenging clinic with sometimes sad outcomes, where compassion fatigue is a real threat. Much time is spent teaching the volunteers that the birds in rehabilitation are wild and cannot be interacted with in a way where they begin to form positive associations with people and begin to approach (even something as simple as changing the food bowls needs special protocols and diet arrangements, since the cockatoos are smart and begin to associate “humans = food” very quickly). It can sometimes be a big struggle, as we are fighting the innate human behaviour of wanting to engage with cute animals! So we have to train them to self-police, think in a long-term approach, and be critical about their own behaviour, always asking themselves, “Is this action I am taking going to help or hinder this bird’s chance of being released out into the wild?” Sometimes the urge to interact wins, but rapid changes in the behaviour of the birds clue us in to discrepancies very quickly, so we can put more training in with the volunteers.
Just like working with any behaviour modification process, every animal is an individual, so all the cockatoos that come into rehabilitation have a tailored plan. The most important thing to remember are to keep clear goals in mind—you want these wild birds to be released and survive, so they need to:
- Stay well away from humans (i.e., not imprinted, tame, or even habituated to us, while still trying to minimise stress levels in captivity)
- Have awareness of predators
- Identify what wild food to eat and be able to consume enough to sustain themselves in the wild
- Know how to behave in a cohesive flock structure
- Merge into existing wild flocks upon release
Cockatoos that come in as adults luckily don’t need much in the way of behavioural preparation to get them used to the wild, but they typically need several months to years to overcome illness or injury, rebuild fitness and flight skills, and form bonds with the flocks they are to be released with. Even though treatments and movements are unpleasant and stressful for the birds, we must keep in mind that we don’t want to tame these birds in any way or habituate them to people. Stress in intensive care cages is reduced as much as possible by setting up the environment strategically, the handler using calm body language, quick identification of defensive behaviours, quick and effective treatments, and secure handling techniques. Once their injuries are healed and their health is stable, we can reduce contact significantly, and then use these more experienced birds during their rehab process to teach the younger ones appropriate wild behaviour, predator awareness, and foraging skills through modelling.
Kaarakin Clinic Intensive Care Cages. Credit: Kaarakin
Clinic Aviaries at Kaarakin. Credit: Kaarakin
Kaarakin’s 64m long pre-release aviary. Credit: Kaarakin
Birds that come in as dependant juveniles are much more challenging, especially the red-tails, as they can imprint onto their human carers quickly and strongly when being hand-fed. Due to the long dependant phase (up to 18 months in the wild due to their hard-to-extract food sources), in previous years well-meaning volunteers had been inadvertently imprinting most of the young birds that came in, with a little too much love during the critical developmental phase. Fast forward a few years down the track, there were far more tame birds than were needed for ambassadors, that could have been released if their wild behaviour had been encouraged when young. Aviary space was getting short and now tame birds were taking up rehab aviary space. We immediately implemented protocols to reduce imprinting, which meant that the hand-feeding process needed to be as efficient and business-like as possible, with little to no positive associations with humans during feeding times, all while trying to keep stress at a minimum. This meant managing volunteer interactions so the hand-feeding was via crop needle rather than syringe (syringe feeding is a very pleasant experience for the birds and creates imprinted birds very fast!), weaning by weight rather than begging behaviour (in the wild they can beg until 2 years old), no talking to the birds or even looking at them while putting in browse and feed bowls, and making sure time spent where they could see humans in the corridor areas was minimised. The idea was, rather than seeing a human and thinking “food and comfort,” they see a human and are alert and wary as wild birds should be. By keeping the fledglings in no more than a 50:50 ratio to wild adults, they spend most of their time learning from them rather than looking to people for food, and start to beg at the adults instead. Brilliantly, this often produces an instinctive feed response from mature males that then take over feeding, meaning we could stop hand-feeding and just monitor weights until they are stable. Although managing the fledglings this way has the potential to create more stress than hand-feeding with willing birds, which goes against everything you learn when working with tame animals, this was a necessary “evil” to create the wild behaviour we needed in the long term, and we found the rate of imprinting dropped significantly.
Just to see how far we could get with already imprinted stock, we began to put behaviour plans in place to “revert” the accidentally tamed birds to more wild behaviour, to the point where they could be reassessed as release candidates and reduce stock levels. This process begins by moving them in with the wild birds in rehab aviaries—you must be careful to only put a couple of tame birds in with a flock of wild ones at a time though, otherwise you start to tame down the wild ones! We then give them at least a year with no R+ associated with people, and introduce a gentle herding technique to get them to associate a human approaching with “I need to fly away with my flock.” The herding technique utilises the catch net—the one thing that all birds on site reliably don’t like. We walk towards the flock with it, held as low as possible to minimise any stress. Watching closely for flight preparation body language, the moment before take-off we insert a clear arm cue to then prompt flight from one end of the aviary to the other. The aviaries for these flocks are around 20 metres long, so once the flock flies past the person, pressure is taken off them by reducing view of the net and turning shoulders into the aviary wall (mild P+ to the behaviour of sitting still as people approach, or R- to the act of flying on cue). Once the flock gets the hang of it, you can remove the net stimulus and just use the hand cue, which works very well once they are moved to the 64 metre-long pre-release aviary—the keeper only has to walk a few metres from the centre entrance in either direction, give the hand cue, and the birds fly end to end. By this stage they are wary and will alarm call the flock, which is what we want, but we can tell the stress is kept low as they often carry a prized gumnut or pinecone from one end to the other to resume feeding once we have done their flight checks. The flight cue also has the benefit of allowing easy assessment of flock dynamics, health, fitness, conformation, feather condition, and successful tail flaring on landing.
Kaarakin’s Cockatoo Ambulance. Credit: Kaarakin
Wild Carnaby’s cockatoo “Sweetie” with broken wing in intensive care. Credit: Perth Zoo
Towel hold on a wild red-tail to check pupil injury. Credit: Kaarakin
Stressed wild cockatoo in intensive care cage in Kaarakin’s Clinic. Credit: Kaarakin
Wild food ‘flush’ as part of preparation and assessment for release. Credit: Kaarakin
Release Day (Red-tails). Credit: Kaarakin
Baudin’s release (note GPS and satellite trackers attached as part of the Murdoch University ‘Black Cockatoo Recovery Project’). Credit: Kaarakin
Wild Carnaby’s cockatoo “Sweetie” sighted one year post release. Credit: DBCA
Although there will always be some birds that are far too tame and unwise to prepare for release, in general we have had great success with even very tame cockatoos. Although it can take three or four years of slow behaviour modification in some cases, they are still behaviourally plastic enough to revert to wild behaviour given the right husbandry conditions. To see these previously tame birds fly away with a flock on release day, and get updates on their progress in the wild from researchers (we collaborate with Murdoch University on their long-term cockatoo tracking study) is the best R+ for years of hard work and firm constitutions on our part! The birds that are deemed too tame and can’t be released lead very enriched lives in our care. They have very important ambassador roles in the large interactive aviary, are transferred to other zoos, or are trained and used for in-situ and ex-situ education events. There is nothing better to raise public awareness and advocate for an endangered species than meeting and interacting with one in person, so the ambassador cockatoos at Kaarakin are a vital piece of the puzzle, and love their jobs!
Overall, I feel that working in both the conservation and behaviour fields has given me a crucial appreciation for avian behaviour that has improved the skills of me and my staff considerably. I highly recommend that anyone who works in wildlife rehabilitation or a clinical setting with birds spends some time shadowing behaviour consultants and studying and using applied behaviour analysis—we are so lucky there are so many amazing resources around to learn from. The same goes for any behaviour consultant or trainer who hasn’t worked in a conservation, rehab, or clinical setting with wild birds—do yourself a favour and sign up for work experience or volunteer work at your local avian clinic or wildlife shelter. It will be uncomfortable at first, as it is vastly different to what you are used to, but you will become a better keeper and trainer because of the skills you will gain, as well as the feel-good factor of helping your local wildlife!
Rachel Riley owns and operates Parrot Life Behaviour and Training, a parrot behaviour consultancy based in Australasia. She is the former avian management officer at Kaarakin Black Cockatoo Conservation Centre (this role is now filled by Parrot Life’s Perth consultant, Georgia Kerr).
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