Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Why Train Kakapo?

Conservation projects are all about saving wild birds, the emphasis of course being on the word “wild.” Training tends to conjure up images of pet birds and cute tricks and seems on the surface quite contradictory to keeping birds wild. However conservation involves more than breeding and releasing birds. Behavior plays an integral part. In recent years zoos have zoomed in on training and addressing behavioral needs as an essential part of caring for animals. I see the same thing happening in conservation. More conservation projects are looking into how behavior and learning experiences influence achieving their goals.

There are many ways training can facilitate projects. When we put field biologists and trainers together we discover the needs. And in reality whether we acknowledge it or not, birds in conservation projects are learning all the time. Why not add some structure and specific behavior goals to that learning to help the project succeed?

Kakapo feeding station
The Kakapo Recovery Program prior to me volunteering my services had already been utilizing training to facilitate their work. Even though the birds live freely on a protected, uninhabited island and forage naturally, they do receive supplemental feeding at hoppers. Each hopper has a platform. Sometimes that platform is a scale. Hop on the scale and the bird can access the hopper for a snack. Guess what? That is training! Right next to the hopper is a device that reads the transmitter of the bird and records the weight. In other training Rakiura and Sirocco both learned to go through a cat door to enter enclosed feeding stations that were designed to keep other native birds out.  All this is done without a human anywhere in sight. And technology keeps getting better. This leads to ideas to reduce stress in catching up wild birds for health checks using both technology and training. In my opinion this is just the beginning of ways we can reinforce desired behaviors remotely. And we are brainstorming more ways to do just that with kakapo.

Enclosed kakapo feeding station with cat door
The Kakapo Recovery Program has several behavioral objectives. As many know Sirocco has an important role as ambassador bird. However he also lives part of the year as a wild kakapo. His training has helped make his behavior manageable in the field and also when on display. When on display, he does respond favorably to people, however when in the wild he will often not visit rangers on the island for months. Instead he must be tracked and visually checked like the other wild kakapo. Additionally his interest in mating with people is now better managed by redirecting him to acceptable behavior thanks to training. (For more on his story see this blog about Training Sirocco)

There are three chicks that needed to be hand raised this year due to various challenges (cracked egg, weight loss, health issues) Ideally it is preferred that a female kakapo raises the chicks, however in some cases it is just not possible in order for the chick to survive. And at this stage, all chicks are very precious. All three chicks will be released into the wild on protected, predator free islands.

The Kakapo Recovery Program has successfully released at least 30 hand raised birds. Interestingly kakapo seem much more “hard wired” than other species of parrots. When hand-raised with other kakapo they tend to revert to natural kakapo behavior rather easily once transitioned into the wild. (Sirocco was raised solo due to an illness, which is believed to be a big part of why he has a strong attraction for humans over other kakapo) Because the three chicks are being hand raised they are in general more receptive to humans at the moment, but as they mature and segue into the wild we expect that interest to decrease, as evidenced by birds in the past.

At this stage this comfort level with people provides an important training opportunity. These chicks are in a critical period of development in which they are open and receptive to new experiences. Anyone who has had a baby parrot in their life will be able to relate. Young birds will often let you do just about anything to them. Once they mature that open and receptive attitude tends to go away and the once sweet baby parrot starts objecting to being manipulated by biting or running away. To avoid this, good things like hand feeding formula, favorite food items and enrichment can be paired with anything you are trying to do with a young parrot, such as restraint training, wing manipulation, etc. This can have long lasting effect into the future and can teach a young parrot that handling is associated with good things.

Each bird in The Kakapo Recovery Program is carefully monitored on a regular basis. This involves, at a minimum, hour long hikes into the forest over difficult terrain. One of our main goals is to help make health checks and transmitter changes a stress free process. Kakapo just like companion parrots usually don’t appreciate being captured and restrained. One of our goals is to train these young chicks for these procedures so that when health check/transmitter change time in the field comes around it will be as pleasant as possible. The idea is that the birds will lead their wild lives as normal and occasionally a ranger will visit for a stress free health check or transmitter change.

This focus on training at just the right time in a young bird’s life can help make future care and specific procedures pleasant. However someday in the future the hope is for the population to become large enough that such intensive monitoring and care of each wild bird and chick won’t be necessary. The population would be stable and self-sufficient. Unfortunately we are not there yet. So for now training any birds we can to make their care as stress free as possible is a big plus.

Keep your on eye on my blog for more updates soon!

Barbara Heidenreich
Copyright 2014

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