[00:00:00] Helen: The foundation that pays for everything else is just this relationship that we work on with them. And the relationship that we have with them too, is that we’re all teachers and we’re all learners.
[00:00:11] Allie: Welcome to Enrichment for the Real World, the podcast devoted to improving the quality of life of pets and their people through enrichment. We are your hosts, Allie Bender…
[00:00:32] Emily: …and I’m Emily Strong…
[00:00:33] Allie: …and we are here to challenge and expand your view of what enrichment is, what enrichment can be and what enrichment can do for you and the animals in your lives. Let’s get started.
Thank you for joining us for today’s episode of Enrichment for the Real World, and I want to thank you for rating, reviewing, and subscribing wherever you listen to podcasts.
The voice you heard at the beginning of today’s episode was Helen Dishaw. Helen Dishaw currently holds the position of Curator of Bird Programs at Tracy Aviary. A lifelong animal person, she has worked with a variety of exotic animals in AZA facilities for more than two decades, committed to the excellent care and welfare of animals in human care.
She became involved in the work directly and primarily with avian species approximately 10 years ago, and since that time has been involved in managing free flight bird programs. Helen has been a member of IAATE since 2004, and during that time has chaired several committees as well as participated in the creation of IAATE’s position statements on best practices of avian management for educational and free flight programs. For more than a decade, she has served as Vice-president of IAATE. Helen is the Ambassador Animal Advisor for the AZA Raptor Taxon Advisory Group. She also serves on the STEERING committees for the Raptor TAG and the Ambassador Animal Scientific Advisory Group. I told you at the end of last week’s episode, that I wasn’t quite sure what to expect before Helen’s interview.
I respect birds, I love birds in the wild, but I haven’t really worked with them. I found this interview so refreshing and so applicable to pets of all species. I really think you’re going to like this one. In this episode, you’re going to hear Emily and Helen talk about why birds make great teachers, who’s training who, owl socialization, that was not upon who’s training who, and then owl socialization, how budgies stumped Emily. All right, here it is, today’s episode Helen Dishaw: What We Can Learn from Birds.
[00:02:37] Emily: Okay. So, tell us your name, your pronouns, and your pets, please.
[00:02:43] Helen: My name is Helen Dishaw, my pronouns are she/her, and pets, I have three dogs, three Cocker Spaniels, actually, which are a lot of fun at my house, but then a whole lot of avian, not pets, but friends, that I work with too, so that my life is full of animals.
[00:03:04] Emily: Definitely. So, tell us your story and how you got to where you are.
[00:03:08] Helen: I am assuming you mean professional stories? I could go way, way back. I could start that off when I was just a toddler. I think I knew right from the get-go that this is the field I was going to work in. If you talk to my family, I, I, all my toys when I was a kid with little plastic animals or stuffy animals that I would force my sister to play games with me, where I was the zookeeper or, the circus ring master, or the dog trainer or whatever it was, and she was the animal. So, she played a lot of animal characters in her life. All my life thought that I, um, wanted to be a vet. So, I did all my sciences, when I was at school, started off down the path to be a vet, did my first year at, , as we call it, university in England, if nobody picked up on my accent, that’s where I grew up. And then decided within that time, like, “No, this is not what I want to do.”
Recognizing the animals in general, don’t really like the vet. I mean, it’s a little difficult to explain to them that the vet is probably the best thing they’ve got going in their life, but they don’t see it that way. And I wanted to work with animals in a way that they responded to me positively and not fearfully.
So, I started working, uh, more than two decades ago now in, uh, a zoo. I started in an education department with ambassador animals and quickly progressed to working with those animals in a mixed species show setting as well as primates, that I worked with back then at the zoo. One of my favorite all time learners was a beautiful orangutan named Lowell who was a lot of fun to work with, also made it so I don’t really like seeing primates in zoos actually. But that’s a whole different topic.
Right now, I am the Curator of Bird Programs at Tracy Aviary, which is an old bird zoo, in Salt Lake City, Utah. If you’d have mentioned to me 20 years ago, that I’d end up working with nothing but birds, I probably would have laughed in your face because they certainly were not high on my list, as they’re not high on a lot of people’s lists.
When you survey for favorite animals, it’s usually your big charismatic mammals, and the reptiles and birds are pretty low. But I started working with birds for the first time, close to 20 years ago now, and within a year of working with just three birds. I decided birds will way cooler than anything else that you could possibly work with. So, uh, eleven years ago, I took this position working at Tracy Aviary with just birds. That’s where I am right now.
[00:06:11] Emily: Awesome. And that’s how, well actually, no, that’s not how I know you. I met you in LLA in like 2010 or something, right? So, we’ve actually known each other for a long time, but the first time I met you personally, it was when I moved to Salt Lake and I was like, “All right, Helen, we live in the same city. Let’s hang out.”
One of the things that we ask all of our guests is why people should care about our topic today and how it’s relevant to them. So, we’re going to be talking about enrichment in the work that you do with birds, but how is that relevant to our listeners who are coming from a diverse backgrounds, working with diverse species?
[00:06:48] Helen: I don’t think it matters what the species is. I see a lot of really, really cool enrichment happening, in more recent times with reptiles, which previously people were like, “Oh, you know, what does the snake need to do in its day, other than hanging out in a tree?”
So, I think when you get talking about busier animals, even than reptiles, that can be quite sedentary at times, even they need stimulation in their life, and so when you start talking about animals like dogs or a lot of the avian species we work with, or primates or really anything.
I even think fish benefit from environmental enrichment. I just don’t think there’s an animal. You can rule out of it, and with the animals that we take care of at the aviary, they’re in human care, they’re not out in the wild. If they were out in the wild, they’d have a lot of good and bad things that filling up the daily lives that provide a lot of stimulation.
So, enrichment is one of the most important parts of the care that we give to our birds at the aviary. Is part of, it’s a big scorer on the welfare evaluations that we both provide enrichment and that they interact with it, because if they’re not interacting with it, it’s as I teach my staff, it’s not enrichment if it’s just sitting in the, in the habitat being untouched.
But it’s a critical part of caring for non-human animals in the same way that it’s a critical part of our own lives. I mean, imagine sitting in a room with nothing to do all day and no stimulation, physical or mental, we’d go mad. So, why would we think any other creature would be any different?
[00:08:44] Emily: Beautifully stated. I love that response. I want to give our listeners a little bit of background and context for our relationship, and also a lot of the things we’ll be discussing today. I mentioned that when I moved to Salt Lake, one of my first priorities was like, “Helen! Let’s hang out.”
But the first time I went to Tracy Aviary, I was almost in tears as I was going around it because every exhibit, when you know what you’re looking for, and you see the habitat designs, and how the animals interact with their habitats, it’s just so beautifully and thoughtfully constructed.
And that’s not to say that the animals are always moving, but you see them behaving in species-typical ways. They have lots of opportunities to engage in species-typical behaviors, and they have lots of opportunities to rest, they have a lot of choice in where they go within their enclosures, so that to me was really moving and every time I go to Tracy Aviary and I see the guests being like, “Ooh, pretty bird.” I’m like, ‘ you don’t even ‘understand how, what you’re looking at. Like, you know, let me explain to you how brilliant this is.” Tracy Aviary is so masterful at enrichment and creating these enriching environments and contexts for their animals.
And in enrichment, one of the things that we look for, and care about is behavioral diversity. Behavioral diversity doesn’t just mean like lots of activity for those of you listening. It’s not about just making sure that animals are super active. When we look at wild animals and the diversity of the behaviors that they have available to them and the repertoire of behaviors that they perform throughout the day.
That’s what our kind of polestar should be for what their lives look like when they’re in captivity. And so, behavioral diversity is one of the measures of welfare. Do they have the opportunity to perform a diverse repertoire of behaviors throughout the day, which does include rest, but isn’t just doing nothing all day. There are very few species for whom doing like laying around all day long is true. Even sloths have moments of activity.
So, it’s not that we care about activity for its own sake, but we want to see animals have the opportunity to act as they would in the wild. And during the pandemic, I had an opportunity to volunteer with you at Tracy Aviary and while you were shorthanded, and that was one of the things that really impressed me about bird show, in particular is the behavioral health of all of your birds. So, I would love to hear you talk to me a little bit about the schedule you provide for the birds in bird show and the balance that you have struck between interactive opportunities, independent activities, and periods of rest.
[00:11:31] Helen: Well, first of all, thank you. To hear somebody, talk like that about, the work that we do at the aviary means so much to me. It’s really my whole life, it’s not a job. And these birds that we take care of, they’re not pets, they’re wild animals. They’re one step away from being wild, but you certainly feel the same emotions for them when you spend as much time with them as we do. I take it very seriously. So, something like that is about the nicest thing you could ever say to me, or about anything that we do, and I appreciate that. So, thanks for that.
We have about 40 birds that we take care of in bird show and, they are ambassador birds. So, they come out of their habitats, they don’t stay in there all the time, they’re out pretty much every day. So, that’s a huge part of what I consider enrichment for them, is the time that they spend out of the habitat and with us, which is an important part of how and why we work with them. Those relationships, that we form with them or why we can do what we do and have them flying all over the place and doing what they want.
And a lot of the time the guests are quite surprised, and the number one question that I get asked is, “Why don’t they fly away when they’re outside?” And sort of tongue in cheek, I’m like, “why would they? It’s it’s like they live an all-expenses paid spa and do whatever they want.” But there’s a little more to it than that. But that’s a huge part of that enrichment, and when we do take them out like that, it’s very, informal, and freeform for them. We don’t manage them very much at all, they can do what they want, they can go foraging, they can go flying,, they can interact with whatever they want. They can hang out and ride around on us, sit on our head, whatever it is that they feel like doing, which is hugely enriching for them. I think it’s the portion of their life that is most like, being out in the wild without the danger and the risk of predators and all of that.
But in addition to that, we provide, a lot of enrichment that we specifically designed for them. Every single bird that we have get some kind of enrichment once a day. The more mentally and physically active birds will get it multiple times a day. So, like a corvids, the jays and raven and crow they get enrichment provided, something provided, I call it enrichment, but with the disclaimer that it’s only enrichment, if they choose to interact with it or it does elicit the behaviors that we’re going for. But for ease of talking, I’ll just call it enrichment. We provide the enrichment four or five times a day for them, the hornbills will get it three times a day, the parrots get it three or four times a day. So, the birds that really benefit from and have a higher activity budget, get it a lot.
I think sometimes people think I’m nuts because we spend so much time making enrichment and you go to a lot of places and it’ll be like,” Oh yeah, they get enrichment every other day or twice a week.” Which is why we loved when you were there helping us make enrichment, because we, uh, make a lot of it. So, we spread that out through the day, we try to make it happen to unpredictable times for them, not the same time every day. For really active birds, we put the majority of their diet into enrichment opportunities, so they’re not getting fed in a bowl. They’re getting fed in a foraging opportunity or a puzzle or something they have to engage. And they know, they know that there’s goodies in there for them when they get through it.
[00:15:25] Emily: One of the things that I want to add to what you just said for people who are listening and haven’t been there and seen the setup, is that in addition to what you talked about with letting the birds out and giving them lots of agency in what they do when they’re out and giving them a lot of opportunities to express species-typical behaviors, the enclosures themselves because they’re very thoughtfully designed. So, like your Ramphastids are in longer, lower, enclosures so that they have more opportunity to move horizontally, which is really important for those species of birds. There’s opportunities in every enclosure for them to have some measure of escape from, or move away from some of the more active areas, and so we see a lot of rest, periods of rest in the middle of the day, which can be really challenging for facilities. It’s not just about all of the things that you do with the birds, but also the spaces that you provide for them that allow them to have independence and choice and rest and all of those things that are often overlooked.
Excellent work. I love it there. I miss it so much. It’s my happy place.
As we touched on, the fact that agency is one of the most important criteria for enrichment, that learners must have choice and control over their outcomes, and that it’s not enrichment unless they choose to engage with it.
One of the things that I find consistently moving and inspiring about how you and Jackie run your bird shows is how much agency the birds really have in those shows. And people who aren’t from the bird world don’t really understand how unique that is because, or I should, I don’t want to say unique. I don’t, I think I’m not giving other people enough credit by calling it unique, unusual, or rare it is in the world. I think a lot of people assume that because birds are free flighted, they must all, have just a ton of agency. And in reality, that’s not the case. When I first started out, I was volunteering at a place that had a bird show, and even though they employed positive reinforcement in that, the bird would perform a behavior and then they’d receive a food reward. It was actually really coercive if a bird didn’t perform something in the show as expected, or they didn’t do it perfectly, they would stay after the show and make that bird, do the behavior over, and over, and over, and over again.
And they would say like, “The bird has to do this when we want them to.” Like, “Yes, we want them to have positive reinforcement, but they have to obey us when we do these shows.” And I’ve watched a lot of bird shows around the country in my life, and I can see the same behavioral patterns and the way that the birds respond to their handlers, and I can tell that that’s the kind of training they got. It’s technically positive reinforcement, but there’s not a lot of agency and it is still very coercive. And one of the things that like I get teary-eyed a lot of times when I’m watching you and Jackie work, because the way that your birds interact with you, it’s so different.
For people who know what to look for, it is so obvious that how you train them is not like that because of how they respond to you. So, I would love to have you walk us through the process of how you train your birds to perform in front of live audiences while giving them so much choice and control in that process.
[00:18:38] Helen: When you were talking the, about, like they want the birds to obey them. It just, ah, you know, my hackles go up on things like, I can’t even imagine it. And, and so, it’s interesting. It was really interesting to listen to that because we just worked with the birds how I’ve, always worked with the birds. I don’t even know how you would go about working with birds more coercively because they can fly away, so it’s a very real possibility that they’ll just be like, “I don’t want to deal with you. Buh-bye.” With our birds they’re all individuals, so, I’ll sort of give you a blanket view. Obviously, there’s some differences, but we just spend a lot of time with them. So, we, most of ’em we’ll work with them from being very young. Some of our birds, we’ve hand raised from the egg, so they’re very comfortable around people. I mean, there’s some species of birds that you, you have to do that.
They have a very small window of, being open to new ideas and concepts and anything that doesn’t happen within that window becomes terrifying to them later in life. Owls are a really good example of that. You take a young baby owl once its eyes open and start gently exposing it to things that it’s going to encounter in a human world.
Babies, and kids running around, and umbrellas, and strollers and, this, that, and the other thing they’re just like, “Oh, well this is life.” They’re taking it all in, and it becomes normal. You miss that window, those things are traumatic, if they don’t get it while they’re, they’re younger.
So, we start a lot of them young, there’s exceptions to that, but I mean, a lot of them, we do. We just spend a lot of time with them and really right from the start, letting them do what they want to do, and we capitalize on what we like that we see. We’ll reinforce the things that we like, but there’s, no molding them into certain things.
And then even when we have the shows, I’ve seen shows sometimes where the timeline really matters and birds have to do things quickly and be on point a certain time, and there’s none at that with us. I think it’s cool for people to be able to experience breathing the same air as these birds. They don’t need to be moving at a lightning pace. So, sometimes, our birds will sit for a minute, they don’t respond to the cues immediately, um, we just really don’t care. A lot of the time, we do a reinforce, or provide treats and tidbits and things to them when they do the behaviors, you know, I get paid for work.
I see the show like that it’s their job, the rest of it is their playtime. But sometimes some of the birds like give it back to us in the middle of a show, we’ll have the hornbill trying to feed me the piece of fruit that I just her or whatever. So, it’s definitely not all about the food for them at all
We just start with them slowly. And a lot of them fledge right there at the aviary. People ask us all the time why they don’t fly away, and one of the reasons, they do. Let me just say that they do exercise their free will to go sit up in the trees or, do whatever they want, but they come back and that’s really all I care about. I don’t care if they go, I care that they come back.
We don’t think too often, that even birds in the wild have territories and home bases and roosts spots that are familiar, that they feel safe and feeding grounds and you know, this and that, and, and the aviary to these birds becomes that to them.
We make everything very safe for them we don’t use coercion. Certainly not intentionally, I mean, as you listen to science and the way things change, there is a lot of, you know, new information coming out about when birds, or any animals, are asked to work for their food and whether or not that is somewhat coercive in and of itself, jury’s still out. I try not to make super blanket statements about what I do and don’t do because then you get proved wrong.
[00:23:10] Emily: I think even above and beyond the fact that there’s new science coming out, for a long time, people have been misinterpreting the contrafreeloading science and using food in a course of way, because they’re misinterpreting what that science actually said. So yes, new science is coming out, but also let’s, let’s do a better job of understanding the well-established science also. Right?
[00:23:30] Helen: The most important thing that we have with these young birds, and I think this is the foundation that pays for everything else, is just this relationship that we work on with them. And the relationship that we have with them too, is that we’re all teachers and we’re all learners. I used to call myself a bird trainer, I don’t call myself a bird trainer anymore, I’ve taken the word out of my vernacular. If other people call me a bird trainer, I’m not going to jump down anyone’s throat because it’s just a word. But I think of myself as a teacher, and also a learner and pretty much everything that I’ve learned.
We were talking a little earlier, before we came on about the science of behavior change and I have been working with birds longer than I knew the science, and when I did start to learn the science, it was really cool to learn that there were actually principles and terms for some of the things that we already did that I didn’t know how to name and it’s cool when you learn. I think that’s the most important part. And I do believe the bits understand that too, that it’s a partnership they’re not being dominated, they’re not being forced. Our birds when we let them out at their enclosure and this boggles people’s minds, too.
At the end, when we go back in, they go back in on their own. They go back in before I get there. Sometimes they leave and go home while we’re still, I’m still out. They go home to their habitat, and I catch up with them and there they are, you know, sitting in the, the habitat that, you know, a lot of people think, “Well, they’re in jail.” Or, you know, whatever zoo detractors and things.
And I’m like, “The door’s not closed they’re in there, they went home, you know, they’ve had enough for me or whatever’s going on.” And they’re quite allowed to do that too. So, we established that with them as well, that if they don’t want to play, if they don’t want to be out, if they don’t want to participate, don’t have to, they have ways to say no, right from the get-go and they have ways to say no in the middle and all the way to the end, and we are a hundred percent respectful of that.
So, I think that’s sort of the basic, I don’t even know. I do wish that the people that worked with animals could take a step back, or non-human animals, and think about if you were working with a human animal, you wouldn’t, my guess some people would, but you wouldn’t see yourself like dominant over that person. The most cooperation you get from colleagues, or friends, or family members is when it’s willing and collaborative, not dominant and forceful. I wish that people could see that about non-human animals, too. We have as much, if not more to learn from them than they ever are going to learn from us. And the more you can let go of that need to kind of be in charge, the less you need it. And the more you learn yourself, and its pretty rewarding all around, I think.
[00:26:44] Emily: I want to tell a little anecdote about that because it was a really huge moment for me. One of the times that I was watching a bird show, one of your turacos for whatever reason, just landed on my hands. And I was just, I was delighted, and our friend, Stephanie Edlund was with me, visiting us.
And so, she took a picture of me, and I was just so blissed out about this bird landing on my hand and just delighted. And then I had this moment of like, “Oh my God, I’m disrupting the entire show because I’m reinforcing this behavior.” And I was like in training mode.
And then I looked at your face and Jackie’s face, and both of you were just delighted with me, delighted alongside me. And that, to me, that was like such a profound moment because, I think a lot of people think of that, like they’re losing control of the show, and they’re losing control of the bird and like, “How dare you, reward the bird for doing something we didn’t ask them to do.”
And instead you were celebrating this moment when the bird made a choice to interact with somebody in the audience that he said, “I would like to come and say hi and check this person out.” And you didn’t get upset about that or concerned you enjoyed it. And then when he, when his moment was done and he was ready to leave, you just got back on track. And that is such an important difference in how you think about working with animals that they have a say in it, and that they, are kind of steering their own learning journey.
[00:28:11] Helen: They surely are. That was Lambo and we’ll frequently joke cause, our birds, I mean, as long as it’s safe, nobody’s getting hurt, the mission of the aviary is inspiring curiosity and caring for birds and nature through education and conservation. And mean, I think the birds do the best job of inspiring those caring attitudes.
And it’s those up-close moments like that, that help people care. I’m all for that wherever its safe. We’ll frequently joke that, ” Yeah. Everything’s under control, complete control, and they are.”
And of my favorite things too, are things like that, you see the light bulb go on for them where they realize they can manipulate the situation, that they can manipulate you with their behavior. And I’ve had people like, say to me before, “Well, who is training, who here?” And I’m like, “I know it’s so great. I love it.” And prime example of this is an Andean Condor, which, you know, Emily and I like him to get really close to people. We like people to have these really close experiences with him.
But safe, so, I mean, I’m comfortable with him getting, you know, within a couple of feet of people, but then I, I don’t want it, you know, anything to get unsafe or out of hand. So, he knows that if he gets too close to people, I’m going to recall him. He’s got a very strong recall and he always gets, treats, and paid for his recall.
And so, he’s learned to, and this is, I don’t know whether this will translate on podcasts, but you’ve kind of got to see it where he’ll walk towards somebody, but he turns around and looks at me like, “Are you going to call me?” And he’ll get a couple of steps closer, “Now, you’re going to call me?” And of course, eventually I have to call him cause he’s almost in their lap, and then he runs. He’s definitely in control of that situation. And I posted a video and I got slammed on Facebook by people being like, “Well, the birds training you.” And I’m like, “Yeah! It’s awesome!”
I think that’s awesome that these individual, that, I mean, talk about agency. Like that not only is this doing what he wants, but he’s learned and figured out that he can get me do what he wants and its safe and nobody’s getting hurt, and I don’t care. In fact, I love it. I could give you a dozen examples of things like that, where the birds have learned that they do actually pull the strings and they are actually in control and we’re just, kind of, along for the ride.
[00:30:56] Emily: I think there’s so many aspects to that, right? Because I mean, in the first place, this, this fear that we have as humans, or I wouldn’t even, this is not even a human trait, by the way, because I have friends who work in other countries where the culture is very different and people are like, “Yeah, let animals be animals.” So, I think this is very specifically a Western cultural perception, this fear of letting animals train us or control the situation. Is really a misunderstanding of how behavior works, right? Because all of us are responding to and learning from our environment simultaneously. And so, you can’t train an animal without also being trained by them because you’re both receiving antecedents and consequences throughout this whole process.
So, training isn’t about somebody being in control and somebody else being submissive. It’s not a like a teacher- learner or boss- employee dynamic training is always about a conversation that’s happening. And if you’re not listening to the other side of the conversation, you’re not actually having a conversation.
So, I think that’s, that’s part of it. The other part of it is I think, a little valid in that people feel afraid that if they don’t have control of the situation, the animal’s going to do something bad, or unsafe, or fly off and you’ll never see them again. And that lack of trust in the relationship comes from having never had that relationship where an animal will totally choose to come back to you and do what safe and stay with you because they want to. Because that’s the relationship you have with them.
So, there’s a lot to unpack there, but I love that you and Jackie and the rest of your staff, just beautifully embody that all of the time. In that same vein, I want to talk about free flighting birds, free flight training birds, because there are varying levels of risk aversion or risk tolerance within the free flight training community.
And there’s a lot of parallels between the risks in free flight training birds and off-lease training dogs. Right? So, I think that this conversation in particular has a lot of applicability to a lot of our audience who are dog people. So, I would love to hear you talk about how you approach that risk assessment, how you know when a bird is ready for free flight, and how you deal with fly offs.
[00:33:22] Helen: You mentioned trust and, I think that’s a huge part of it too. Like, we want these animals to trust us, and we all understand that trust is the most important part of any relationship. We want them to trust us, but then we don’t trust them.
When I talked before about not seeing myself as a trainer, but this whole teacher- learner kind of concept, that’s exactly what you were talking about. That is a conversation. You should be receiving as well as giving information that informs, you know, your next behavior or the next thing that you’re gonna do.
And a lot of the time, if you give the birds just a tiny bit of freedom, the things that they do themselves always supersedes any idea you might have had for what you wanted it to be. They’re pretty amazing. you can just let go of that wanting to be in control of the situation and see what unfolds.
So, free flight, is certainly not easy. There’s a lot of controversy in free flight, so I want to be careful what I talk about because I don’t want to upset anybody by suggesting, do as I say, not as I do, but I also see a lot in the companion parrot world with people letting their birds go free fly, and maybe not quite understanding, the risks as you say, that they’re inherent with having birds flying around like that and bad things can happen.
And there’s a lot of groundwork that needs to happen before you go doing that. We have dependent on birds and the situation, we’ve got various levels of working with them, indoors, outdoors, in enclosed situations. We increase the risk as we go, so to speak, or like the likelihood of them going as we see their responses and their reactions to environmental distractions and what have you.
From conversations I have with guests at the aviary, that people are surprised to hear that birds actually need to learn how to fly. That they don’t just innately know how to navigate the world. And that if you’re a bird that’s never actually learned how to get out of a tree, you might as well be a cat stuck up a tree, because that coming down is terrifying, and it’s not just something that they know how to do.
So, one of the first things that we teach our birds is that, how to come down when you find yourself up. Because they inevitably are going to end up in a tree at some point, I don’t care unless they’re the Emu who was not for obvious reasons, they will end up there even if they didn’t particularly want to be up there, they will.
And then they need to know how to get down. So, we do a lot of work on that, navigating turns, and corners, and wind direction. Another thing that people don’t naturally just understand that birds want to fly into the wind. That’s what’s easiest for them across wind’ll be a second best tailwind is a no, no, you know, they are out of control with a tailwind.
So, teaching them and in a safe, comfortable way, just like they would learn in the wild, all of these things that they need to be able to navigate when they get out there is sort of the foundation for that and cannot be skipped. And then making sure that we’ve got a really solid relationship, where given a choice between all of the many fun things that there is to do out there, coming back to us is a highly, got a high value of a long, long reinforcement history, they want to make that choice.
Because once you do get out there with them, there’s a lot of choices they can make, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Like nothing. We can’t go after them. So, you talked about how we deal with a fly off and it happens every single bird that I’ve ever worked with has flown off at some point or another, for one reason or another and thankfully they’ve all come back. The longest fly off we ever had was five weeks and that was our raven, but she came back on her own. That’s a story in and of itself.
The risk of free flight is predators that are out there, and that’s what happened to her. She got chased by Cooper’s Hawks. She got chased so far by Cooper’s Hawks that she got lost. We couldn’t move fast enough to keep up with her or find her immediately and she got very lost. So, definitely, that is always a risk. Aerial bird predators, like Cooper’s Hawks and Falcons and things like that that, are definitely there.
But when it comes to fly offs, we just trust that we’ve prepared the bird to be able to come back to us. And then we wait, we wait for them. We don’t leave them, we sit there and wait until they’re ready to come down, and sometimes they get themselves into a mess where it’s just not an easy flight and they need to move around a little bit to position themselves to come back to us.
And sometimes they just flat out enjoy that they’re sitting up there, and it’s a nice sunny day, and they’ve got a bird’s eye view, no pun intended of the aviary, and they can see all us, which is a huge security blanket that sometimes we removed. That is one of the techniques I’ve used to get birds to come back when I’m like, “Okay, enough is enough.”, We’ll hide on them.
Most of them feel less comfortable and secure when they can’t see you anymore and then when you reappear, they’re like, “Just kidding!” and they’re quick to come back. But it really, there’s nothing you can do except be there for them when they return and encourage them to make that flight back and wait,
[00:40:12] Emily: I think one of the things that I watched you and Jackie do, which, there are so many parallels between recall training in dogs and flight training and recall training with birds, is that you give the birds so many opportunities to come back to you to get food, or a scritch, or whatever, and then immediately let them go back out again and do stuff.
And that is one of the biggest missing facets from a lot of recall training in dogs, is that people are so focused on making sure that the food reinforcer, the food reward is really high value, and they forget the part about the rest of the context of training. If every time you’re recalling your dog or your bird back, it doesn’t matter how high value the food is if calling them back to you, always terminates fun, or exploration, or whatever else they’re doing. And so that to me is a really powerful reminder watching you and Jackie work with these birds. That’s a reminder for me when I work with dogs too, I have to set up the situation, so that 19 times out of 20, when I called the dog back, they get that food and then they get to immediately go back to what they’re doing, and only one out of every 20 times does a recall, signify the termination of fun.
[00:41:31] Helen: Control too, is a very valuable reinforcer. What you’re saying there, if recalling, coming back, I mean, I’ve seen one step worse when people call the dog back and then spank it for, having run off in the first place. Which is even worse, but if, recalling back, like you say, yes, ends the air quotes fun that they were having, or whatever the value was in them being gone in the first place, then they’re smart, these creatures that we work with learn very quickly, and that you may very well be punishing, albeit, inadvertently, and their behavior of coming back if it means a removal of the freedom or the whatever it is that, the fun that they were having. And we have been asked that before about the birds, and that is one of the reasons I give for why they don’t fly away and not come back, because out there every day and we let them go and they know they can. They know they can fly away and so, there’s less of a desire for them to peace out and not come back. And then when they do come back, they can go again. It’s fine.
[00:42:45] Emily: Yeah. I love that. So, we have two membership groups, Pro Campus for existing behavior professionals and the Mentorship Program for people who are entering the field and becoming behavior professionals, and we give them the opportunity to submit questions for our podcast guests. Would you be open to answering some of those questions for us?
[00:43:08] Helen: Yeah. If I can.
[00:43:09] Emily: Great, I’ll ask the first one in this interview and then the rest we’ll save for the groups themselves. The most popular question that came from our Pro Campus and Mentorship Program members was what is the most challenging bird or species you’ve ever worked with? What was challenging about them? And how did you overcome that challenge?
[00:43:30] Helen: Okay, so there’s a lot there. I’ll do my best to be succinct about it. So, to begin with, I’ll say, species wise, we it’s defined challenging, you know, like operationalized challenge. So, in what way are you talking about it? So, some quick, like off the cuff, owls are very difficult to work with for some of the reasons that I mentioned earlier, and also because once they do hit that, owls are very pattern oriented, and they don’t deal well with like changes or novelty.
And again, I’m talking in sweeping generalizations that I don’t really like talking in, cause to quote Susan’s phrase that pays, that gets thrown around all the time because it’s a true, “it’s a study of one.” It really, and truly is. There are no one size fits all. So, from, owls can be very challenging.
And then your traditionally what are considered smart birds of, although I hate that too, because I feel like we haven’t even decided on a scale to measure human intelligence that we all agree upon. So, when you start talking about bird intelligence, I don’t like it. I think all animals are as smart as they need to be for what they need to accomplish in their life.
And most of them, if not all of them are smarter than humans. So, but that’s just my 2 cents. But the ones that we traditionally think of as being smart, like your corvids, it’s crows and ravens, and keas, which are really smart, like them, they can be challenging in a different sort of ways where you absolutely have to be on your, A game and on your toes, or it’s not even a conversation anymore. It’s just the bird running circles around you and you’re out at the loop. So, that, that’s challenging. But then, I think really, it’s just more on a one-by-one basis. I would, talk about, so I can give a couple of examples of individuals?
[00:45:37] Emily: That would be great.
[00:45:38] Helen: So, our common raven, Cache that we work with, I credit her, I’ve credited her in articles, or other things with being the bird that’s single taught me the most about being a better teacher and caretaker to these birds because she’s a piece of work. Ravens in general, again, with my sweeping generalizations, they’re so wild wherever they are. They’re this sort of charming potpourri of insatiable curiosity and paralyzing neophobia, so super curious about things, but they’re, probably because they’re smart, like almost overthink it to death on the cautious element. And she’s like the queen of it. So, there’s so many things that I taught her or worked with her on where, if I was teaching our American Crow, for example, a couple of sessions and done, and then the common Raven, it’s like three months later and we’re still trying to get over the novel prop that I’m trying to use. And of course, it’s all at their pace. and there’s times with her where I’ve dropped something and gone back to it because she’s overthinking it like, over thinking it, and I’m like, “Let’s not, we’ll do other things for a few weeks and then we’ll go back.” And so, she’s probably single-handedly caused me to, after stretch to the far corners of my creative mind in how I’m going to help her have the best possible life, and the best welfare, and even enrichment, to circle back to where we started. We had to teach her to interact with enrichment from the get-go, and for a long period of time, we would wrap everything we gave her in paper towels that, so if it was a ball of paper towels, she would interact with it.
And by the time she’d got through the paper towels into whatever it was, we were trying to give her to play with or figure out she was into it. If you gave her something cold, nope. We’d wrap everything and gradually ween off that way, where now you can give her a lot of things.
And so, she’s challenging. I think they’re fun though. The animals like that, that cause you to have to think a little bit more, and really realize that there aren’t any one size fits all answers for any of this stuff. And with all your knowledge of behavior science, and how things should work, and why they work the way they, I mean, we know, we know certain things work in a certain way, so when they don’t or appear not to, you have to really start thinking about, “Well, what exactly is going on here? What am I doing? What is happening or not happening that I think is happening and how can I change that environment, for this creature?” And she was tough, but she’s great. She flies all around the aviary now she goes out, and cruises around, and it’s beautiful to see she’s strong, and smart, and still nuts, but she’s my nuts.
[00:49:03] Emily: That’s a great example. I appreciate that. I think you’re absolutely right, sometimes because we know the theory behind it, we can miss the forest for the trees, and miss applications of that theory or miss, variations of applications. I think my favorite example of that for me was, I’ve been working with animals since I was 11, and in my early thirties, I had taken on budgies and for, it was the first time after 20 years of working with birds and specifically parrots, it was the first time I’d ever had budgies. And I could not for the life of me, figure out how to get these birds to forage.
And I, it was a little bit of a, an ego buster for me, because I had always said, I’ve never in two decades, I’ve never failed at teaching an animal how to forage. Like you can always do it. You have to figure out how. And I was like, I’m going to be, I’m going to be felled by budgies. Budgies are the thing that are like, I’m not going to be able to like, solve this puzzle.
And so, I was talking to this avian vet friend of mine about this. And he said, “Well, you know, budgies are ground feeders, so you should put a mirror on the bottom of their cage and sprinkle some food on the mirror and just see what happens.” So, I got a hand mirror and sprinkled food on the bottom of the cage, some of the chopped up fruits and veggies on the mirror, on the bottom of the cage.
And immediately the budgies flew down and started like eating this fresh food that I had not been able to convince them to eat, and they just started eating it cause it was on a mirror on the bottom of their cage. And I was floored by that. I was like, oh my God, like this wasn’t a matter of the science not working in air quotes. It was that there was a piece of the ethological puzzle that was missing. I didn’t know about this specific species-typical behavior of this specific species. And as soon as I was providing them an opportunity to perform a species-typical behavior, they just did it. So, that was a huge lesson for me that you never know everything. Like there’s always more to learn and explore, and that these animals can be our best teachers.
We have some questions that we ask all of our guests at the end of our podcast. So, I’m going to ask you these series of questions. The first one is what is one thing you wish people knew about this topic, your profession, or enrichment in general?
[00:51:24] Helen: Oh, that’s a good question. Gosh, I don’t know. I think, enrichment in general, I mean, I think everything we’ve been talking about, just how truly important it is. And how, even when you have animals that are your budgies, my raven, seem almost impossible to enrich, it’s worth putting in the effort to figure out what and how and why.
One of the things that I encourage people to do with birds is even just watch YouTube videos of your species, wild videos, and note down what behaviors you see, those birds, or whatever animal, doing naturally in the wild. Make a list of those behaviors and then figure out how to come up with some ways for them to replicate those in your situation. And that’s as easy as can be. To just watch some videos, see what wild birds do, and then, and go from there. It’s worth it. Our enrichment program at the aviary’s probably one full time staff, persons work, I mean, not that one person, that’s all they do, but if you are, it’s probably one person’s full day just making, enrichment opportunities for our birds.
But I think as part of welfare for animals in human care, other than feeding them like the basics of food, water, and medical care when they need it, it’s the single most important thing that you can do for them, is to make sure that lives are full of opportunities for them to express themselves in whatever manner they see fit.
[00:53:12] Emily: That’s a great answer. What is one thing you’d love to see improved in your field?
[00:53:17] Helen: In my field specifically, working with birds, is not easy. People, well used to, not so much anymore, you’d say you were a bird trainer and they’d be like, “Oh, you want to be a dolphin trainer one day?” Or as if birds are like the, you know, entry level. They’re not, it’s hard. And I think in my field, what I would like to see is people in power, at facilities recognizing that they need to, before they get birds, they need to empower the staff with the skills that they need to take care of those bids. It’s probably one of my biggest pet peeves, and I don’t think that the fault lies at the entry level keepers or trainers who just get presented with these birds that they’re supposed to train, and they don’t know what they’re doing, and it’s not fair.
It’s a management level that it needs to change. And recognizing that there’s a lot to it and throwing jesses on birds that aren’t supposed to be wearing jesses because you don’t have the staff that can manage them is not the solution or any other solution. So, I think recognizing birds require an element of skill in the staff that are caring for them and providing the professional development to the staff so that they can provide the best care and welfare. I’m trying to not really irritate anybody, so I’m like talking carefully, but I think that’s probably my biggest thing I’d like to see change, is it taken a little more seriously.
[00:55:09] Emily: I agree. And I think that has mass applicability. It’s not just bird facilities for whom that applies, and it’s true. Will you quickly, talk about what jesses are for our listeners, most of whom are not bird people.
[00:55:22] Helen: Oh, sure. So, jesses, well it, jesses and leash, it’s the equivalent of like, a collar and a leash on a dog, but you’re not going to put a collar around a bird’s neck, so jesses are falconry equipment. And maybe I need to define falconry now, which is the sport of hunting using raptors for hunting.
Raptors have very strong legs. They hunt and kill things with their legs, they use their legs, they’re very strong. And so, leather anklets get put around their legs and jesses are straps that thread through the anklets and can be used like a collar and leash on a dog. They get misused a lot, not necessarily in falconry, but in the zoo world where they get used as a method of restraint, or to compensate for improper training skills, and that’s not their intended purpose. They’re a safety tool, not a training crutch. But they really are designed to be used on raptors. So, birds of prey, your eagles, hawks, falcons with very strong legs and, uh, they sometimes get used on birds that don’t really have the legs to deal with it like corvids or kookaburras, or turacos, chickens.
I’ve seen them on the weirdest of things, and, and when you do that, it’s really just because you’re, you don’t trust yourself or your bird. And, uh, that’s where I circle back to that skill set necessary to work with these animals. And not just dominating them because they’re little and you can.
[00:57:06] Emily: I mean, I agree with you, everybody’s doing the best they can with the information and resources they have, so you can’t fault the handlers because they haven’t been given an environment in which they can learn the knowledge and skills that they need to skillfully and fluently implement best practices. So, you’re absolutely right. That comes from the top, the management is responsible for creating an environment that allows people to learn that knowledge and skills before they’re responsible for the wellbeing of living creatures with complex needs.
[00:57:37] Helen: A hundred percent.
[00:57:38] Emily: I totally agree with you. All right. Next question. What do you love about what you do?
[00:57:43] Helen: Well, I love, what’s not to love. The aviary, Tracy Aviary is a really great place to work and and, I get to spend the vast majority of my day around these creatures that, you see birds in the wild, they ubiquitous. One of the things that’s cool about them is you can’t go anywhere without seeing a bird. Even Antarctica, even the most remote parts of the world, or middle of cities, wherever you see birds. So, if you love birds, or you develop a appreciation for birds, you’re guaranteed an experience, no matter where you go. That said, they don’t really like us getting all like close to them for obvious reasons that a, we are a big, scary looking predator.
And so, they keep distance, but, uh, I get to be literally nose to beak with just incredible, amazing, magnificent birds. And then beyond that, I get to share that experience with people that visit the aviary, and then hear stories like the one you told earlier about Cambo our Turaco who went and landed on you, and see that thrill for people, and hope, in my wildest dreams that some of these experiences encourage people to care a little more about the world that we live in, and the animals that we share it with, and heaven help us, maybe make some behavioral changes to benefit the earthlings that we share our planet with.
So, really that’s what I get to do every day, there’s a lot of solid gold moments in that for a variety of reasons. And I think I’m very lucky.
[00:59:28] Emily: I would love, if you are okay with it, and if you can find it, I would love it if you would share the video of you, I think it was the Goblin Queen that you were just like petting and loving on and that video kind of went viral.
[00:59:43] Helen: Yes, it did.
[00:59:44] Emily: I would love if we had access to that video for show notes, because I want people to see the level of bond and connection that is possible with these bird species that people think of, the perception is that they’re these kind of cold, almost like robotic, detached creatures, and when you see what’s possible with the relationship that can develop between the human and these birds, I think it’s really inspiring and it’s also really informative.
[01:00:11] Helen: I can find it. People love that video. The worst thing I hate about it is that my staff have got the radio on in the background, and I think there’s a Britney Spears song playing. Of all the videos to go viral, I’ve done some really cool things, and this is it?
[01:00:28] Emily: You’re like, “I have better music taste than this.”
[01:00:30] Helen: Yeah, she, um, she’s a Wreathed Hornbill. Yes, the Goblin Queen, uh, her name is Zelda, and she is literally like a dog that can fly, like a hundred percent.
That’s another thing with our birds, talk about agency, not all of them like to be pet or touched. I’d like to snuggle and cuddle all of them, but they don’t all like it. They’re individuals and so it’s definitely on their terms and their solicitation and nothing else. Hornbills in general are really tactile.
Our Ground Hornbill, Rafiki likes scratches and cuddles, and Zelda does too. So yeah, I’ll find it to my chagrin, to share that video again.
[01:01:17] Emily: I have two Eclectus parrots and the male, the most touch he wants his Beaky kisses and he asks for them, I don’t just give him kisses, he’ll ask, he stretches up and puts a little beak up by my lips. It’s the sweetest thing, but he doesn’t want to be touched other than that. And my female Eclectus is very tactile.
So, you’re absolutely right. That’s an important disclaimer to make is that this video is this bird’s relationship with you specifically. And that doesn’t mean that all birds want this level of tactile interaction or that this bird wants that level of tactile interaction with everybody.
[01:01:50] Helen: A hundred percent. And it’s the same with dogs. As humans, we just assume every dog wants to be pet, and every dog likes to be scratched, and to some dogs, that’s a trauma experience. And even people, I mean, let’s be real. Some people like to be hugged and a big hug is hugely reinforcing and another person you hug them it’s the biggest punishment you could have doled out. So, the same with all living creatures really, some of us are touchy and some of us are not.
[01:02:21] Emily: I totally agree with you. What are you currently working on? If people want to work more with or learn from you, how can they do that?
[01:02:28] Helen: Well, in general birds, and I also am the Vice President of the International Association of Avian Trainers and Educators, so for anybody that’s interested in learning more about, and working with birds, I always recommend that organization.
I also work with the AZA’s Ambassador Animals Scientific Advisory Group, which works with not just birds, all ambassador animals. And then AZA Raptor Taxon Advisory Group, I’m on the steering committee for them, and their ambassador animal advisor. All those things keep me kind of busy.
[01:03:10] Emily: Yes, they do. Yes, they do. Wonderful. Thank you so much for all of that. Well, once again, Helen, thank you for joining us. I so appreciate all the work you do. You and Jackie give yourselves big hugs for me, if you find them reinforcing, if not, smile and a wave.
[01:03:27] Helen: We miss you as much as you miss us. We miss you every Friday.
[01:03:31] Emily: Excellent I miss you, too. All right. Well, thanks so much for coming on and have a great day.
[01:03:36] Helen: Thanks for having me.
[01:03:38] Allie: Didn’t I tell you; you are going to love this interview?
There are so many times that I found myself nodding along with a soulful, “mmmmm.” Helen makes you want to go out and find a bird to start learning from. Next week, we will be talking about, let the animal be themselves.
Thank you for listening. You can find us at petharmonytraining.com and @petharmonytraining on Facebook and Instagram, and also @petharmonypro on Instagram for those of you who are behavioral professionals. As always links to everything we discussed in this episode are in the show notes and a reminder to please rate, review and subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts a special thank you to Ellen Yoakum for editing this episode, our intro music is from Penguin Music on Pixabay.
Thank you for listening and happy training.