How to Train Your Vulture

Posted December 14, 2016 by Michelle Curley

Training, or operant conditioning, is an important part of the care that all the animals at the Cincinnati Zoo receive. All animals in the Africa department, from the lions and hippos to the gazelle and ducks, receive some form of conditioning. This allows them to participate voluntarily in their routine husbandry and medical care, making their lives less stressful and strengthening the bonds that they have with their keepers. While the majority of the training that we do with our animals occurs off exhibit before the zoo opens or after it closes, some of it occurs during the day while the zoo is open.

Working with Ostriches:

Pam and Rose – Bathtime

Sometimes this means that we have to take animals off exhibit for brief periods. A great example of this is with our ostriches, Pam and Rose, who live in our African Savanna. Almost every afternoon they come off exhibit for about 15 minutes to participate in training sessions, meaning that they are not visible to visitors. Since ostriches are large and potentially dangerous birds, keepers made it a priority to train them for routine vet checks so we would not need to restrain or sedate them.

Vet techs drawing blood from ostrich “Rose”

Our ostriches are now comfortable with receiving injections, having their blood drawn, walking on a scale and being touched all over by keepers and vet staff. Fortunately for us, our ostriches are enthusiastic about training sessions! While they have different personalities, they have both done a fantastic job with their training (which is saying a lot considering an ostrich brain is only the size of a walnut!).

Rose, the larger of our two ostriches, is very friendly and readily approaches keepers to investigate what we have with us, and often times will peck at us out of curiosity. Training sessions have really helped Rose learn to respect our personal space and to interact with us in an appropriate manner.

Pam on the other hand, was very shy and reserved when she arrived at the zoo and, as a result, she was reluctant to approach keepers. Luckily she was living in a mixed species exhibit, and keepers realized that she has a huge fondness for duck food! Once we found something that Pam was willing to work for, she became a motivated trainee. So if you don’t see the ostrich out on the savanna during your next visit it may be because they are participating in a training session, so be sure to check back later on in the day!

Working with Vultures:

Luckily for our visitors, some of our training occurs while the animals are on exhibit, giving guests the opportunity to observe these sessions! However, during training sessions keepers need to focus their full attention on the animals that they are working with which makes it difficult to explain what is going on to our guests. This past summer we implemented a training program with our vultures to make feeding them more structured.

Lappet-faced Vulture “Aughra” on her station.

In the Africa Department we have two species of vultures. We have a brother and sister pair of Lappet-faced Vultures, named Augrha and Ishtar, and a male Ruppell’s Griffon Vulture named Bubba. While both of these species are quite large, the lappets hold the title of largest vultures in Africa and, as a result, need more food than our Ruppell’s vulture. To ensure that each bird receives its proper diet, each vulture was trained to “station” (or wait patiently) on a log out in the exhibit. Once the vulture is standing on its perch, keepers toss the birds pieces of food as a reward for staying where we need them to. We used this “station” behavior as a foundation and are now working on scale training our vultures.

Ruppell’s Griffen Vulture “Bubba” checking out the plywood

Our next step was to place a piece of plywood out in the exhibit that we are using as a stabilizing base for the scale. The plywood is a bit scary for the vultures, so we are progressively moving it closer to their stations in order to make them more comfortable around it. Our ultimate goal is to place their stations on top of the scale on the plywood board, and have the vultures sit on top. This way we can obtain voluntary weights on our vultures. So, if you noticed a piece of plywood out in our savanna while visiting the zoo last summer, now you know that it is a tool that we use to help take the best care possible of our animals.