The wind was amazing! It was a little gusty, but not overly strong; perfect weather to take the Harris Hawks out for a flight in the meadow. Unfortunately the story wasn’t as uneventful as it sounds.
It’s me again, Brendan, the bird trainer on an exchange to Toronto Zoo, Canada. Since the winds were nice, I decided to take both male hawks, ‘Mike’ and ‘Rick’, to the meadow just a little bit down from where they are housed to make sure they get some daily exercise. You have no idea how much fun it is! They soar over your head and we reward them by throwing a favourite treat up into the air. On a windy day they can get mighty high, but every time I cue them to come in, they pull their wings into their sides and drop, just in time to catch their prize and then hurl themselves back to their previous heights. This time though things went a bit haywire.
Both hawks were following me towards the meadow, hopping through the branches from tree to tree when suddenly ‘Mike’ launched himself into the foliage. It was odd and I waited. Nothing initially and then ‘squeak’! ‘Mike’ had caught something! He had taken full advantage of his hunting instincts and caught a vole, a small rodent like animal. They may be small but that can be a big meal for a Harris Hawk like ‘Mike’! And from that moment on the chase had begun. Since he had claimed a different ‘reward’ this day he wasn’t much interested in continuing his journey to the meadow, nor the flight back home, rather, within a couple of seconds, ‘Mike’ launched himself into the breeze and disappeared. He was gone …
We searched for an hour and still nothing. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a tad worried. These are not my birds and every minute your bird is missing is another minute they could be travelling further away. It can be very demoralizing. I starting retracing my steps, calling his name and my concern grew. But then, out of the corner of my eye I saw movement! Is it him? Could he be in the grass? Has he finished his vole? Yes! It was him. A moment later a shape hopped out of the brush and into the tree. Two eyes fixed on me. Do you think he was interested in coming home though? Not even slightly.
I spent the next hour encouraging ‘Mike’ back to the barn where he roosts. Calling him from tree to tree, ever closer. A few times he decided back tracking was a good idea too. I didn’t entirely agree, but it was his choice. That’s one of the best things about using positive reinforcement techniques to train your animals; it is always their decision to undertake a behaviour. It makes you feel extremely satisfied with the relationship you have with your animal when they decide to co-operate and you can give them the freedom to fly free. It can also lead to days of minor frustration too, as ‘Mike’ was helping to remind me!
Eventually we both arrived back at the barn. Crisis averted? I would love to say full-heartedly yes, but no, the crisis was not over, nor was it anywhere close to ending. At the very moment we were a mere 20 meters from the barn, the most unlikely thing I could think of happened. ‘Mike’ launched himself into the foliage. Again it was odd, but now somewhat more familiar. He had taken full advantage of his hunting instincts and caught … a second vole! And in a blink of an eye, he was gone. Woe was I. I remained calm and maintained my positive outlook, the process was still the same, and the game was still afoot.
This time though I had no luck in relocating ‘Mike’ and it was fast approaching dusk. That would mean I’d have to give up on the hunt and start again the next morning, something not at all uncommon. When night falls, ‘Mike’ would simply find a tree and roost, probably quite content with the efforts of his day. I left for home and had an early night.
I arrived at work the next day just as the sun was rising. My goal was to relocate ‘Mike’ before he woke up, if I could find him before then at least my target wouldn’t be moving. I had no luck at first. I wandered around carrying a pouch with his treats in it, searching the immediate area around the barn; he had a history here, this is where he would most likely be.
Minutes turned into hours, two in fact, and then my heart skipped a beat. I turned to face another direction and ‘swoosh’! ‘Mike’ flew right over my head, he found me! Happy? No. Ecstatic! It took me no more than fifteen minutes and ‘Mike’ was secure back in his aviary, most likely pleased with himself.
Times like this remind me why I love my job. It might not always work out perfect, but who wants perfect?! It’s the journey that counts.
By Taronga Bird Show Keeper, Brendan – on loan to Toronto Zoo, Canada.