There is always a challenge of some sort when working with animals. Whether you are trying to teach an old dog new tricks, get a tiger to volunteer its tail for a blood draw, or discover how a falcon keeps damaging her wrist, the only thing that is consistent is change.
Our turkey vulture, Suli, is a pretty typical imprinted vulture (at least, as far as my experience goes having worked with four imprinted vultures). Imprinted vultures can be very difficult to work with. Vultures are social creatures and when imprinted on humans (meaning they were raised by people and identify with humans rather than other vultures) they try to determine where they lie in the heirarchy of their group—in our case, Suli wants to know if she is alpha compared to each person who works with her.
Typically when someone begins working with her I have them feed her daily for a week or so. This strengthens the bond (because she likes food and is rewarded with food when she “puts up with” a new person). She will test a new volunteer a few times (usually by biting their hands) and as long as they stand their ground and show that they are not afraid of her, she backs off and accepts the person, not only as part of the flock, but as one alpha to her. After that, the volunteer typically only has to endure the occasional meltdown bites (similar to a four-year-old child, I suppose).
This system has worked relatively well for us so far. I let one person at a time start working with her. Unfortunately, we’ve come to the point where the volunteers who want to work with her can’t come in to feed her on a daily basis. We have noticed that, while most of the people working with her are women, she has a definite preference for men—men with facial hair to be exact. Recently, I started having a volunteer couple start feeding her. Suli would fly to Lisa for food and when she realized who was holding the food she would panic and fly off Lisa’s glove. When Destin would call her, she would eat on the glove. This happened every time they fed her.
Knowing that we need more volunteers who can work with her, I decided to use Destin as a guinea pig. She had done okay with him “behind the scenes” but I wanted him to be able to hold her in public. On a day that we had some extra help, I had Rose suddenly hand Suli over to Destin in front of a crowd of people. Believing that she would be more scared than aggressive, I said, “as long as she’s not biting him, let’s make her stay with him.” Lucky Destin! Fortunately, I was right and Suli was more nervous about the “stranger” holding her than interested in testing him. She was visibly uncomfortable, but handled it well.
You should have seen her relief, though, when Destin handed her back to Rose!!! She instantly relaxed and started to preen her feathers. What a brat! To help her understand that we are in charge and she needs to accept new people, I had Destin hold her again. She did MUCH better! She was still nervous, but not nearly as bad as the first time he held her.
We had made a big stride in her training. Yesterday, to continue with our lesson, I handed Suli over to Lisa (who she has never even sat with for feeding). They did great! Lisa surprised me with her strength (Suli is a full one-and-a-quarter pounds heavier than any of the other birds), and Suli was nervous, but tolerant.
Looks like Turkey Vulture 101 is going pretty well. Guess I better start drawing up a lesson plan for Turkey Vulture 102 :0)