I was so excited when Melissa told me we were finally going to have me hold Suli the turkey vulture. This was it. I was about to graduate from intern in training to intern who could totally handle everything. All of the hours I spent trying to spark up a bond between us were about to come to fruition. I had prepared for this day. I was ready.
Suli is the last bird anyone learns to work with for two reasons. First of all, she’s the heaviest. Weighing in at 4 lbs. 2 oz. as of today, she’s a full 1 lb. 2 oz. heavier than our next heaviest bird (Teasdale the great horned owl). Secondly, she’s a little strange. While the rest of our birds are with us because they have a physical disability, Suli is here because she has a mental disability. Because she was raised by humans, she suffers from identity crisis and delusions of humanity. Basically, she thinks she’s a person instead of a bird.
As you can imagine, this results in a difficulty to communicate. She can’t speak like us. In fact all she can do is hiss and grunt. Unfortunately for us, the only real tool she has to communicate happens to be a wickedly sharp beak. If you’re going to be bitten around here, it’s going to be by the turkey vulture. Imagine a small child. When they get upset or uncomfortable they can throw their hands out and push you away. Suli bites. It’s not a cold, unfeeling act of malice, but rather an unfortunate result of her anatomy. Fortunately, she spends most of her time hanging out and being silly rather than biting. But because of her odd personality, she must be handled in steps.
Step 1: Introduction
Fortunately for Brandon and I, we spend a lot of time here at the mews, and that gives us a lot of time to hang out with Suli. She is often referred to as the “chicken vulture.” This is because she sits like a chicken, and because she’s afraid of everyone and everything. In order for her to be less afraid of you, you have to spend a lot of time with her.
Step 2: Shoe Destroying and Salad Making
Once Suli lets you up close, it’s time for real bonding. The best time for this is when she’s tied in the weathering yard (see falconry terms). What you can do is sit as close as she’ll let you and move just a tad closer whenever she stops paying attention. When you’ve gotten as close to her as possible without her flipping out and trying to fly away, give her a good view of your shoes. She’s got a bit of a shoe fetish. She loves to nibble at your shoes, followed by harder nibbling, followed by her trying to tear your shoes apart while you think of the least awkward way to explain to your mother why the expensive shoes she bought you have been destroyed.
In my case, I found it more helpful and less likely to result in property destruction to let Suli help me eat lunch. Introduce a vulture who loves to shred things to some fruit and vegetables (see mom, I am eating healthy), and you have yourself a salad maker. Of course if you don’t like vulture saliva all over your food, you probably shouldn’t eat a salad prepared by Suli, but I can assure you that the ants were quite appreciative.
Step 3: The Glove
So there we stood, in the amphitheater of the Braun Garden at the Center. Melissa was holding Suli, and I was standing next to her with a still vulture-less glove. I threaded my glove hand through the jesses, wrapped the end of the leash in my free hand, and locked eyes with Melissa.
“You got her?” she asked.
“Oh yah,” I said.
Then Suli the turkey vulture leapt onto my glove amidst a shower of fireworks and applause, a full orchestra playing in the background. At least that’s how it went in my head. In reality she easily stepped onto my glove with no fuss in full anticlimactic glory.
Step 4: What are you doing, bird?
You would think that’s where the story ends, but not quite. Suli’s way too strange for that. Now when we’re outside or she’s on my glove, we’re buddies. But when I walk into her mew, I am the single most terrifying thing on the face of the earth. Our encounters here will result in Suli performing a lovely submissive dance followed by a mad dash to anywhere but where I am.
So I can hold Suli, but I still can’t pick her up. How do we fix this? Well, I try to spend time just hanging out in her mew ignoring her. I can try to play with her. But a game of tug of war (her favorite) with the towel this morning quickly resembled more of a bull fight. Now we’re bonding by having her fly for food to us (Brandon and I) inside of her mew in the hopes of weening her off her fears. She’s quite the wierdo, but she’s quite the character. That’s why you’ve just got to love Suli!
Falconry Terms in Layman’s Terms
Term: Weathering yard
Falconry Definition: An open area outside where the bird may safely spend its days during good weather.
Layman’s Terms: Depending on who you’re asking, it’s either heaven (Haya and Isham), the worst idea ever (Teasdale), or super happy fun salad making time oh wait there’s a lawn mower get me outa here (Suli)!