My work with the Belize Raptor Center

Earlier this year I decided to spend a few months in Belize working with rehabilitated raptors at the Belize Raptor Center with bird trainer Aron Smolley. And let me tell you what a HOOT it was!

Aron presenting Luna to a classroom
BRC is a small raptor rehabilitation center and sanctuary in San Ignacio, Belize. It is situated in a semi-forested area outside of town, 25 minutes up and down a very bumpy, hilly dirt road. There are 7 education birds at the center, birds who came in for rehabilitation and who for one reason or another cannot be returned to the wild. These birds serve as ambassadors for their species in educational outreach programs.

Aron moved to Belize in November 2016 to help offer more progressive bird training methods to BRC, and I came to help with rehabilitation and to learn some of these training methods. Bird training is important because it allows for the trainer to build a trusting relationship with the bird, so that the bird willingly participates in educational programs for the public. BRC is involved in many educational programs, mostly children's outreach, where the bird is presented in a classroom and the children get to see it up close and learn about its natural history and why it is important in the local ecosystem. This outreach is necessary for the conservation of the species, as many of these birds are being killed unnecessarily. Local people are not educated on the role that raptors (and many other animals) play in the health of the environment, and believe that they are harbingers of evil (in the case of the ghostly barn owl), or they will eat all of their chickens (when it is rare for most raptors to go after chickens), or become target practice for slingshots (which is very popular among Belizean schoolchildren). Many of the birds at the center come in with broken wings caused by slingshots.

Training an injured wild bird to sit calmly and willingly on the glove is no easy task. The bird's first instinct will be to get as far away from us as possible, at all costs. Hours must be spent, everyday, desensitizing the bird to human presence before even attempting to handle it. Our philosophy of bird training is all about empowerment and positive reinforcement- in other words, the bird can make its own decisions, has full control of its actions, and is rewarded with food, toys, and eventually social interaction once it becomes comfortable with its trainer. We never force a bird to do anything it doesn't want to do, nor do we punish any "undesirable" behavior. By giving the bird the freedom to choose whether or not to come to the glove, and then rewarding the behavior, we establish a trusting connection with the bird and increase the chances the bird will want to stay. At this point we start taking the bird on walks on the nature trails and finally into classrooms where they can inspire children who have never seen a wild raptor up close before.

Ky on my glove
One of my favorite and most inspiring training stories was with Ky, the grey-headed kite, who came into the center many years before with a dislocated shoulder that never quite healed correctly. When I approached him in his enclosure the first time, he was spooked. He is naturally a timid bird who is afraid of most people, large objects, and loud noises. I sat with him every day, building trust with him and feeding him to reward him for coming closer and closer to the glove. When he was comfortable eating from my hand, I began training him to step up onto the glove in order to get his food. Though timid at first, over the next few weeks he became comfortable stepping onto my glove and being fed there, but wouldn't allow me to stand up and walk around with him. The next step was to start moving him around while on the glove, so that he could eventually be walked around the center and shown to visitors while they learn more about his species. It took another couple of weeks to get him to trust the movement of the glove and my body, but he eventually let me step out of his enclosure with him and walk him around the center. It felt great to earn the trust of this bird, and to be successful using Aron's training methods. His own stories of training success involved building a relationship of trust with a completely wild adult black hawk eagle who was non-releasable due to injuries sustained in the wild, as well as a juvenile collared forest falcon who required months of patience to glove-train.

Aron bringing the collared forest falcon outside for the first time after months of patience and training

Training Ky. Photo by Mike Faix

Playtime in the sun with Ky

Akna, the black hawk eagle. I didn't go near this one. :p

Aron working with Akna

When we weren't busy with bird training at the center, we would be taking in injured and orphaned raptors for rehabilitation. My first day at the center involved coming along on a pygmy owl rescue at a woman's house who had tried to take in the wild owl as a pet. Predictably, the owl did not make a good pet, and she wanted to be rid of it. She called the center and we caught the owl, brought it to the center for an assessment, kept and fed it for a few days to make sure it was healthy and uninjured, and then released it back into the jungle where it came from. It felt great to be a part of that release.

Assessing the health of the pygmy owl

Newly released and collecting its bearings

Presenting Luna at the MSBC Conference 
My favorite bird to work with at the center was Luna, the spectacled owl. Sitting with her and presenting her to an excited audience was a treat! She was brought to the center when she flew into a newly-built barbed wire fence a few years ago, and now she can't be released due to a hole in her wing. Luna was also a favorite among children. They stared in awe at the first owl most of them had ever seen up close. They found a new respect for the creature after learning that spectacled owls don't attack chickens or people, but the pesky rats and mice that haunt their own barns and houses and spread unwanted disease.

Luna and her youngest fan! He's such a smarty - he found her all by himself in the bird guide

Skylar the plumbeous kite - the smallest resident at BRC

Presenting Luna with Aron at Black Rock Lodge

Walking Zion on the nature trails

There's nothing like the smile of a child holding a bird for the first time


  1. SO awesome!!! Glad there are people like you in the world Jennie.


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