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