Spokesbirds for the Spokesbirds

by Katie Fallon

I sat  cross-legged on  the  pea-gravel floor of the enclosure, as still as stone, half of a dead  mouse resting in my outstretched palm. Lew the turkey vulture stood about three feet away and wuffed at me. He roused, shaking out his feathers, then stretched both  wings  back; each flight feather of the right wing was glossy,  silken, and impeccably preened.  The left wing, however, did not extend well, and several  feathers in sheath jutted at odd angles, like porcupine quills. The injury— several  fractures near the  shoulder joint—had already  healed by the time we’d admitted the bird to the acca for rehabilitation.  We knew he would never fly again. The vulture kept his good eye fixed on me. Like the left wing, the bird’s left eye was damaged and not functional.

I swallowed, just a subtle movement, and Lew wuffed again. A few weeks earlier we’d received a permit from  the  US Fish and  Wildlife  Service to keep this vulture for use in environmental education programs, and  I was  working to train him. Or perhaps he was  training me. Our  goal  was for Lew to become an ambassador for turkey vultures everywhere—to allow folks  to admire a vulture up close, to give them a chance to know a turkey  vulture a little bit better. We wanted Lew to be a confident, comfortable bird,  which  might allow audiences to glimpse a turkey vulture’s typical “personality,” and not that of a stressed, panicky  creature (which  is, unfortunately, sometimes the case with  wild,  non-releasable birds used in programs). We were only using positive reinforcement and operant conditioning with  Lew; it could  take some time, but we were confident the result would  be worth it.

Recently, bird-training experts have begun to recommend that  vultures not wear  anklets or  jesses, the leather straps around the legs used to leash hawks, falcons, eagles, and owls.  Because vultures excrete liquid droppings on their legs and feet, equipment can wear out or become encrusted, which in turn could harm the bird.  Also, a vulture’s legs  are not  as strong as a predatory raptor’s, and  a vulture jumping (also known as bating)  while jessed could result in injury. In addition to the potential physical problems with jessing vultures, the International Association of Avian Trainers and Educators explains in a position statement that “there is a gradual movement toward giving birds more power over their environment. The scientific community has shown control is a primary reinforcer for animals. When a bird  is empowered with control over its  environment it will often perform with more reliable behavior.” The position statement further states, “Trainers are now discovering that  jesses are often  associated with negative reinforcement and positive punishment,” which could result in a bird that engages in “escape avoidance behavior, aggression, apathy, phobia or generalized fear of the environment.”

I certainly didn’t  want  to  punish Lew or cause him  to  be fearful; I wanted us to be partners. I wanted us to trust each other. Still,  I was a bit nervous without jesses. Although I’d given  educational programs in  the past with  un-jessed macaws,  cockatoos, and  African  gray  parrots, I’d never worked with an un-jessed hawk, owl,  falcon, or  vulture. But  bird- trainer extraordinaire Erin  Katzner and  I had  worked  out  a plan for training Lew, and although I remained a bit apprehensive about a truly wild  vulture’s ability  to trust me—and for me to trust him—in public without jesses or a leash, we were willing to give it a try.

Lew lowered his head  and  took a step  toward me. I sat perfectly still. He took another step, and as he drew closer he lowered his whole  body, almost slinking as he approached. When his toenails reached the edge of the blue  mat—our target, the place he was supposed to learn  to stand on to be fed—the vulture began to stretch his neck in my direction. I held my breath. The  bone-white hook  at  the  end  of his  beak  was  only  a few inches from my fingertips. I smelled the musky warmth of his feathers. His good  eye, a deeper brown color than the eyes of other vultures I’ve worked with, rolled in his red head, searching my eyes,  my face. He inched his other foot onto the mat, stretched, and  deftly nipped the piece of dead  mouse from my fingertips. In a flurry,  he retreated about three feet away and watched me as he swallowed the morsel. He opened and shut his beak a time or two and kept staring at me, and perhaps relaxed just a bit.

I exhaled. A wild vulture had  approached me and eaten from  my hand. This was day twelve of our training. The first day, I’d dropped food on the mat, then left the enclosure. After a few days of that, I stood just inside the door. Then  I moved a few steps closer,  and then I began sitting near the mat, moving a bit closer to it each day until  today,  when I rested my hand on the mat,  food in hand. It took me sitting like a statue for almost twenty minutes, but it worked. Tomorrow, he would be more confident.

A turkey   vulture without the  ability  to  fly is  tragic.   The birds  are built to soar,  to  master the wind.  Should we have humanely euthanized this vulture, who now stood just  a few feet away from me? That would have been a reasonable decision.  Lew’s enclosure is equipped with  various pieces  of furniture to accommodate his handicap. He could  only reach  his roosting box (complete with  a floor heater for chilly winter nights) by climbing a ramp we’d built  with “stairs,” much like a ramp you’d find in a chicken coop. A series of gently  sloping logs, branches, and large rocks allowed Lew to run along them without having  to use his wings. From  the  enclosure’s highest perch, he could look out  across a field and see the woods beyond. Other vultures often swirled on thermals above  the acca. Lew would  cock his head and watch them.

Perhaps Lew’s unfortunate fate could save other turkey vultures. Up close, he is an  impressive bird:  the  bronzed-black contour feathers, interlaid like soft scales; the  bone-white hook of his beak; the small, black-pupiled brown eye set in his blood-red face; the  delicate black velvet on his wrinkled forehead; the deep, close-mouthed hiss. Even the warm, musty smell is surprising. And when the wings unfurl, you wonder, for a moment, how the bird’s been hiding them, how he manages  to neatly  fold such great  capes over his back. The quick turns and bobs of his head show how sensitive he is to  his surroundings, and when he fixes his eye on yours,  you realize you’re in the presence of something trying to figure you out, of something that’s thinking.

Perhaps I’m overreaching and  anthropomorphizing. Perhaps not. Regardless, this  broken bird  had  a very important job—to  be a spokesbird for the spokesbirds, to give folks an up-close-and-personal introduction to the most widespread and numerous scavenging raptor on the planet.

I smiled and  reached into my pocket for another piece  of mouse.


Excerpted from Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird by Katie Fallon published by ForeEdge, an imprint of University Press of New England. http://www.upne.com/1611689716.html


Katie Fallon is the cofounder of the Avian Conservation Center of Appalachia, a nonprofit research, education, and rehabilitation center for injured birds. A member of the International Association of Avian Trainers and Educators, she has glove-trained a wide variety of raptor species, including turkey vultures, hawks, owls, and falcons. She is the author, previously, of Cerulean Blues: A Personal Search for a Vanishing Songbird. She lives in West Virginia.