How We Train Birds

Bird Training Cover

Lead trainer Colleen Roddick rewards Willow, the Barn Owl, while training. Photo by William Krumpelman.

About this image

Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit. – Aristotle

Training Birds at CRC

Carolina Raptor Center’s Resident Bird Care program is designed around the principles, mission statements, and philosophies of the International Association of Avian Trainers and Educators (iaate.org), the use of positive reinforcement, and the idea that all bird residents at our facility will have optimum quality of life through quality housing, care, food, training, and enrichment.

Our avian trainers work diligently every day to provide the best care possible for our residents, and this includes training for most of the birds in our collection. Training is used to get our birds ready for programs on the glove or in flight, but it can also be used as a tool for health checks (training a bird to voluntarily go to a scale, accept our hands for a keel check or foot check, or opening their wings to check feather condition) or a form of enrichment (the provision of interactive activities designed to enrich the life of a captive animal, as defined by the International Association of Avian Trainers and Educators). 

When training our birds, we use positive reinforcement. A bird is asked to perform a certain behavior, and is rewarded for said behavior. With raptors, the reward is most often food. The way we explain it to students in our programs is to imagine if we were to ask you to give us a high five. If we asked you to give us a high five and you did, and you were then given your favorite treat (such as a candy bar) for doing it, the likelihood of you giving us a high five the next time we ask increases exponentially. If we continued to reinforce you every time you gave us a high five when being asked, you might also start offering us a high five every time you saw us without even being asked. Every bird at Carolina Raptor Center is given a choice. Though they are trained to step up and stand on a glove, or fly perch to perch, or go to a scale, they are also welcome to say "No." There may be days that our trainers go into an enclosure and a bird does not want to perform the requested behavior and that is absolutely fine with us. We leave the birds alone in that case and come back later to try again. If the answer is still "no," then again we will leave the bird alone. More often than not, the bird comes around to what we’re asking it to do. But if the answer remains "no," we might change our approach or even wait to try again another day. After all, we all have off days every once in a while. 

For more information on training, positive reinforcement, and similar topics, visit the IAATE website