Taking Bird Training to New Heights

Lessons from the 2022 IAATE Conference in Lincoln, Nebraska

by Anna Morris, Lead Environmental Educator, CPBT-KA

As my plane taxied toward the runway at Boston-Logan, I watched a huge white bird glide up and land on a low post in the middle of the grassy median. In the dim dawn, it took me a moment to identify the Snowy Owl, an unlikely arctic visitor who sat and watched as we roared toward takeoff. 

I was on my way to Lincoln, Nebraska, to attend the annual conference of the International Association of Avian Trainers and Educators (IAATE). This organization helps people in my field connect to and learn from hundreds of others, whose aims are enhancing the welfare of captive-living birds, and increasing the understanding and appreciation for these animals all across the globe. Upon seeing the Snowy Owl, I was reminded of the work done to conserve Snowies by scientists like Norm Smith at Mass Audubon, and about how these associations – between people and wildlife, and between people who care about wildlife and each other – continue to inspire me in my work as an environmental educator and bird trainer. 

The conference was a “hybrid” this year, and although about 60 of us met in Lincoln, another 90, including my coworkers at VINS, were able to take advantage of a virtual option. What makes Nebraska in March a great setting for a bunch of bird-nerds? Though even its residents admit that west of a certain point, it’s mostly corn, the Platte River ecosystem hosts nearly 450,000 Sandhill Cranes moving through each spring, in one of the largest animal migrations in the world. Though a day trip was scheduled to Kearney to see the cranes, “snowy” continued to be the theme of the conference, and we had to cancel the trip. Fortunately, the staff at the Lincoln Children’s Zoo generously took us all under their wings for a special behind-the-scenes experience with their keepers and animals. 

A strange looking bird. (Resident giraffe at Lincoln Children’s Zoo). 
We were grateful for the hospitality of the Lincoln Children’s Zoo.

In the age of virtual meetings, I’d come to know some of my fellow IAATE members digitally, but it was fantastic to finally meet them in person. IAATE President Ari Bailey presented a workshop on free-flight, highlighting the importance of trust, fluency, generalization of behaviors, the opportunity to disengage, and resilience for these birds to succeed. Abby Flanders of Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center showcased the ways in which they have helped student volunteers develop professional skills, and inspired me to think about how we can grow our volunteer program–updates to come! Sidney Campbell of the American Bald Eagle Foundation also spoke about the capacity for nature centers with parent-reared owls, traditionally difficult to work with in a truly ethical way, to give the owls more control over their environment, letting these often cryptic birds have a voice in their care. What I’ve found most fascinating over the years of my involvement with IAATE, is how well our visitors at VINS respond to the increase in choice we are offering our birds. The minor disappointment of not getting to meet a particular owl in person is overtaken by the pleasure of knowing that the bird was given a choice to participate, and we respect their choices. 

IAATE President Ari Bailey speaks about the importance of trust with free-flying birds. 

We also heard from several groups focused on conserving birds. The Teton Raptor Center created the “Poo Poo Project” to help prevent cavity-nesting raptors from falling into the vent pipes of vault toilets, found in many public parks. Judy Bowes presented her PhD work on preventing bird-window collisions and ranked the most to least effective commercially available products. Many presentations highlighted the importance of cooperation between the medical and training teams, which I believe VINS already excels at. The IAATE is already organizing a webinar panel for April, in order for centers to share strategies for biosecurity and keeping our birds safe during the current avian influenza outbreak. 

Training birds to enhance their welfare, and teaching about them to help their wild cousins is my passion. (Anna with Quechee the Blue Jay).

I am so grateful to VINS for sponsoring my participation in the conference again this year. Attending helps me keep up to date with my certification as a professional bird trainer, which requires continual learning from my peers in the field. In addition, as a member of the Education Committee, I have the privilege of helping decide where the IAATE will distribute grant funds to other worthy organizations. I’ve come back inspired to try new things, including different types of education programs, and am looking forward to an exciting summer!

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