Friday, December 16, 2011

Training Sirocco the Kakapo

Last May I had the incredible opportunity to meet seven highly endangered kakapo chicks. (Read more and see video here) During my visit one of our conversations centered on a very famous kakapo named Sirocco. Many of you may know Sirocco from the viral video from the BBC TV Series Last Chance to See. Sirocco mated with zoologist Mark Cawardine’s head. I came to learn his behavior was a mixed blessing. On the one hand it lead to a video that threw a great deal of attention to the Kakapo Recovery Program, a program that is having success in part due to public support. On the other hand Sirocco’s persistence was endangering his safety.

During breeding season male kakapo have a desire to mate that is quite likely stronger than any other parrot species I have encountered. Males have nothing to do with nest building or raising offspring. There job is to attract females and mate with as many as possible. They do this through a unique series of tracks (trails) and bowls (small depressions in the ground). Each night these flightless and nocturnal parrots march up the tracks to their bowls. Once the bowl is tidied up the male settles in and begins to suck air into air sacks on his chest. This allows him to produce a low frequency booming call designed to entice females to visit. If a female or just about anything passes near his bowl, the males charges and mounts.

Sirocco is different from other kakapo in that he was hand raised. A respitory illness when he was just a nestling meant he needed extra care. It was learned too late that having been raised without other birds meant Sirocco would never develop an interest in female kakapo. Instead the objects of his affections are people.

The way kakapo live and are now managed is to allow them to behave as naturally as possible. This means they are free to roam their island habitat. Sirocco was no exception. However unlike other kakapo he chose to visit the human accommodations on the island. For a newcomer to the island a Sirocco encounter was at first thrilling. However as the videos I watched revealed things turned sour quickly when Sirocco would relentlessly try to climb up to people’s head to mate. Sirocco even built his bowl near the trail to the outhouse and would ambush rangers on their way for a pit stop. Imagine a 3000 gram parrot who is determined to climb to your head? Even for those with experience with parrots this could be a challenging situation. The concern was that someone might accidentally hurt Sirocco trying to deter his advances.

Having learned Siroccos story I realized positive reinforcement training could help! I was determined to come back and help get Sirocco’s behavior on a better track. I had been traveling to lecture like crazy this fall. I literally came back from one event on a Sunday and flew to New Zealand the next day. But this trip felt more like vacation than work. Even after 20 hours of flying and a 7 hour time difference, I was energized when I landed in Wellington.

My first night meeting Sirocco was one of observation and lots of discussion. He was living in an enclosure at Zealandia, a haven for New Zealand wildlife. Sirocco was there temporarily as an ambassador bird for the project. Over 4000 people came to see a kakapo, for many their first ever. The second night was when the fun really began. It was time to see if Sirocco would respond to training. I like to think I projected a calm exterior, but inside I was tingling with excitement. I approached Sirocco exactly the same way I do any parrot I am meeting for the first time. I showed him what I had (pieces of macadamia nuts), assessed his body language to see if he had any interest and then slowly and carefully offered a treat. His reaction? More macadamia nuts please. Sirocco was clearly going to be an excellent student. He quickly learned to target. He started stepping on arms when cued, and stepping off. It soon became clear we were going to need to come up with a long list of behaviors to have on stand-by because he was learning so fast.

Although it was a blast for me to train Sirocco, the goal was for his caregivers to learn how to influence his behavior. Subsequent sessions were spent making sure the rangers were feeling comfortable with getting Sirocco to do some simple behaviors and train new ones. Things were going so well Sirocco’s minder, Linda and I were wondering if we were ever going to see any of the problem behavior I was there to address. Our moment came several days into his training. I will save that story for the next blog. More to come!

Barbara Heidenreich
Good Bird Inc
Copyright Good Bird Inc 2011

12 comments:

Sodacoaster said...

this is fantastic!!! I learned a lot and also my heart exploded from Sirrocco's cuteness!!

Anonymous said...

Was fun to watch you teach targeting to this wonderful bird. He is so big. Bet he was heavy when he stepped up on your arm! Good job and thank you for sharing. Sandy Staples

Singanpray said...

This has to be one of the funniest videos I have ever seen. I laughed so hard I was crying. I don't who was funnier-the bird, the camera man who got shagged, or the comments of the narrator. Great job filming this and the training was very helpful for me, a new parrot mommy.

Singanpray said...

This has to be one of the funniest videos I have ever seen. I laughed so hard I was crying. I don't who was funnier-the bird, the camera man who got shagged, or the comments of the other narrator. Great job filming and great training.

Anonymous said...

That was fantastic to see Barbara! He certainly is a smart bird to pick up targeting and step-up so quickly. I can't wait to see your next instalment on his progress! Sarah

Many Feathers said...

Wonderful, Barbara!!! Can't wait to see more!

Many Feathers

Anonymous said...

That was just beautiful. Isn't he amazing?!

Anonymous said...

"I will save that story for the next blog."

I can't find the rest of the story! May I have a direct link, please?

Barbara Heidenreich said...

At the bottom of the page is the word "newer" just click on that to get to the next part of the story : )

Anonymous said...

Definitely my favourite bird! He is lovely.

Antares said...

Sirocco might appreciate a sex doll. His behavior is really no different from most guys. If it weren't for his sharp claws, I wouldn't mind letting him shag my head :-)

Barbara Heidenreich said...

Believe it or not, they did try a robo-kakapo they made. No luck. We eventually had success with a crocs shoe. You can read the conclusion to the story here. http://goodbirdinc.blogspot.com/2012/11/sirocco-kakapo-finds-love-in-unusual.html