“Quacking” the Code

When most people think of training animals, they think of alligators, lions, or other exotic animals that would be difficult to handle. However, our keeper Maggie Sipe is here to tell you that is not always the case! Even ducks- a seemingly simple animal- take patience and dedication to “quack” the code to successful training! Here’s Maggie’s report on how our three call ducks (adorably named after “The Big Bang Theory” characters) responded to their training, and how they are doing now:

Three call duck clutch mates, named Sheldon, Howard, and Leonard, arrived at the zoo in April of 2014. They were wary of keepers and unsure of their new environment. A need for training was established and positive relationship building began immediately.

Before training could begin, it was necessary to get the ducks more comfortable with the keepers and to get them to accept food from keepers. For months, all keepers who worked in the area would spend as much time as they could with the ducks to desensitize them to the keepers’ presence. Pretty soon, they readily accepted food from the keepers’ hands and would anticipate the arrival of keepers by exiting the pool to approach them.  Now that reinforcement could be delivered, the call duck training program began.


Training all three ducks at once proved to be a challenge, so individual training was pursued instead. Target training- getting the ducks to respond only to their specific target (corresponding to a color) was the first behavior goal for the ducks. The trainers believed it would be the most useful tool as a base for training.

Sheldon was the most dominant and food motivated individual at the time so training began with him. Sheldon was presented with the yellow target stick first. Through his natural curiosity, he pecked at it and caught on quickly that pecking the yellow stick led to a reward. Next he had to be taught that ignoring the red and blue targets led to a reward.  The trainer presented the red or blue target then bridged and reinforced before Sheldon had a chance to peck it.  Howard proved the second-most eager to participate, so he was trained next.  Sheldon remained indifferent to a second participant, as long as he received target training in the same session. The process was repeated with Howard using the red target stick. Having already trained color discrimination with Sheldon, the trainer applied previously learned lessons.  When Howard was introduced to the other targets, the trainer immediately reinforced for no reaction to yellow or blue.  This made the process much smoother for this individual.

Leonard was the least dominant individual and often displaced from food by his clutch mates.  To build Leonard’s confidence, the other two individuals were targeted out of the pool and heavily reinforced on the ground so that Leonard could train in the pool. Leonard was presented with the blue stick and quickly caught on that pecking it lead to a reward. By the time Leonard was ready to learn color discrimination, the other two no longer had to be separated out of the pool. It then became apparent that no training had to be done for this step as Leonard already avoided the other two targets.

Target training became such a strong and well established behavior that every time the trainer would enter the duck enclosure, the ducks would excitedly crowd around the trainer and run around displacing each other for opportunities to train, even fighting occasionally. This was the basis for the decision to train a station behavior next because stationing would be incompatible with running around and fighting. The criteria for the finished behavior would involve each duck calmly standing with both feet on their station mat.  The station mats were color specific which matched to each individual’s target color.  This mat could be moved throughout a session, and the duck would follow.

 

All three ducks on their training mats!

While the stations were successful in keeping the ducks in a relative location, they would not stay on station for any length of time.  A change in approach for station training was adapted from our sea lion training team and solved the issue. The sea lions at our facility are only reinforced once they have returned to station after completing a desired behavior and are calm for the acceptance of reinforcement.  When applied to the ducks, they would be targeted to a different area, but reinforcement was only given once they were back calmly waiting on their station.

The call ducks are vastly more comfortable in keepers’ presence after completing their training. The ducks are no longer fearful of enrichment items presented by the keepers and readily investigate new things. Keepers are able to observe their behaviors more easily and are able to determine the effectiveness of the enrichment towards eliciting natural behaviors. The ducks readily come out of their pool at night and shift into their indoor holding without the need of aversives. Monthly weights are recorded with no stress to the ducks at all.

The lives of these three individual ducks have improved greatly since the initiation of their training program. Giving the animals the choice to participate in their care has proved beneficial in improving the welfare for these individuals. Training these three small ducks has proved that every animal, no matter how big or how small, deserves a chance to have the choice and control in their environment.

 

Waddling Away With Our Hearts Part 2

After reading our first penguin post, you may think you’re an expert on our tuxedo-wearing birds. Well, you may be, but we’ve got even more fun facts about the lovable creatures.

A more commonly known fact about penguins may be this: our African penguins are known as “jackass penguins” due to the braying noise they make. You may have heard their donkey-like screeches when you visit their exhibit at the zoo, but there are a lot of other noises and behaviors they display that are important to their communication. For instance, one of the most popular displays is known as the vibrating head shake, which is where the bird bows the head, brings the bill close to the body, directed downwards and vibrates head from side to side. This can be used as a greeting between two penguins or as a courtship display between two potential mates.

Another important behavior is the “ecstatic” display, which is used as a territorial gesture between males to advertise ownership and availability for pairing by performing this display. The bird stands erect and slowly, deliberately, stretches his head and bill skywards, bill opening as head is raised, flippers raised until nearly horizontal. Breast and base of throat heave silently, then develop into throbs, then full braying with head thrown back, bill wide open, flippers beating back and forth in time with breast heaving. The display may last for up to a minute and the period of the display may last an hour or more with 12 or more displays in succession. The ecstatic display can also be made by mated males alone or in the company of their mate, and after an encounter with neighbor or rival on site. Braying and hissing can also be used by juveniles toward adult birds to communicate various things.

Since our penguins are extremely social birds, they usually stay very close together. Although one may wander a little farther away to explore a new part of the exhibit, they usually come back to the main group very quickly! Even in the wild, African penguins form large colonies on land to reproduce, molt, and rest together.

Although panting and using their special glands above their eyes helps them to cool down, sometimes our penguins like to take a good ole’ fashioned swim to beat the heat. In the wild, African penguins spend most of their time in the water foraging for food, but also use the cool water to bathe and cool down in! In the zoo, our penguins don’t have to hunt for their food, but you can often find them swimming laps just because they enjoy the water so much.

Besides being cute and interesting, our African penguins also love to have fun! Although they are often found burrowing with their mates in the shade near the back of their exhibit, they also love to chase things. Sometimes you can see them waddling quickly, trying to catch flying insects! In fact, they all love doing this so much that one of their enrichment activities involves blowing bubbles and encouraging the penguins to chase them throughout their exhibit. Spend some extra time near their exhibit and see if you can catch them in the act displaying any of these cute behaviors!

The #InvestInTheNest campaign that we have partnered with for the past month has seen amazing success! Although the original goal was to reach $150,000, that total was exceeded before the official end of the campaign! As of June 16, the last day to donate to the cause, the total pledged is $181,568!! We’re so grateful to everyone who donated to help save this vulnerable species. If you don’t know about the Kickstarter campaign, it was started to help raise funds to build artificial nests for the African penguins in Southern Africa. Due to over harvesting of penguin guano, which is used as fertilizer, penguins are left with nothing to build their nests with, and have to resort to building them out of trash and other less than ideal materials. This leaves the new penguin chicks vulnerable to predators. But thanks to support of people like you, we will now be able to build 2,000 hand-made nests for the penguins who so desperately need them!

We love our adorable, fun, and spunky penguin friends, and know that you do too! Donating to causes like Invest In The Nest is a great way to help this endangered species, but supporting your local zoo and all zoos and aquariums that house African penguins is another good way to help out. If you visit our zoo, be sure to stop by and see the penguins in their exhibit- but be careful, because they just might waddle away with your heart!

Norbert’s Going Too Fast

WOAH! Slow down, Norbert. You’re growing up too fast!

We are excited to celebrate our male Aldabra Tortoise‘s 54th birthday this week. Norbert is the oldest animal at the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo. And even though he was born on September 23, 1962, he is still like a teen in tortoise years. Giant tortoise species can grow up to be over 200 years old! The oldest Aldabra Tortoise alive today is 176 years old.

Aldabra Tortoises are also one of the largest tortoise species in the world. Average giant tortoises weigh around 550 pounds. Norbert currently weighs 566 pounds. No wonder tortoises aren’t very fast! These tortoises have strength instead of speed. Aldabra Tortoises can knock over shrubs and small trees to get to their food.

“Norbert may not be the fastest animal at the Zoo, but he comes over pretty quickly when zoo keepers arrive with food,” says Kylie Linke, Section Supervisor. “He also loves neck rubs.”

Norbert, like other Aldabra Tortoises, enjoys his fruits and vegetables. In their native habitats on the Aldabra Islands (north of Madagascar), these tortoises eat grass, plants and other wild weeds. At the Zoo, our Commissary Staff prepares watermelon, cantaloupe and grapevine for Norbert and his exhibit-mate, Purdue.

“Norbert and Purdue also love eating the leaves that are scattered around the exhibit, especially in the fall when they’re crunchy,” says Linke.

Purdue arrived at the Zoo in 1992, two years before Norbert. She was born in the wild and is thought to be in her late 60s. Like other female tortoises, she is a lot lighter than Norbert–weighing in at only 286 pounds.

Sadly, Norbert and Purdue’s kin have been listed as a vulnerable species due to drastic habitat loss. Even though this species has no true predators due to its size, sailors over the past 100 years have captured and killed the Aldabra Tortoises for food. And when their boats reached the Aldabra Islands, rats and dogs leave the ships to eat tortoise eggs. But recently, these tortoises have been held in wildlife conservation areas, and they were removed from the endangered species list.

Stop by the Aldabra Tortoise exhibit this week and wish Norbert a happy birthday!

And baby makes three…Generations!

Echo, the penguin chick, is the beginning of a third generation of African black-footed penguins at the zoo. She’s the offspring of Chunk and Flash, and all four of her grandparents live with the zoo’s colony as well!

Echo’s parents are known for their strong bond. Last year, the pair was recommended for breeding by the Penguin Species Survival Plan (SSP). The Penguin SSP is a collaborative management program of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) that works to maintain sustainable, genetically diverse penguin populations in zoos.

Zoo keepers were delighted when Echo hatched last November, but the baby boom didn’t stop there. The penguin colony grew by one more when Blue hatched in February. Blue is the offspring of L. Pink and R. Pink, making him Echo’s uncle.

African black-footed penguins are endangered, and every new chick gives hope to the future of their species.  The zoo financially supports SAANCOB Saves Seabirds, a non-profit organization working to reverse the decline of wild penguin populations.

Visit the zoo this season to see three generations of feathered cuteness.

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Zoo Preview 2016

The Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo opens for the 2016 season on Saturday, April 23 with new exhibits, new animal species, and some adorable zoo babies!

“Our 50th season was a big one,” says Zoo Director Jim Anderson, “and we have even more for our guests to do and see in Season 51!”

Australian Adventure Renovation

Phase 3 of the Australian Adventure renovation opens this season and will feature a complete renovation of The Outback. Animal highlights include a new reptile house featuring knob-tailed geckos and a woma python, three new aviaries featuring galah cockatoos and straw-necked ibises, and the Tasmanian devil exhibit set to open in late summer.

Renovations to The Outback also include the all-new Outback Springs play stream and updates to the Crocodile Creek Adventure Ride. “We think guests will love the new look and feel of the Crocodile Creek Adventure Ride,” says Anderson. “It’s a great time for the whole family.”

Echo the African Penguin Chick…and a Surprise New Chick!

Zoo fans are eagerly awaiting their first chance to see baby Echo, a female penguin chick that hatched at the zoo in November, 2015. Echo’s arrival marked the start of a third penguin generation at the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo.

The zoo’s penguin colony grew by one more (surprise!) when Blue hatched in February. Blue is a male and is the offspring of bonded pair L. Pink and R. Pink, making him Echo’s uncle.

Blue still lives behind-the-scenes and will join the flock on exhibit later this spring.

Anderson says, “African black-footed penguins are endangered and their population in the wild is declining. Every new chick is important to the future of their species.”

Sumatran Orangutan Baby

Asmara the baby Sumatran orangutan is one year old this season and starting to test her independence. Asmara is sure to delight guests as she climbs, explores, and tries to steal mom’s food! Born at the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo to parents Tara and Tengku, Asmara represents a critically endangered species on the brink of extinction.

“Asmara is a little ambassador for her wild cousins,” says Anderson. “She helps us fulfill our mission of connecting kids with animals and inspiring people to care.”

More Zoo Babies

Guests of the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo can expect to find many adorable babies during their visit. In addition to a baby Sumatran orangutan and two feathery penguin chicks, guests can visit three new kangaroo joeys, a baby crocodile skink, and a baby swamp monkey.

“Animal babies are always a guest favorite,” says Anderson, “and visiting new babies is a fun way for families to connect.”

Extended Hours from Memorial Day through Labor Day

The zoo will stay open late until 7p.m. from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Admission gates will close at 7p.m., with zoo grounds closing at 8p.m.

“We listened to our guests,” says Anderson, “and what we heard is that they want more time to enjoy the zoo. We are pleased to offer this benefit to zoo guests.”

Extended hours also create an opportunity for guests to enjoy dinner or schedule evening picnics in the Parkview Physicians Group Pavilions. Catered group picnics were previously available during lunch hours and the zoo expects the later time slots to fill quickly.

More of What’s New

Phase 2 of the Australian Adventure renovation is officially complete and includes Stingray Bay (opened September, 2015) and a new Shark Conservation Area in the Australian Adventure Plaza

Exclusive VIP Experiences take guests behind the scenes for close encounters with their favorite animals. This year’s VIP lineup features new experiences including stingray encounters, vulture feeding, and orangutan training. For an additional fee, guests can schedule a VIP Experience and spend quality time with our animals and zoo keepers!

Updates to the Indonesian Rain Forest include a new roof in the tiger viewing area and a renovated exhibit featuring lesser sulphur-crested cockatoos.

Faye the reticulated giraffe arrived from the Cape May County Park & Zoo last winter and is sure to be a new favorite among guests. “Faye is getting along well with the herd, and we expect her to be a regular at the feeding platform,” says Anderson.

Conservation

By participating in cooperative management programs for more than 90 species and taxa, the zoo is helping to preserve genetic diversity in endangered and threatened animals from around the world, including Sumatran orangutans, reticulated giraffes, and African penguins.

Kids4Nature is a kid-friendly conservation program that invites every guest to participate,” says Anderson. Guests receive a recycled metal washer at the ticket booth. Each washer counts as a “vote” toward one of three conservation projects. “Last year, our guests helped direct more than $90,000 of the zoo’s conservation commitment toward conservation projects around the world,” says Anderson.

Plan a visit in 2016 to see what’s new at the zoo!

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sea lion fort wayne

Pucker Up!

You’ve heard of window shopping, but what about window kisses?  You can get your own window kiss at the zoo this year and it won’t cost a thing!  The zoo’s sea lions – Legend, Cassandra, Fishbone, and Grits – give guests window kisses at the end of each Sea Lion Show.  Sea Lion Shows happen twice daily and are free with zoo admission.

Why are the animals so apt to show “affection” to zoo guests?

“It’s a trained behavior.” explains sea lion trainer Britni Plummer. Plummer says, “The girls are trained on a variety of behaviors and all four will swim around the glass for window kisses at the end of the show.”

Training is a form of enrichment for the sea lions.  Zoo keepers use positive reinforcement to train the sea lions, which gives the animals choice and control.  When an animal chooses a behavior, like swimming up to the window for a “kiss,” they receive a tasty treat in return.  The 11AM and 3PM Sea Lion Shows are dynamic and enriching training sessions for the animals.  The sea lions get mental and physical stimulation, lots of fish to eat, and they develop a trusting relationship with their zoo keepers.

And guests get a kiss.  It’s a winning situation no matter which side of the glass you’re on!

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Pig School

Elvis and Pugsley may be known for their good looks, but did you know that they’re smart, too?  The zoo’s Kunekune pigs are already intelligent animals, and now they’re going to school!

Their school is the barnyard and their teachers are zoo keepers.

Zoo keeper Heather Schuh and section supervisor Laura Sievers train Elvis and Pugsley almost every morning.  Schuh and Sievers begin each training session by greeting the animals and inviting them to participate.  If the animals choose to train that day, keepers offer treats each time an animal performs a desired behavior (like sitting, turning, or moving indoors).  The pigs’ treat is a piece of carrot, which serves as positive reinforcement for the animals.  Keepers also follow the desired behavior with a secondary form of reinforcement, like a quiet whistle.

Why train pigs?  Behavior management coordinator Holly Walsh explains the benefits, “Training gives the animals a choice to participate, thereby reducing stress for both the animals and their keepers.  Training also encourages animals to cooperate in their daily routines and also their veterinary care.” Elvis and Pugsley are learning three behaviors that will help with future vet exams:  sit, turn, and hold still. “We use positive reinforcement to teach the animals how to participate in their own care,” says Walsh. 

Animal training sessions happen every day at the zoo, and they’re fun to watch!  Stop by the Indiana Family Farm on your next zoo trip and ask a keeper if any of the animals are training that day.  You might get to watch the pigs go to school.

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See What Happens When the Zoo Vet Visits the Farm

What’s it like to give annual physicals to a barn filled with animals?  We followed zoo veterinarian Kami Fox as she visited the Indiana Family Farm this week to give check-ups to the tortoises, barn owl, and cow, and to supervise the donkeys’ yearly hoof-trimming.

Tortoises Norbert and Purdue went first.  Dr. Fox examined their mouths, noses, eyes, skin, and shells.  Zoo keepers condition the tortoises’ shells with baby oil every two weeks to keep them moisturized.  Vet techs Maraiah Russell and Angie Slentz helped Dr. Fox draw blood for lab tests to assess overall health.

Next it was Lindbergh the barn owl’s turn.  Dr. Fox examined Lindbergh’s wings and feet for abnormalities.   Dr. Fox also performed a routine blood draw on Lindbergh, then the owl was weighed on a small scale.  Lindbergh did not appear stressed during the exam but all the activity must have made her sleepy – afterwards she flew up to a high corner and took a nap!

Ellie the cow was the next patient.  Ellie weighs over 800 pounds, making her exam a five-person job from start to finish.   Keepers kept Ellie calm by offering a steady supply of apples and hay for munching.  First came Ellie’s foot exam and hoof filing by a professional farrier, which encourages even weight distribution and contributes to joint health. Next, Dr. Fox felt Ellie’s body for abnormalities and to assess the fat-to-muscle ratio that the large bovine carries.  She then listened to Ellie’s four stomachs with a stethoscope, checked her eyes and mouth, and drew a blood sample.  Finally, it was time for Ellie’s yearly TB test and vaccines.

Donkeys Sarah and Sonja also received special care.  It wasn’t time for their annual annual exam yet, but it was time for a visit from the farrier, who pronounced their feet healthy.

After the round of barnyard exams, Dr. Fox said, “There are no serious medical issues to report at this time.  All the animals are in good condition. Norbert and Purdue’s oil application will be continued to keep their skin and shells conditioned and Ellie will remain on a controlled diet to help her stay lean and healthy.  Of course, we’ll continue to monitor all of the animals year-round for any medical issues.”

When you visit the zoo this summer, stop by the Indiana Family Farm to say hello to your barnyard friends, and wish them continued good health!

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call duck fort wayne zoo

How To Train A Call Duck – And Why We Do It

The three fluffy call ducks at the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo’s Indiana Family Farm have a busy life.  When they’re not swimming, socializing, eating, or partaking in enrichment activities, our ducks participate in training sessions with their zoo keeper.

Why do we train our ducks?

“Target training gives the animals more choice and control, which reduces stress on them,” says zoo keeper Maggie Sipe.  Sipe trains the call ducks by rewarding them for choosing to target specific objects or stand in designated spots.  “Call ducks can see color very well,” says Sipe, “and our training teaches them to move toward a specific color.  This is useful when the animals must move indoors due to weather or for medical checkups.  The ducks can choose to move into a crate and would not need to be chased or handled.”

The three male ducks, named Sheldon, Leonard, and Howard after a popular T.V. show, eagerly waddle toward their zoo keeper when it’s time for a training session.  “I’m proud of how well these three boys are doing,” says Sipe of the trio’s training efforts, “they are very good at targeting their own colors.”

The zoo employs positive reinforcement when training animals.  With positive reinforcement, zoo keepers offer a reward when an animal performs a desired behavior.  The call ducks receive a reward when they move to a desired location or target their assigned color with their beaks.

Their reward is simple but effective.  “I give them one green pea or a piece of corn when they perform a desired behavior,” says Sipe, “Those are the treats that motivate them.”

This video shows Sipe training Sheldon, Leonard, and Howard in their exhibit while zoo guests observed from the path:

The following photo set is from a recent indoor training session.  (The ducks live indoors when the weather gets cold.)  Click on the photos to enlarge: