August 28, 2013

How to Train a Crane

Wattled crane 107x107px

For sheer beauty and elegance, few zoo birds rival the wattled cranes in the African Journey.  You’d never guess that these seemingly peaceful birds have an aggressive streak.

“They will jab at you with their beak,” says Amber Eagleson, who manages the African Journey.  “And there is some serious power in those legs – they will kick right at you.” 

Wattled cranes stand four to five feet tall and are native to wetlands throughout sub-Saharan Africa.  Our birds, Betty and Hannibal, are an established pair who produced their first clutch of eggs last year.  Unfortunately, both eggs were crushed, probably by the cranes themselves as they moved around in their nest – not uncommon in first-time parents.

Because of the potential for injury, zoo keepers always work in pairs when entering the cranes’ marshy enclosure, which sits along the boardwalk near the African Journey’s exit.  They also wear goggles for eye protection, and carry a broom to fend off the birds if they get aggressive. 

Another tool used to manage the cranes is training.  “The cranes are trained to station on a target,” like a colored board on a stick, Eagleson explains.  “By rewarding them when they touch their beak to the target, we can move them to a different area of the exhibit.”  This allows keepers to keep the cranes’ attention when crews are performing maintenance in the exhibit, for example.  “It also allows us to see the birds up close and inspect their body condition,” Eagleson says.  The cranes are rewarded for their participation with pinky mice. 

Wattled crane populations are shrinking in Africa, due to destruction and alteration of wetlands.

Click on the photos below to view them full screen.

Viewing Tip:

Betty and Hannibal reinforce their pair bond with unison calls – loud, shrill honks that are made with heads tilted back.  They also perform an elaborate mating dance, jumping up and down with wings flapping while moving back and forth.  “I see this nearly every day,” Eagleson says.  Also, watch for nest-building activity this fall – eggs are usually laid in late August or early September in a huge grassy nest.

Posted in: African Animals, Birds, Conservation