Thursday, September 07, 2006

Miss Manners

At age 9 1/2, it's high time Alice went to finishing school. This was prompted by the footing she gave me in late July and stern warnings from Marge Gibson, Alice's rehabber, and the University of Minnesota Raptor Center that human-imprinted Great Horned Owls have a tendency to turn nasty as they age.

I won't deny for a second that Alice is spoiled. She very certainly is. But there are some behaviors I was letting her get away with that needed to be changed.

1. The "pick up perch." Alice insisted on only being picked up from one certain perch in her room and no others. If she was on another perch, she flew away from me to either the "pick up" perch or another, depending on if she wanted to go to work or not. At Marge's suggestion, the "pick up" perch was removed.

I was concerned that by removing this major perch, Alice would have trouble getting around in her room. It turns out it made more space for her, and forced her to get into better shape to get around!

Bonus was that Alice no longer had her favorite perch to fly to when I went to pick her up. I made sure she didn't go anywhere other than onto my glove by grabbing her jesses (the leather straps that are always on her legs). This went over like a lead balloon at first, and more than once one stubborn owl hung upside down from my fist. I just had to be more stubborn than her, and now she's much more cooperative about getting onto the glove.

2. Curbing the biting habit. For whatever reason, some owls just have a snit about getting onto the glove. Once there, they're fine. Alice is one of those owls. She would always bite at the glove when I went to pick her up (unless she was majorly distracted by a cat or a dog.) And she would only step BACK onto the glove, not forward. I never pushed the issue since trying to make her step forward always seemed to result in more biting (thankfully she rarely bit hard.)

So I started teaching her to step UP (forward.) Every time she bit at the glove, I would quickly move it just out of biting distance and firmly tell her "no bite." At first I had to do this 50-100 times each time I went to pick her up (and I don't think that's an exaggeration.) But patience (or sheer stubbornness) is the key here. After refusing to allow her to bite the glove consistently every time I picked her up, she's gotten to the point where she doesn't even try to bite when picked up from some perches (her nest basket and work perches being notable exceptions.)

She voluntarily steps UP from some perches now, but we still have a ways to go.

3. Scratching at her window. When we moved Alice inside, I'm sure she didn't understand the concept of a window, and that's why she scratched at it. But it drove us nuts, so every time she scratched at the window, we came in to check on her. Even an owl brain can quickly figure out "scratching window = attention." And that's what it became...a means to get attention. It also seemed to be a bit of a displacement behavior, where she wanted something else and did the window scratching instead, but heck if I could ever figure out what she wanted other than attention.

So now whenever Alice scratches at her window, she's picked up and taken out of her room. If I'm up getting ready for work, I bring her downstairs with me (where she gives herself one heck of a workout rearranging and "killing" every blanket and pillow in the living room.) Or if I want to stay in bed a bit longer, I just bring her out into the hall.

This has curbed the window scratching fairly quickly. I think it was all a matter of attention. Now in the morning instead of scratching at her window at 6:45 AM, she scratches at the bedroom door (where I'm sleeping) until she lets herself in. Then she proceeds to "cache" every loose article of clothing in the closet or on the bed and eventually settles in to sleep on my dresser.

In the evenings I no longer send her upstairs after work. She chooses if she wants to go up or if she wants to have a good romp in the living room first.

Although many would say that owls are wise, I'd certainly agree that they are great at everything they need to do in the wild. But when it comes to learning concepts that have nothing to do with survival (like stepping onto a glove), Great Horned Owls can be slow, stubborn, resistant, and downright maddening. But we're making steady progress.

Alice won't graduate from finishing school anytime soon, but hopefully she's learning some manners (and I'm learning to have more patience.)

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