You know the season is changing when the composite of wild birds does too. Winter is preceded by the arrival of characters like Eurasian wigeon, with squat postures and spherical chestnut heads and teal, characterised by a broad, wrap-around green eye stripe and iridescent speculum feathers. I resent the habit of describing waterfowl using the drakes’ plumage – which if you aren’t what we call ‘bird-y’, I’ll confess I’ve just done – but female ducks are sometimes consigned to the ‘Little Brown Jobs Club’, an unglamorous expression credited to naturalist Gerald Durrell who intended to classify smaller, duller, less charismatic animals. And research says that if you want people to care about conserving wildlife, you first beguile them with the opposite, a flagship species, a cute, colourful – often mammalian – ambassador.
In a roundabout way, my job is about a type of that beguiling. Nestled in the centre of a wetland reserve in South West England is the Living Wetland Theatre, a sort of wood-effect amphitheatre with perches driven into the ground around a recessed stage. Twice a day throughout the summer the perches and stage accommodate a ragtag team of zoo-housed wetland birds, loosely supervised by a presenter. And I do mean loosely. Moments before a scheduled talk one of three presenters steps into an adjacent aviary, pops a GPS tracker onto the bird or birds invited to come out, and opens the airlock doors. What happens next is very much the bird’s prerogative.
That’s an oversimplification, but it’s the real beauty of being a presenter at the Living Wetland Theatre. Although it is of course a privilege to present to the reserve’s visitors about wetland birds’ form, function, and conservation, a lot of what we do is facilitate that ragtag bird team’s agency. Our birds make decisions about whether or not they want to come outside, can communicate their readiness and willingness for their GPS, and are encouraged to take flight without any major terms and conditions about the direction or length of time spent soaring on a column of rising air. And that’s where the science comes in.
I’m one third of the Theatre’s presenter/trainer outfit. We train birds for what most people would call free flight bird demonstrations; we invite the birds that we care for outside, without physical restraints, and talk about them, alongside them, to an enchanted audience of reserve visitors.
My colleague Nikki often says in her presentations that she can’t speak on behalf of our guests, but she certainly didn’t learn how to talk bird at school. I know this sounds bizarre, but that statement comes just before the revelation that our team kind of did, through a combination of extensive practical experience with birds and a higher education in animal behaviour. When a bird is familiar to you, and by that I mean an individual that you care for and interact with on a full-time basis, you begin to recognise their vocalisations, their posturing, even their little mannerisms as a nuanced method of interspecific communication. A bird that doesn’t fancy coming out for a scheduled talk will ignore an open aviary door, or might only give you a cursory glance before returning to their grazing. One of our magpie geese, Lucy, talks to us about her GPS. Sometimes during its application she draws her head back just a touch and moves her head fractionally side to side for a couple of repetitions. It’s very subtle, not at all remarkable in a fidgeting goose’s overall repertoire of behaviour, but when considered in context by someone familiar with her it translates her discomfort at, say, the speed the GPS tracker is being popped on. So we slow down, give her a break, readjust, and then she stops with the head thing, because we have listened to her and responded considerately. Our little egret, Miss Kevin, raises the feathers on the crown of her head when she’s irked but strides towards you clacking her beak when she’s pleased. We coincide the daily cleaning of her aviary with the occurrence of option B, beak clacking. Not to anthropomorphise too much, but I wouldn’t like my closest friends imposing themselves on my flat even if they were offering to hoover for me…I’d prefer to invite them over of my own volition. Wouldn’t you?
Once outside, all of the birds on our flying roster are allowed to take off. When they’re up, that’s their business – we just ask that when they’re finished, they please land nearby. Our pelican is working on that last bit (he has a big wingspan!).
How? is a popular question. A big part of the science behind talking bird is learning about individuals’ preferred reinforcers. That’s the technical lexis for a bird’s favourite thing, that we orchestrate the appearance of just after a desired behaviour. It makes said behaviour more likely to happen again in the future. For some of our birds that reinforcer is a juicy mealworm; others, the zip of a jacket to chew (really); our crowned crane delights in close proximity to her favourite people. The timing of a reinforcer’s appearance needs to be exquisite relative to the bird’s behaviour to successfully up the future occurrence (contingent, contiguous – science). What’s really cool about a reinforcer is that it transcends into a particular type of dialogue, because now we have an opportunity to communicate almost directly to our birds. We say “I love what you just did there, could I please see more of it in exchange for that favourite thing of yours?”. We’re very progressive trainers at the Living Wetland Theatre. You might imagine that we withhold our birds’ preferred reinforcers for training and create a currency around behaviour – we don’t. Instead, we make reinforcers available through lots of different opportunities, many of them totally non-contingent on interaction with us! And what we find is that, as a result, we have this mutual trust that is probably the foundation of us letting birds fly clean out of their aviaries and having them come back every single time (touch wood).
But that’s a huge topic to cover for a blog post here. Indulge your inner scientist if her interest has been piqued and Google ‘motivating operations’, and/or Dr. Susan Friedman. Broadly what I’ve described here is the science of applied animal behaviour. In secondary school I mistakenly thought that science was about understanding things like formulae used to calculate…I don’t know, velocity. And of course some of it is! But natural science can be as far away from that as talking bird to ambassador animals, encouraging people to love wildlife as much as you do.