2021 Year In Review: Maggie McCartney, Wildlife Care Academy Coordinator

It’s time to look back on 2021! Check our blog between Christmas and New Year’s for a variety of stories and memories of 2021 from the staff and volunteers of the Wildlife Center of Virginia.

In January 2021 the Wildlife Care Academy, once a stand-alone department and then part of the Vet Department, settled into the Outreach and Education department.  This reorganization has given me new opportunities.  As a member of the outreach team over the past year, I have participated in public programs, written posts and materials for the website and Caring for Critters program, contributed to supplemental resources for Untamed compendium, and more. 

The most exciting new element for me has been working to build relationships with our team of ambassador animals.  In particular, Rosalie and Ruby have been important teachers for me, helping me learn raptor behavior and training for the first time.  My previous animal training experience was very reptile-oriented, and birds are very different from reptiles behaviorally.

One of the most fascinating things about this experience has been getting to know each bird as an individual.  Rosalie and Ruby, both female Red-tailed Hawks, could not be more different in their behavior and interactions with their trainers.  In my first days working with each of them, Rosalie looked directly at me, vocalized loudly, fluffed herself up to appear larger, and mantled over her food.   Ruby, in contrast, avoided being close to me, glanced around her enclosure, and rarely looked at me, waiting until I left to go to her training platform for food.  One might say Rosalie is bold and confident, while Ruby is a bit more shy and hesitant, but we do our best to avoid using these human-oriented labels, in favor of more accurate and detailed descriptions of behavior. 

Over the weeks and months that I have worked with the ambassadors, I have been able to build relationships of trust with several birds, including Ruby and Rosalie.  I have watched each of them grow more used to my presence and worked with each of them to step up onto my glove, leave their enclosures, participate in programs, accept routine health checks, and stand on a scale.  Through meeting each of these goals together, the birds and I built our mutual trust banks, and their behaviors and responses to me evolved.  However, the differences between Ruby and Rosalie remain stark. Rosalie gets restless if she sees me in the ambassador area and I don’t feed her first, hopping from perch to perch and aiming her loud and extended screams in my direction.  Upon entering her enclosure, she readily meets me at our training station and shows little hesitance as we work through her trained behaviors.  When she’s not interested in participating, she moves to a specific perch which is her way to communicate to her humans that she’s done with the session. 

 In contrast, Ruby watches me quietly from her perch as I feed other birds, only turning toward the back of her enclosure when I am about to enter.  Ruby is trained to fly to the handling glove rather than step up from a close perch, so retrieving her is a bit different in that way, but she frequently hesitates, looking to other perches to approach from just the right angle or deciding not to enter into the training session at all.  Working with Rosalie, Ruby, and several other ambassador raptors have given me a new understanding of animal behavior and individuality.  These two Red-tailed Hawks are good examples – each of our ambassador colleagues has its own traits, preferences, behaviors, quirks, special skills, and challenges.  There isn’t a word like “personality” to describe animals, but if there were, they certainly have it!

As I continue to work with these birds and the rest of the ambassador team, I look forward to further building our relationships of mutual trust, and learning more from all they have to teach me.

-- Maggie McCartney, Wildlife Care Academy Coordinator & Front-desk Supervisor

Check out all of our year-in-review posts!

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