Buddy Training 2015-16


April 27, 2016 final update from Raina

During the past six months, daily training sessions with Buddy have gone very smoothly. So smoothly that updates for the training blog became pretty uneventful! 

I’ve continued to work on shaping Buddy’s behavior with our new daily feeding method. Buddy readily flies into his vestibule and crates himself, and we’ve most recently worked on him remaining in his crate (or at least returning to his crate) before he is “released” back into his large enclosure. Buddy responds well to food rewards, hand gestures, and vocal cues – he’s a great bird to work with!

Because Buddy is so responsive (and curious!) it can be easy to shape his behavior and teach him new things. In the coming months, I hope to work with Buddy to cue him to different spots or “stations” in his enclosure, using vocal cues and hand gestures. That way, if Buddy has visitors but he’s perched on his rear perch, I can cue him to a different station where he is more easily viewed. This new behavior is not necessary for us to work with Buddy, which actually says a lot about how far we’ve come. We’re now able to focus on shaping and refining behaviors in his enclosure, moving beyond the basics. I’m so excited to have reached this point in our training!
That being said, we still have some basic work to do outside of the enclosure. While Buddy can be wonderful on the glove during programs (just check out some of the photos below) we do still face the issue of him bating (flying from the glove) when he is overwhelmed or in a new setting.

(L) Photo courtesy of L. Todd Spencer, The Virginian-Pilot

Buddy has been participating in more off-site programs in the last two years, and we hope to bring him to even more programs, giving him exposure, and helping him feel comfortable on the glove. This past weekend, Buddy and I attended a party (and educational presentation) at Wild Birds Unlimited in Virginia Beach to celebrate Buddy’s eighth hatchday. He was great, if a little impatient after spending a few hours in the car for the roadtrip.

Chuck and Donna Burnett (owners of Wild Birds Unlimited - Virginia Beach) with Raina and Buddy
Photo courtesy of Jim Yanello

Training Buddy will likely be a life-long commitment; I don’t think it will ever be “done”. And that’s okay. Teaching him new things and helping him feel comfortable in his role as an ambassador is an important job, and it can serve as great daily enrichment for an eagle in captivity.

But we’ve hit and even surpassed many of the goals we set since February 2013 – when I first began working with Buddy. I’m very proud of all we have achieved together. Because training will be on-going, and because the process has slowed, we’ve decided to discontinue the training updates on the website. We’ll still keep Buddy sponsors updated through Caring for Critters updates, of course. So if you’re very interested in hearing about the happenings in Buddy’s life, you can become a sponsor.

Thank you for following Buddy’s training experience for so many years. I look forward to this special eagle making more great progress and teaching many thousands more people for years to come.

September 3, 2015 update from Amanda

I’ve been feeding Buddy for the past couple of weeks; he’s doing very well with the “shifting” routine for feeding and cleaning. Each day, when it’s feeding time, I enter Buddy’s vestibule and put a few pieces of food in a large crate. After leaving the vestibule and securely locking the door behind me, I stand near the access door that enters the main portion of Buddy’s enclosure. I cue Buddy to his bow perch; after he perches, I open the door to the vestibule. Buddy immediately flies to the vestibule, and on most days, walks right into the crate. I close the vestibule door behind him, and after that, I can safely enter the main portion of the enclosure to drop off food, provide enrichment, and change water as needed. 

I typically save a few pieces of food for additional reinforcement – through the closed sliding door, I can see if Buddy has walked out of his crate. If he has, I cue him to “crate”, and then reward him with food after he enters the crate again. If he’s standing in the crate, I toss him a couple of pieces of food as a reward for his patience.
Overall, this system seems to be working extremely well. Shifting Buddy into the crate in his vestibule keeps the staff safer; the rehabilitation staff can enter safely to hose and clean the enclosure as needed, without coming into direct contact with Buddy. The process of shifting Buddy is also a multi-step process which challenges him and makes feeding time more interesting, serving as a form of enrichment for him (?). We’re able to reinforce good behaviors, and Buddy is typically very patient during the process. Having him walk into his crate creates a positive association with the crate, and reinforces his “self-crating” behavior.
In the coming weeks, Raina will continue to work on securing Buddy in his crate, and intermittently removing the crate from the vestibule.

July 7, 2015 update

During the past three weeks, Amanda and Raina have been working with Buddy to train him to enter his crate on his own. This trained action would more easily allow the staff to work with Buddy and prepare him for off-site programs. Getting Buddy out of his enclosure has always been the most challenging and difficult part of working with Buddy on the glove.

Fortunately, Buddy has been a quick study with this new behavior – he’s done very well during the past two weeks. When cued, Buddy enters the crate [in the vestibule of his enclosure] and is rewarded with food. Once Buddy is in his crate, the crate door can be latched behind him, through the door that connects the vestibule to the main part of the enclosure.

Teaching Buddy to crate himself is a safe way to remove Buddy from his enclosure; the only issue is that Buddy’s swivel and leash still need to be attached prior to removing him from the crate. On Tuesday, July 7, Raina moved on to the next step – putting on Buddy’s equipment. After Buddy crated himself, Raina and Amanda carried his crate into the hospital’s radiology room – a small, dark, enclosed space. Raina was able to reach into Buddy’s crate to attach his swivel and leash to the jesses; she then was able to have Buddy step on to the glove and out of the crate.

Though Buddy has remained fairly comfortable with his crate during his years of training, allowing Raina to reach in and secure his jesses in the crate is a newly developed behavior – a behavior that we hope remains intact as we move forward. Raina took care to slowly introduce this new action and make the experiences in the crate positive ones.

After a smooth crate training session during the morning of July 7, Buddy was easily leashed and brought out of his crate.


While this is still a new experience for both bird and handler, Raina is hopeful that this new approach will allow Buddy to come out of his enclosure for training sessions away from his enclosure, as well as for more frequent appearances and programs.

Buddy has been on a hiatus from live programs while in training but will soon make an appearance at an off-site event. On the evening of Monday July 13, Buddy (along with President Ed Clark and several staff members) will attend the Stonewall Brigade Band’s Kids’ Concert in the Park at Gypsy Hill Park, Staunton.

During the concert, the Stonewall Brigade Band will premier “Edward Clark’s Eagle March”, composed by Richard Adams of The Boogie Kings in honor of Wildlife Center President Ed Clark. Ed and Buddy will appear together to celebrate this special occasion.

Learn more about the event.

June 18, 2015 update from Raina

Buddy has been doing well with the new feeding protocol in his enclosure. I made a short video of a typical feeding; the video shows that Buddy perches in the main area of his enclosure and is then cued into his vestibule where part of his meal is left on a perch.

I close the door behind Buddy, securing him in the vestibule, and I can then enter the main area of his enclosure to drop off food, enrichment, or change his water.

Once I am done in the main area of his enclosure, and once Buddy finishes eating the food in the vestibule, the door between the vestibule and the main area is opened and Buddy is cued to his perch, where I have left the remainder of his meal.





The next step will be working with Buddy to enter a crate on his own while in the vestibule, which may allow us to more easily take him outside of the enclosure. We will explore this option during the next month.

We hope to repair Buddy’s cam soon. An Axis cam technician will be coming to the Center within the next two weeks to assess our cam issues.

May 8 update from Raina

On Thursday, May 7, the veterinary staff coped Buddy’s beak and talons – a procedure that is performed approximately every six weeks. While Buddy was out of his enclosure, the rehabilitation staff prepared both Buddy’s and Buttercup’s enclosures for each bird’s return. Rehabilitation intern Kendra and I met to discuss the best way to position perches for each bird.
At the end of the day, I returned Buddy to his larger, permanent enclosure and fed him using the new access door leading into his enclosure.
From outside of the enclosure, I cued Buddy to his bow perch in the main portion of his enclosure. I then opened the door to his vestibule (again, from the outside), where I had placed a very large fish for him to see. Buddy flew into the vestibule, and I closed the vestibule door. I then unlocked the access door, entered his enclosure, and placed half of a rat on his “feeding” perch. I exited the enclosure, locked the door, and waited for Buddy to finish eating in the vestibule.
Once Buddy finished eating his fish, I opened the vestibule door and cued him to his feeding perch. After a moment of hesitation, he flew to the perch and discovered the rat. Essentially, Buddy is learning and following two different cues – one to enter his vestibule, and one to leave the vestibule and return to his perch.
Feeding Buddy in this new way was successful, and will hopefully help us to better manage our interactions with him. It may open new doors for training and allow us to train new behaviors.
Following his feeding, Buddy took a dip in his pool – as he usually does following a meal. It was fun to see him wading in the deep water!
The camera in Buddy’s enclosure is currently malfunctioning, which means that we won’t be able to stream Buddy Cam. We hope to fix the camera within the next month.

April 23 update

During the last month in his new temporary enclosure, Buddy’s behavior has been much more manageable. The rehabilitation staff is able to more easily clean this enclosure from the outside, meaning the direct interactions with Buddy are almost entirely eliminated.

The outreach team has been primarily responsible for feeding Buddy on a daily basis – Raina feeds most days, and Amanda fills in on days when Raina is unavailable. Rehabilitator Leighann is trained to feed Buddy on days when both Raina and Amanda are unable to feed Buddy.

For feeding, Buddy is asked to perch on his bow perch at the front of his enclosure. A simple verbal cue is given (“perch!”). Once Buddy perches, the feeder tosses food to Buddy at the base of the perch. In an ideal training session, Buddy re-perches very quickly on his own, so the feeding process can move quickly. Though he occasionally has sessions during which he is more impatient, overall, Buddy has been consistent with appropriate behavior.



Typically, Buddy’s meal is chopped into 45-60 pieces. His meals consist of fish, mice, rats, or chicks. Vice President Randy Huwa was able to secure a variety of fish leftovers from the Charlottesville Whole Foods to provide Buddy with variety in his training diet. There are sometimes fish heads mixed into the leftovers, which Buddy greatly enjoys tearing apart!

A sample training meal for Buddy, topped with fish head enrichment. 

While working on Buddy’s training in his temporary enclosure, we have simultaneously made adjustments to his permanent enclosure to prepare for his eventual return. Our handyman, Billy, created an access door into Buddy’s enclosure – this will allow us to train Buddy to enter the vestibule so a staff member can close the door behind him and enter the main enclosure through the access door. This modification will eliminate contact between Buddy and staff members for cleaning and enclosure maintenance.

Billy (handyman) demonstrating the finished access door to Buddy's enclosure.

Buddy will likely move back to his enclosure sometime in the next few weeks; the staff will be discussing the next steps. 

March 23, 2015 update from Wildlife Center President Ed Clark

The Wildlife Center recently announced that Buddy, our superstar Bald Eagle, was temporarily being moved from his large enclosure to a smaller cage. Buddy has been displaying a number of territorial and defensive behaviors that posed a significant safety risk to WCV personnel. Buttercup the Black Vulture has temporarily swapped cages with Buddy. This announcement was made as a courtesy to Buddy Cam viewers who would undoubtedly be surprised not to find their favorite eagle in his regular home.

Unfortunately, a few people have blown the significance of Buddy’s temporary move from one cage to another -- something we have done before – way out of proportion, and have used this as a pretext to express all sorts of opinions and outrage about Buddy’s care, his housing, his training, etc.. Sadly, some of these opinions have been expressed in the most inappropriate, and frankly hurtful, of ways. What’s worse, a few people are actively spreading misinformation about this situation and soliciting others to send us “nasti-grams”, telling us what’s wrong with how we are caring for Buddy. Therefore, I want to provide some additional information about why Buddy has been temporarily moved, what is happening in the meantime, and how all of this fits into his life at the Wildlife Center of Virginia.

Most of our followers will recall that Buddy came to us in the spring of 2008, with a large growth on the left side of his beak, right in front of his left eye. The growth was identified to be a viral lesion caused by Avian Pox, a mosquito-borne disease. Buddy’s full story is available on our "All About Buddy” page, but his treatment initially involved supportive care and administration of the extremely expensive human anti-viral drug Interferon. While the lesion eventually healed and the virus was defeated, the growth plate of Buddy’s beak seemed to be permanently damaged, causing Buddy’s beak to grow in crooked. Still, we tried a variety of therapies and treatments, in hopes of repairing this damage.

Unfortunately, Buddy was eventually deemed to be non-releasable – but only after months of extensive and extremely expensive treatment, after the special surgery that was conducted by the top avian surgeon in the world (whom we flew in from Illinois just to work on Buddy), and only after the regular orthodontic sculpting of Buddy’s beak had failed to produce a sustainable alignment of his upper and lower beak. Under normal circumstance, we would euthanize a bird with a permanent deformity that would prevent it from feeding itself in captivity, let alone surviving in the wild. However, because so many people had become invested in Buddy’s story, we decided to do give him a chance to fit in with our small collection of non-releasable education animals.

For the last five years, Buddy has been trained and handled just as we have trained other eagles and other birds of prey over the last 33 years. As is true with all of our birds of prey, he has been worked with regularly and on an ongoing basis; I have been “in the loop” in all of the discussions of his training. What is different with Buddy is that we now have thousands of people looking over our shoulders. A few feel entitled to tell us how to do our jobs, lecture us about what Buddy is thinking, make assertions about his emotional state, and generally demand that we do things their way.

Buddy is now an adult. His instinctive adult behaviors are beginning to kick in, including his genetic compulsion to defend his nesting territory against all intruders, including humans! As stated earlier, this makes it hard for staff to clean and service his cage, actually poses a safety risk to his caretakers, and makes it more difficult to train him. This behavior is specific to his cage; it’s his turf, and he’s going to defend it! We have seen this with many other birds, including Junior [the Golden Eagle I had for 27 years] and Scarlette, the Red-tailed Hawk who was one of our most popular education animals. Outside their cages, these animals were perfectly behaved, but inside their cages, they were completely different animals.

As Buddy’s behavior worsened, he was placed on a tether – a “leash” that restricted movement in his cage. Tethering is a very standard practice for training and managing birds like eagles. Over the last 33 years, I have trained many birds, including at least four eagles; every one of them was tethered for at least part of the training process. Buddy is now off his tether, and he is able to access all corners and all perches in his cage.

In the past, we have seen improvements in Buddy’s behavior, and advancement in Buddy’s training, when he was housed in an enclosure that was not his home territory. In March 2013, Buddy was moved to a different enclosure for training; this change facilitated training and allowed both Raina and Dr. Dave to more readily handle and work with him. Once again, we’ll apply this “change of scenery” to facilitate training. Buddy has now moved into Buttercup’s enclosure; we are hopeful that we will once again see good results.

While Buddy is in his temporary spot, we’re going to make some modifications in Buddy’s cage and his feeding regimen, including a “lock-out” system, much like that used in zoos. In the future, we will feed Buddy in the smaller vestibule area behind the main part of his enclosure, and lock him in there while the larger enclosure is safely accessed, cleaned, and serviced. To implement this new strategy, we need to install a new access door that will allow us into the large enclosure, directly from the outside. Preparation began today and construction will begin this week. This relatively simple modification to the enclosure, and changes in where Buddy is fed, will eliminate the risk to our staff from Buddy’s territorial behaviors, and will also allow us to train Buddy to enter the small and more secure enclosure during severe weather, when we need to catch him for treatments and beak coping, or to go to present off-site education programs.

Once the modifications are complete, and once we have had the chance to take advantage of training Buddy in a smaller space, he will be returned to his “regular” and permanent enclosure.



March 22, 2015 update

For a year and a half, Buddy was tethered in his enclosure so that he could be more easily worked with and staff could easily enter his enclosure for training, feeding, and cleaning. Buddy tends to be territorial in his enclosure, and when he is free-lofted, it can be challenging for staff to safely tend to his daily needs.

However, one in evening in mid-February, Buddy became snagged on his tether line and the situation – though quickly resolved – led the Center to make the decision that Buddy should remain untethered for the immediate future. We will consider alterations to the tethering system, should the need arise again.

Since Buddy has been free-lofted during the past month, the staff has seen deterioration in Buddy’s behavior. Previously, Buddy would perch on a specific perch when asked, so that staff would easily feed or direct him. In the past month, he has become more territorial and is flying at people who enter his enclosure to feed, clean, or change his water.

It’s challenging – and dangerous – to manage Buddy’s current behavior in his large enclosure. In the past, Buddy has reacted better to training and positive reinforcement when he was housed in a different enclosure that he does not feel is “his territory”.

To facilitate positive changes in Buddy’s training and daily management, we’ve decided to temporarily relocate Buddy to the enclosure next door, swapping his place with Buttercup the Black Vulture. Buddy will be moved on Monday, March 23 after his scheduled beak coping [trimming] session.

While we are unsure of how long Buddy will be in this temporary enclosure, we’ll keep you updated on his progress; we’re hopeful that we will see positive changes in his behavior so he can remain free-lofted in his large enclosure.

Read more about Buddy's former training sessions here.