Barbara Heidenreich looks at the early learning experiences of kakapo.
Our last night of kakapo training was quite exciting. A three year old bird who had been hand raised several years ago had discovered a way to enter the large enclosure where the chicks are housed as they prepare for release into the wild.
We think she was attracted by the chicks and food. This wild older bird generally does what the other kakapo do and is rarely seen unless sought out by rangers for a health check.
As the three chicks were being fed, she actually tentatively approached and accepted a few food items tossed on the ground near her. She also stepped onto the perch used to weigh the chicks when prompted.
This would have been the same perch used to weigh her when she was a chick. This three year old bird who gets very little interaction with people was actually an important indicator of what is possible with the hand raised chicks and their behavioural management once released into the wild.
This bird demonstrated that the pleasant experiences associated with hand rearing can have an impact that can help with future care of wild birds.
By targeting the specific behaviours we want the birds to do and actively training them during hand rearing, there is a very good chance they will present those behaviours when needed in the field, yet still remain very much a wild kakapo.
At this stage the chicks have learned a number of important behaviours for their health care and for making it easier to check on them when roaming in the wild. Now it is just a matter of maintaining them as they transition to the wild.
Needless to say all three kakapo chicks Lisa 1 (from the taped egg), Rakiura 2 and Heather 1 were wonderful students. They were always eager to participate. Each has their own personality. Little Heather1 is bold, always moving and almost always the first one to realize someone is in the pen. Check out this clip of Heather 1 and Rakiura 2 in a tree at sundown.
Lisa 1 is more laid back in general. He is the oldest of the three chicks. He and Heather1 have been very quick to learn behaviours that require them to think a bit about what actions they are doing that earn them desired consequences.
Rakiura 2 is an equally good student but excels mostly at things that require manipulating his body. He was a superstar when it came to allowing us to put on his transmitter without any restraint at all.
He sat calmly through the entire 11 minute procedure. The bird also seems to benefit from watching Lisa 1 for behaviours in which he has to do something to earn the reinforcer members more opportunities for training sessions and reinforcement of desired behaviours.
Time for me to leave the island now (via helicopter!) and training will be up to the rangers to maintain.
Fortunately the chicks still have a few more weeks to go in their pre-release pen. There will be many more opportunities to fine tune behaviours, increase the difficulty of recalls, and practice what they now know.
Building this reinforcement history makes it more likely the birds will present desired behaviours in the future.
Once released, the chicks will be checked frequently which gives staff members more opportunities for training sessions & reinforcement of desired behaviours.
As the chicks mature, they will be checked less frequently. This will be the when we find out if the training has paid off as we hope. Maintenance of some of these behaviours may mean very infrequent reinforcement opportunities.
However as our three year old visitor last night demonstrated, this may not be a problem at all.
I will be looking forward to reports from the rangers on how the birds transition to the wild and how well they maintain the behaviours they have learned. There will be much more to learn and discover as we implement this plan in the next few years to come. Stay tuned for future updates! Learn more about the Kakapo Recovery Program here.
Here are all the Kakapo updates.