Carmine Bee-Eater Training Story
Here's the Training story of Preparing Hard-to-Exhibit Birds for a Free-flight Aviary...
Northern carmine bee-eaters (Merops nubicus) are colorful birds that live in large colonies in central Africa and are closely related to kingfishers and rollers. They are acrobatic flyers, catching bees and other insects out of the air. Although common in the wild, Disney’s Animal Kingdom® is one of only a few U.S. zoos to house this species and the only zoo in the U.S. to successfully breed them.
A flock of ten carmine bee-eaters was originally housed in our large, free-flight African aviary at Disney’s Animal Kingdom® at park opening in 1998. A critical component of our aviary husbandry routine involves feeding the birds in an exclusion feeding station throughout the day. This allows keepers to get a daily visual on all of the birds to assess their health and access them for medical exams if necessary. The flock of bee-eaters would not dependably enter the feeding stations, however. In 2002, the bee-eaters were moved to our behind-the-scenes Avian Research Center for breeding. From 2002 to 2014, the flock increased to 43 individuals.
As their numbers increased, we wanted to try this species back in the African aviary. Animal care staff in both areas collaborated on a training plan to prepare the birds to reliably enter the feeding enclosures once back in the African aviary. Seven young males were selected for training and moved to a large enclosure behind the scenes with a similar feeding station set-up. Training goals included having a unique feeding cue, a bell, for the bee-eaters and having the birds enter the feeding enclosure through a small exclusion opening to keep out larger, aggressive birds that would compete for their special diet.
Due to their cautious nature, training progressed in small increments over a several month period during which the exclusion opening was reduced from the size of a normal door down to a 3" x 3" opening. Ultimately, all seven birds were reliably entering the feeding station to receive their balanced diet.
In the fall of 2015, the conditions were ideal to release the small group of Northern carmine bee-eaters once again into our large, free-flight African aviary. The exclusion feeding station, used in our behind-the-scenes Avian Research Center, had to be mimicked in the African aviary. The birds were first placed in a holding enclosure that was next to a second, larger enclosure which would act as the exclusion feeding station.
Over the next two weeks, the bee-eaters would continue to go through the 3" x 3" opening with a sliding door that was opened when a bell was rang. This gave the bird’s access to the opening and allowed them to pass through to get food. This step would be repeated over and over, paired with the birds receiving positive reinforcement. As the birds learned, the time the door was left open would slowly reduce, so that the birds had a “window of opportunity” in which to take advantage of this buffet.
As the fall weather turned slightly cooler, radiant heaters were used in the holding cages to keep them comfortable overnight. The bee-eaters enjoyed this immensely and basked in the radiant heat all day. Even on the warmest days, we would see them soak up the heat and sunbathe. This additional reinforcer increased the likelihood that the bee-eaters would enter the 3" x 3"opening into the feeding station from the open air free-flight aviary.
One day we opened the door to their holding enclosure and allowed them to choose when, and if, they wanted to enter the free- flight in the Africa aviary. After about 10 minutes, one lone bee-eater flew off into the tree tops and then one by one the rest followed.
The bee-eaters fly free in the Africa aviary and enter the exclusion feeding station three times a day. The birds do not have to compete with others to get their dietary requirements. This behavior helps Disney’s Animal Kingdom® keep our birds in the best health possible, safe during inclement weather, assists us with daily observations, and voluntary monthly weights.