Dietary Training Becomes a Full-fledged Flight Display

Northern carmine bee-eaters (Merops nubicus) are all the buzz in the Africa aviary, which is located along the Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail, here at Disney’s Animal Kingdom®. These colorful birds have been known to gather quite a crowd as they show off their amazing abilities to guests. How do we get them to show off these natural behaviors? Through positive reinforcement training.

Knowing the natural history of the species is very important for training. The primary hunting strategy of bee-eaters is to keep watch for flying insects from a perch, and then with great speed and accuracy, pluck them out of the air using their tweezer-like beaks. They will then almost always return to the same perch to eat their meal. Keepers used this information for their training. First the birds were station trained to a certain perch that was right above the water way, where there is open space for our guests to admire them. By utilizing their natural hunting instinct to catch flying insects, the keepers were able to soak a highly nutritious pelleted food to the point where it was semi-soft or “al dente”; this mimicked the texture of most of the insects that they might feed upon like bees, wasps, hornets, and flies. This pellet is thrown to the birds as they fly by.

Now that the Bee-eaters are visible, the guests get quite a show as the bee-eaters dip and dive in the air showing why we refer to them as the masters of flight. Highlighting the fast flying antics and the ability to turn on a dime gets guests excited, but they are not always easily seen by everyone. The keepers began to ask the speedy flyers to slow down and hover next to them for a little while. Hovering adds an extra element of physical activity that can improve the birds overall health and it provides an opportunity to capture a great photo while bringing the birds closer to the Guests.

Inspiring our Guests to notice a very small and fast bird in the same way they might gaze upon an elephant or tiger is very important to the keepers at Disney’s Animal Kingdom®, for even the tiniest of creatures can have giant personality. Stop by the Africa aviary on your next visit and you might be lucky enough to catch the bee-eaters showing off their flying skills.