The Andean Condor (Vultur gryphus) is found in the Andes mountains in South America. It has the largest wingspan of any bird, averaging 3.2 metres or 10.5 feet. It only hatches one chick every other year, so the survival of this endangered bird relies on captive breeding programs.
Like all raptors, the condor has a really formidable beak, and this combined with its huge size make it a difficult animal to interact with. My task was to teach two of these birds to keep away from the keepers whilst their enclosure was being cleaned. Up until then, two or three people needed to go into the enclosure together – one to hose down and refill water containers and collect debris, and the other two to brandish brooms to keep the birds away from harassing them. As time progressed, the birds became more and more adept at ducking the brooms and grabbing a bit of clothing.
After discussion with the keepers, it was agreed that if two people could go into the enclosure together to clean up, the task would be much quicker and more efficient. It would also give the birds less opportunity to use their sense of humour to persecute the keepers. Firstly we taught the birds to touch a target stick when it was pushed through the wire of their enclosure. When they touched the end of the stick with their beak, they were rewarded with a click and treat. (they were not rewarded for grabbing the stick and wrenching it out of our grasp, which they initially thought was a really fun thing to do)
It did not take too long for the birds to realise that whenever the stick was pushed through the wire, there would be special treats available. The idea was that one person could target the birds to one corner of the enclosure and click and treat them, whilst the other two could clean up inside.
Andean condors are really awe inspiring birds – not just because of their immense size, but because of their intelligence and sense of humour. It was a privilege to have interacted with them.