This summer, I’m excited to have the opportunity to be a part of EARTH Limited’s internship program at Southwick’s Zoo, located in Mendon, MA. EARTH Ltd is a non-profit organization whose mission is to aid in conservation efforts by educating and inspiring the public to care about preserving our planet and the wildlife within it. I will be able to participate in this education by assisting in animal behavior shows and an end-of-internship project, where I will create an interactive display on a conservation issue of my choice to educate zoo visitors about. This is exciting for me, as one of my major goals going into this internship was to directly contribute to wildlife conservation.
My work is within the zoo’s bird department. I carry out the birds’ husbandry, clean their enclosures, prepare species-specific diets, create enrichment, assist during educational presentations and answer questions the public may have before and after shows. All of this work centers around keeping the birds healthy and happy, as well as educating our guests.
We care for 20 different bird species within the bird department (over 30 individuals). The majority of our birds are parrots and macaws, who mostly live in the “inside” area of the zoo. All of them have their own distinct personalities, along with different voices. Many of the species are masters of mimicry. Fun fact: this is due to an organ called the syrinx, which allows them to copy sounds they hear in order to socialize. While humans have a two-folded larynx, their four-folded syrinx allows them to copy what they hear around them, from human phonemes (like “hello!” and “what ya doin?”) to meows and even water bubbling in a pot!
In addition to the birds based mostly in the private zoo areas, the larger species we take care of live in their outside exhibits, like the baby emus, Eurasian Eagle Owls, and Red-Legged Seriemas. One of the major goals with our baby emus is to socialize them and get them used to being around humans, which has certainly worked out well as they flock around me every time I enter their enclosure! Regardless of species, our department is always focused on conditioning positive behaviors, along with enrichment. The purpose of enrichment is to reinforce natural behaviors like scavenging, which decreases boredom and stress. Each bird has their own specificities. Some need different materials, different reinforcing treats and different levels of complexity, and we keep track of all of this.
I’ve enjoyed participating in the two daily bird shows, which showcase some of our birds and their talents, along with bringing light to our endangered bird species and how to help. We close out each show by raising money to donate to an organization called Asociación Armonía that builds homes for the critically endangered blue-throated macaws. Additionally, I’ve enjoyed beginning to build bonds with the birds, something which is also essential to training them. I’ve already gotten to see training in action by some of my supervisors and have participated in training sessions myself. Here’s a quick video of my training with Pongo.
Right now, my focus is reinforcing present behaviors that they perform in shows, like their vocals (for example: when I ask “can you say hello?” the bird responds with “hello!”, or if I say “where’s the fire?” the bird will make a firetruck sound). All the show birds have different vocals and skills they perform, so I’m currently helping in rewarding those behaviors so they’re motivated to continue doing them. These sessions have been fantastic, and have allowed me to bring my classroom knowledge of classical and operant conditioning, learning, and reinforcement into the real world.
My overarching goal for the summer is to help solidify my career interests. I want to use this incredible opportunity to the fullest by continuing to gain skills in animal care and management, along with wildlife conservation outreach. I’m excited for all that lies ahead!
– Ori Cohen