Friends of a Feather Cluck Together

September 28, 2017

Training chickens is nothing to cluck about, although WildFlight Bird & Mammal Trainer Sean McLaughlin puffs up proudly when watching one of his hens present a behavior he asked her for. The female barred rock hen is one of six chickens at the Aquarium that Sean helped raise and train from just the day after they hatched.

Fast forward eight months and the barred rocks; Charlie, Blue, Delta, Echo, and the two silkie hens, Rex and Indie, now star in the Aquarium’s WildFlight Show and also delight guests during Creature Features.

Considering that the WildFlight team is home to more exotic creatures like a red legged seriema, endangered parrots, and an African serval; Sean often answers the question: Why chickens?

“A lot of people have misconceptions about chickens. They think they’re not smart, but we really want to show how intelligent they are, and that with good training, they can learn to have a focused attention on something actually other than food,” Sean explained.

And though they can be positively reinforced by something other than food; food does often work best when training, Sean says. The chickens at the Aquarium are fed a combination of grapes, kiwi, and papaya, other fruits, seeds, and a high quality chicken feed.

The first step in their training involved getting them comfortable around people. After that, it was all about what is known in the animal husbandry world as “small approximations.”

“First we got them to move from crate to crate, lengthening the distance a little each time,” said Sean, “Then we got them used to the burlap (they run through) and different parts of the (WildFlight) show.”

To do this, Sean drew on his training skills and also relied heavily on patience and pure consistency, explaining that much of training is couched in repetition.

Sean earned his bachelor’s degree in animal biology, graduating from Oklahoma State University in 2014, and then worked with small mammals at the Houston Zoo. This animal husbandry stint was followed by training and working with birds at Natural Encounters, Inc. in Florida.

“I love working with animals and seeing the different training techniques, learning what’s effective versus ineffective and learning new ways to read animal behavior. It’s a field where you’re constantly learning.”

Developing relationships with said animals is a given, and as Sean strokes Charlie’s striped feathers, it’s obvious there is a fair amount of trust there.

 

Sean puts his fist in Charlie’s line of sight and she immediately runs to it, showing the effectiveness of the target training Sean and other WildFlight trainers have instilled in her.

Charlie is the largest of the six hens and is also the calmest and “most cuddly.”

“They all have distinct little traits. Echo is the ‘talker,’ and Blue is…how do I say this nicely…very food motivated,” he says with a laugh.

The chickens not only bring laughter and educational opportunities – they are also all egg-laying hens. Some of these eggs are actually also fed to other animals at the Aquarium as part of their daily diets.

Come see Sean, his brood of hens, and learn more fun feathered facts at the Aquarium’s WildFlight Show at 12 p.m., 2 p.m., and 3:30 p.m. throughout the summer!

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