2021 Year in Review: Amanda Nicholson, Senior Vice President for Outreach & Education

It’s time to look back on 2021! Check our blog between Christmas and New Year’s for a variety of stories and memories of 2021 from the staff and volunteers of the Wildlife Center of Virginia.

“I still didn’t have high hopes but asked Amanda to evaluate our little red owl to see if he might be a good fit (but that is another story).”

My 2021 year-end memory picks up where Dr. Karra’s ended. The continued story of our little red owl who was near-death at admission this past spring. Painstakingly nursed back to health by our team. Declared non-releasable.

During my time at the Center, I’ve written about education ambassador training a few different times. It’s clear that our methods have evolved over time (compare 2012 to 2018 and 2019);  just like many of the Wildlife Center’s treatments and procedures, we are committed to continually learning and adopting best practices in all areas of our work, including with the animal ambassadors. There’s a reason that the famous Maya Angelou quote comes up often in our training world: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

In the past few years, I’ve learned a lot about operant conditioning, with an emphasis on least-intrusive methods. Using positive reinforcement as much as we can, lots of choice, and building a foundation of trust with our ambassadors is our ideal approach to be able to work with non-releasable wildlife and set them up for success as working education ambassadors.

It’s not a quick process. We play the long game when we’re training behaviors and setting up that relationship. In August, when Eastern Screech-Owl #21-0509 was declared non-releasable, I knew the “long game” would take on a whole new definition and that I’d really be putting my training skills to the test.

There’s an old notion that screech-owls are “easy” to train, and I suppose by older training methods, that would be true; it would be very easy just to “get” a screech-owl onto a glove. They’re very small; if they are not exactly willing to participate in training or a program, it is easy to take away that choice. But building a relationship of trust and choice is far from easy.

While screech-owls may be fearsome predators to mice and insects, they also fall into the prey category – larger owls will easily take a screech-owl as a meal, as will large mammals. Even birds like crows and jays may try to take advantage. Considering that humans are much larger than any of these animals, we must appear like mega-predators to these tiny raptors. Also, consider that screech-owls exist in a world that we don’t often experience. They are active at night when it’s quiet. They navigate in low-light conditions and heavily rely on their fine-tuned hearing to catch and kill their prey. They depend on their stealth and silence; screech-owls also heavily depend on their camouflage to stay out of trouble. By comparison, humans sort of blunder around during the day making a lot of commotion in our loud, noisy environments. We are very much opposites.

All that said, I knew this would be a challenging experience. But, all of the criteria that we’ve set seemed to be falling into place. This was a hatch-year bird, still relatively young. Though the bird had lingering neurologic issues, there seemed to be good indication that it could navigate an enclosure and find food just fine. And wow, what a story. Lead toxicosis is a major wildlife issue that the Center addresses – what a great way to put a new little face to this issue.

In early August, I prepped, planned, schemed, and mapped out what training this little owl would look like. Fortunately, one of my three training heroes is an expert on small owl training, and she had plenty of instructions and advice for me – from setting up the owl’s space, to rules and guidelines on food, to the precise steps I’d take, to the incredibly challenging world of reading small owl behavior. Gail and I talked extensively about what behaviors to look for, as well as how I should react, move, and attempt to look like less of an intimidating predator. I relayed all of this to my co-workers throughout the process, and I believe my takeaway at one point was: “Well, if the owl’s eyes are very large, he’s stressed; if they are slitted, he’s stressed. Also, if his pupils are very dilated or very constricted that may mean he’s stressed. Also winking and blinking isn’t good. I think if he has eyes, he’s stressed. Also, I can’t look directly at his eyes, I should look at his feet. Which are only like three inches below his eyes, so that seems hard. Oh, but also I need to look through my hair at him, kinda like the girl from The Ring.”

I’m exaggerating … but only a little.

Our work together began on Saturday, August 14. My first goal: to open the door to his space just a smidge, wait for him to relax at least a fraction, then close the door. Repeat.

Our work continues together, now at the end of December. Today’s goal: have him step up on the glove, eat some tidbits of food, and spend a few minutes on my glove, looking relaxed.

We’ve made a lot of progress in our four months together; we also have a long way to go. The process has been challenging, rewarding, frustrating, fun, and many other things. As I take my notes on our training sessions, I tend to mark our progress by what this little owl has learned, and where we are in our training continuum. But when I really stop and think about the overall training process, I realize how much he has taught me this year:

Patience. This is probably the obvious one; if you’re training a small owl, patience is in order. Unfortunately, I don’t consider myself a very patient person. This little owl has been an exercise in challenging my inner calm and breathing deeply. When I’ve felt frustrated with him, I’ve realized that, truly, I’m feeling frustrated with myself. I can recall several days where I’ve walked away from a training session thinking, “I can’t do this, it’s so hard, we’re not getting anywhere.” Usually the sessions following those most frustrating ones are the times when we made progress.

Observations in subtlety. Gail told me that this process would make me so much better at behavioral observation; she was right. While I’m still a blundering human who probably misses a lot, this little owl has definitely given me so much practice with picking up on subtle cues. And guess what? They can have eyes and not be stressed! I now know what a “relaxed eye” looks like. Which ties directly into …

Communication. Let’s face it, communication is hard on a good day with our own species. I think we can all readily think of times when we’ve had misunderstandings with family, friends, and co-workers, and realize it all boils down to a lack of communication or unclear communication. Trying to communicate with an entirely different species with a totally different language (including body language) gets complicated quickly. To me, training is always an exercise in attempting to be a clear communicator, making your intentions known, clarifying what your intentions are not. Whether it’s with an owl or a dog or a horse or a human – a focus on good communication is an important component of life and relationships.

Celebrate tiny victories. We use training plans as road maps for our training journeys. It’s easy for a more “destination-oriented” person like me to look toward the end goal, and think about how much more we need to do to get there. But training this owl emphasizes the journey that we’re on, and that I need to stop and celebrate the small victories. The first time he jumped on his food with me being present (with my back toward him), the first time he hopped down onto a scale in front of me, the first time he took food from the tongs – these were all tiny victories that were milestones on our long journey. It’s a good reminder for other areas of life as well: appreciating the small things and giving thanks daily.

I look forward to our continued journey in 2022!

— Amanda Nicholson, Senior Vice President for Outreach & Education

Check out all of our year-in-review posts!