Destined to Reproduce: Training Breeding Birds
By Barbara Heidenreich
First presented at The International Association of Avian Trainers and Educators Conference 2009

Traditional breeding strategies for avian species have often included creating an environment in which caregivers are advised to be as removed as much as possible from the birds. For some species this may contribute to breeding success. However work done with a number of birds has demonstrated that a training program based in positive reinforcement can successfully facilitate care of parents before, during and after breeding season and their subsequent offspring. In addition birds presenting reproductive challenges may offer another important application of training strategies, as evidenced by an example of training for artificial insemination of a rare species. Training single birds in preparation for introduction to a mate will also be explored.

Successful breeding of avian species can be the result of a complex set of circumstances. These circumstances may include choosing compatible pairs, providing specialized diets, monitoring light cycles, presenting nesting materials and much more. Training is not often thought of as one these elements that contribute to breeding success. However several facilities have incorporated positive reinforcement training to the care and maintenance of breeding birds with excellent results. Showcasing the application of training and its impact on these programs may help provide information others can use to support avian breeding success. This is especially important for breeding projects dedicated to preserving rare and endangered species.

Traditional Approaches to Successfully Breeding Birds
The common wisdom when it comes to breeding birds has been to “leave them alone” However this statement is often taken to mean almost extreme isolation. To the point that birds show excessive fear responses or aggressive behavior to the presence of caretakers. With many facilities breeding for conservation, it is understandable that most would want to do whatever is deemed necessary for breeding success.  However extreme fear responses and aggressive behavior can present a new set of problems. The slightest disturbance has the potential to create a considerable reaction. It is not realistic in most cases for caregivers to be completely undetected by breeding birds as they conduct the procedures required to care for their charges. Rather than trying to eliminate all disturbances and the presence of caregivers, positive reinforcement training can teach breeding birds that caregivers are associated with desired consequences.

In many ways this is not contradictory with the “leave them alone” approach. One of the cornerstones of positive reinforcement training is that animals are given the choice to participate. If they choose to engage, their efforts are reinforced with food, enrichment or access to other preferred items or conditions.  With this as a foundation the positive reinforcement trainer is not encroaching upon on a reluctant participant, but rather waiting patiently for the bird to make the first move.

A Training Plan for the Life of a Reproductive Bird
In a long range plan that includes positive reinforcement training in the life of reproductive bird, there are a number of stages in which training can facilitate various objectives.

Training as a juvenile or non paired adult:
This may include building a foundation of basic skills such as targeting, scale training, crate training and shifting behaviors. If the juvenile is quite young and not past a critical period in which the species is most receptive to new circumstances, the bird may also be conditioned to accept tactile examinations and other more hands on type behaviors. These early exposure to hands on activities paired with positive reinforcers can be helpful to training medical and other behaviors in the future.

Training prior to pairing:
The basic foundation behaviors listed above can facilitate preparing pairs of birds for introduction. Targets can be used to help station birds housed in separate enclosures closer to one another. Calm behavior in the presence of the other bird can be reinforced and caregivers can observe the birds’ response to one another. Targeting, shifting and crating can also be helpful in the event aggressive behavior is presented upon introduction of birds. Bird can be redirected to acceptable behaviors and separated without the need for forced capture and restraint.

Training to facilitate breeding:
Some species present breeding challenges that can be addressed via training. This may include training birds to allow artificial insemination procedures without restraint or training the birds to comfortably allow restraint for the procedure. Some birds may require additional medical procedures to be trained to facilitate reproductive behavior such as the application of hormone therapy. Holding position for ultrasound examinations is another potential application.

Training before nesting:
Training routines can be established prior to nesting that can facilitate the monitoring of reproductive behavior, nest sites and offspring. Depending on the objectives of the facility, adult pairs can be trained to shift daily to allow nest inspection. Or adults can be trained to station or target elsewhere in the enclosure while nest sites are inspected. Scale training can also allow data collection that may facilitate predicting egg laying and/or facilitate research projects that monitor weight fluctuations of a species before, during and after reproductive seasons.

Training during breeding season:
A suggested objective is to complete training goals prior to actual egg laying. Ideally behaviors are presented consistently by this point and behaviors are maintained by their regular use in the day to day care of the birds.  This may include obtaining regular weights, shifting or stationing to allow caregivers to monitor nests.

Training with nestlings:
In many cases offspring learn to model behavior of their parents. Parents that are demonstrating calm, non aggressive or non fearful behavior in regard to caregivers can teach offspring via observational learning to also present calm behavior. This can facilitate monitoring the health and growth of nestlings without creating an adverse response from parents or offspring.

Training with fledglings and/or precocial birds:
As the nestling advances to fledgling stage or if a precocial species, young often follow parents. This can facilitate introducing a fledgling or precocial bird to a more structured training program. Offspring that have had exposure to caregivers that resulted in desired consequences or at the very least a non aversive experience may be more likely to approach a caregiver to accept reinforcers to begin a structured training program. At this stage behaviors such as targeting can be initiated. This in turn can be used to facilitate training others behaviors such as scale training and kenneling.

Training offspring in preparation for future placement:
A young bird that has a positive reinforcement training history can be prepared for its future placement. Crate training can be expanded to include longer durations in the kennel and movement of the kennel. This can be critical for some species that are prone to capture myopathy.  By this point offspring will have likely learned to step onto a scale. All these training procedures can be videotaped and included with the data provided when a bird is transported to a new facility. This can be an important tool to ensure a smooth transition for valuable offspring into a new situation.

Examples of Practical Application of Training with Breeding Birds

Dallas Zoo - King Vultures (Sarcoramphus papa)
At the Dallas Zoo in Dallas, Texas USA. Several avian species have learned a number of behaviors that have contributed or are anticipated to contribute to the reproductive success of various individuals.

In 2006 a pair of adult King Vultures on exhibit began their training. Training was done with the keeper outside of the cage. Food was delivered via hands or forceps through the wire. The first behavior learned was targeting their beaks to blue plastic shapes fastened to the outside of the enclosure. This targeting behavior was especially useful in keeping both birds from aggressing towards the other over food. It also allowed keepers to easily monitor quantities of food consumed by each bird.

This targeting behavior was later used to train the birds to load into crates, and also to shift into a holding area. Because of a history of aggressive behavior with some individual caregivers, the policy in regard to these birds is that one or both of the birds must be shifted into a holding area if only one keeper is to enter the enclosure. The shifting behavior became the means to easily meet the policy requirements and avoid creating an aggressive response.

The target design allowed the blue target to be hung in numerous places outside the enclosure. By placing the target slightly higher than the birds when standing on the ground, keepers were able to capture the behavior of lifting a foot. This was later fine tuned to teaching the vultures to lift each foot on a separate cue and allow touching/examination of the foot pad.

This same procedure of raising the target also created the situation in which the vulture’s chest would be in close proximity to the wire of the enclosure. This has allowed keepers to manipulate the crop and feel the pectoral muscles through the wire. It is a behavior goal to eventually train the birds to accept intramuscular injections in the pectoral muscle without restraint via this training strategy.

The vultures nested and reproduced successfully in 2008. There was concern that training may be challenging when the parents diet was increased dramatically to provide sufficient food for the single chick they hatched. However both birds continued to present excellent response in the training sessions with the chick in the nest.

When the offspring fledged, the adults continued to participate in training sessions. Initially the juvenile would wait for the session to end to be fed by the adults. It was decided to attempt to engage the young fledgling in training. To avoid competition for food, one of the parents was shifted into holding. The other was allowed to continue in the session to model behavior for the juvenile. Rather rapidly the young bird learned to approach keepers to be fed near the target. Observations in these first sessions showed there appeared to be a greater response from the juvenile and a lack of fear responses when one of the adult vultures was participating in a training session in the vicinity. Goals for this juvenile bird before placement include at the very least targeting, scale training, and crate training in preparation for transport.

The King Vultures were an excellent example of the possibilities when a training program is initiated prior to breeding, maintained during reproduction and utilized to include offspring.

Dallas Zoo – Saddle Billed Storks (Ephippiorhynchus senegalensis)
A challenge for Saddle Billed Storks in captivity is that successful copulation appears to require the males to be non-pinioned and fully flighted. Unfortunately with very few pairs in captivity that meet these criteria; hatch rates are not keeping pace with deaths for this species. As of 2008 of the 28 males in North American facilities 10 of these are pinioned. These 10 are wild caught birds who represent important genetic diversity to the captive population. The partners of these 10 males nest and lay eggs annually. Unfortunately all eggs are infertile.

To propose a possible solution to this challenge, artificial insemination (AI) was attempted with a pair of Saddle Billed Storks at the Dallas Zoo. The method initially tried was modeled after collection procedures utilized in crane species. This usually involves capture and restraint of the bird, followed by manual stimulation and collection from the male. However when attempted with the stork species at the Dallas Zoo this proved to be a stress inducing procedure that did not yield results.

It was decided to attempt to pursue training both a male and the female to hold position without restraint and allow tactile for a possible AI procedure. Because this wild caught pair had a history that included forced capture, and the challenging nature of the behavior goal this has been a training procedure requiring extremely small approximations.

Initial training included teaching both birds to touch a target with their beaks. The criterion of also stationing feet onto a mat was added to adjust positioning. Over time a person sitting between the two birds was added. Canvas barriers were used to create a shoot for each bird as well as a visual barrier between the birds and keeper seated in between them. This visual barrier was gradually reduced over time.

Birds were reinforced for holding position for extended periods of time. At one point the female was holding for up to two minutes without reinforcement. As other criteria became more important the focus was switched. The long duration criterion was relaxed and trainers worked steadily on birds holding position while hands were approximated closer to the cloaca.

This portion of the training has proved to be most challenging. At the time of writing the female, who has made the most progress, will allow a hand to be presented at a distance of approximately three inches from her body. This has been incredible progress, but achieved slowly. Other challenges to the time line have been the inability to train daily and occasional skipped sessions due to varying levels of attention span for reinforcers due to varying feeding strategies.

While the training for AI is still a work in progress there have been other benefits. Both birds appear to present more body language that indicates comfort in close proximity to people. Aggressive behavior is rarely presented in comparison to prior to training. Weights are easily attained by placing the target on one side of the scale and having the storks station their feet on the scale and aim their beaks at the target. When required to be moved from one enclosure to another, they calmly walked down a hallway to their new designated temporary enclosure. Shortly thereafter they presented the AI training behaviors in the new enclosure without hesitation.

During the training process there has been very little presentation of aggressive behavior. This is primarily due to the fact that the trainers are careful to not push the animals to the point that aggressive behavior is presented. In addition the storks always have the option to remove themselves from the shoots that help position them for the tactile portion of the training.

It is the hope of the team involved that the results of this training whether the AI is accomplished or not can provide a template from which to start to achieve AI success without the need for restraint in storks and possibly other species. This training has the potential to be groundbreaking and may be critical to facilitating the preservation of rare and endangered species.

Dallas Zoo –African Penguins (Spheniscus demersus)
The African penguins at the Dallas zoo live in a colony that is fed by hand twice a day. With a history of interacting with people prior to arriving at the Dallas zoo, they were very receptive to close interactions with keepers. Daily hand feedings quickly evolved into daily training sessions. The primary training goal initially for these birds was scale training to gather weights for an in house research project. Training this behavior required teaching the birds to station on plywood squares. Two pieces of wood were used to create steps easy for a penguin to climb. All but one penguin learned to consistently step onto the scale. The penguins were allowed to pair for breeding and continued to present the scale behavior even when actively engaged in nesting behavior.

Dallas Zoo – Harpy Eagle (Harpia harpyja)
A single Harpy Eagle female is eventually intended to be paired with a male for breeding purposes. Of the birds in this area, despite her large size, she demonstrated the highest level of comfort around keepers. It was decided this comfort made her an ideal candidate for training.

Training the eagle also included the targeting behavior described for the King Vultures. The target was used to teach the bird to fly to various  perches in her enclosure when cued by the keeper from outside of the enclosure. This later became an excellent tool for encouraging the eagle to present behavior for zoo guests for interpretive demonstrations.

The targeting behavior was then used to train the eagle to approach a kennel and eventually enter a kennel. As the Harpy Eagle is not a species designed for much ground walking, perches on the ground and in the kennel were placed to facilitate entry into the crate.

The Harpy Eagle also learned to fly to a perch on a scale. Initially this behavior was done with keepers outside of the cage. However as the Harpy Eagle continued to demonstrate a calm demeanor around the trainers, it was decided to permit training sessions to occur within the enclosure when two keepers were present. This allowed for even more dynamic flight training demonstrations for keeper presentations. This also allowed scale training and crate training to continue within the enclosure. The Harpy Eagle also learned to shift into a holding area which became important during the colder winter months.

While a mate for this female has not yet been acquired, it is hoped that the experience gained working with this bird can be applied to her eventual partner. Ideally both birds will receive some training prior to introduction to facilitate a smooth transition into becoming a breeding pair.

Al Wabra Wildlife Preservation – Spix’s Macaws (Cyanopsitta spixii)
Extinct from the wild, Spix’s Macaws represent one of the species in which captive breeding success is critical. In an attempt to increase breeding success positive reinforcement training for hormone supplement therapy was administered to 4.4 macaws of the collection at the Al Wabra Wildlife Preservation in central Qatar. This training was done by Nicholas Bishop of the Taronga Zoo, assisted by Karen Cheek Justice and Nicole Lang.

As reported by Blue Macaw Coordinator Ryan Watson, the goal behavior was to train the macaws to station and hold the end of target stick with their beak while drops of liquid containing the hormones were placed into the nares of the birds. The reason for administration to the nostrils is that the blood vessels lie very close to the surface in the nostril cavity.  Uptake of the hormone can occur effectively there. Training the birds for voluntary medicating was chosen because the birds needed to receive the hormone over a one to two week period. It would have been very stressful to have to capture and restrain birds for hormone therapy every day. This would also likely interfere with their breeding activity.

Although the training went well and all birds accepted the drops to the nostrils, the hormone alone can not bring the birds into breeding condition. It is only designed to enhance reproduction once the birds naturally come into breeding condition. To facilitate training in the short period of time designated for the project (28 days) diets were managed to create motivation for food reinforcers. This proved counterproductive to breeding as the birds require the physiological stimulus of extra fat in their diet to come into breeding condition. The time table for training this particular behavior made it challenging to add the extra fat to the diet when needed. Solidifying the behavior over a longer period or farther in advance to breeding season could be a means around this problem.

However around the time trainers were conditioning the Spix’s Macaws, the results from another hormone study were released. This study indicated that a possible better method is to intramuscularly inject a long acting hormone, approximately two weeks before expected egg laying. This is something that is being considered for the next season for a few compromised pairs.  

Moody Gardens – Various Species
Moody Gardens, a zoological facility located in Galveston, Texas, USA, reports seven species of birds designated for breeding participated in varying extents in training. These eight species include the following: Common Piping Guan (Aburria pipile cumanensis), Palawan Peacock Pheasant, (Polypectron emphanum) Fairy Bluebird (Irena puella),  Celebes Dove (Gallicolumba tristigmata), Nicobar Pigeon (Caloenas nicobarica), Roul Roul (Rollulus roulroul), and Scarlet Ibis (Eudocimas rubber). Heather Leeson, the keeper responsible for these birds, developed a table to track the training challenges and success prior to breeding season, during breeding season and while raising offspring. Figure 1 represents a summary of the observations for various individuals of the species indicated.

Overall, all the birds participated in training to some extent prior to breeding season. As nesting began, some individuals were less inclined to participate. Once offspring were hatched several of the species returned to presenting behaviors. For some species the offspring learned via observational learning to be comfortable in the presence of keepers. When this behavior was reinforced it quickly lead to juveniles learning to present behavior for positive reinforcers. In some cases this lead to the offspring easily learning to enter a crate for transport.


Behaviors trained prior to breeding season

During Breeding

With Offspring

Challenges/ Successes

Common Piping Guan

bridge, recall, station, stay, all done, crate

Presented all behaviors

Presented all behaviors

Some aggressive behavior when on nest, offspring comfortable near keepers

Palawan Peacock Pheasant

Bridge, recall, crate

Presented all behaviors

Presented all  behaviors

Offspring participated in training and were easy to crate for transport

Fairy Bluebird

bridge, recall, crate, stay

Did not present behaviors

Did not present behaviors

Fledging learned to crate in 8 sessions

Celebes Dove

bridge, recall, crate

Did not present behaviors

Presented all behaviors

Fledging learned all behaviors quickly and was easy to crate for transport

Nicobar Pigeon

bridge, recall, crate

Did not present behaviors

Did not present behaviors

Offspring hesitant to accept reinforcers from trainer

Roul Roul

bridge, recall, crate, scale

Did not present behaviors

Some participation

Responsive to food reinforcers

Scarlet Ibis

bridge, recall, follow

Some participation

Some participation

Offspring slowly participated in training over time

Figure 1. Overview of training of avian species in breeding programs at Moody Gardens.

Tracy Aviary – Various Species
At the Tracy Aviary in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA several species of exhibit birds that are involved in breeding programs have been trained to facilitate their care. The training was recently implemented and the birds have yet to enter a breeding cycle since the program was initiated. However the birds have successfully learned the following behaviors as reported by animal training consultant for the aviary, Phung Luu of Behavior and Training Solutions:

King Vultures (Sarcoramphus papa): Shifting, stationing, scale. Shifting has allowed keepers to move the birds inside voluntarily during cold weather. Stationing, crating and scaling are standard behaviors for husbandry that are hoped to facilitate the care of the birds as breeding season progresses. In general the training program has reduced the birds’ flight responses in the presence of the keepers.
Red-billed Hornbills (Tockus erythrorhynchus): Shifting, stationing, scale. The female of the pair does not have an interest in the male.  The intention is to utilize the trained behaviors to allow the two birds to practice presenting behaviors and getting reinforced while in visual contact with each other.  The theory is that when the birds physically commit to behaviors and are reinforced, they will become more comfortable with their environment, keepers and each other.
Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis): Shifting, stationing. These birds present territorial behaviors during breeding season thus disrupting keepers’ husbandry routines as well as their own courtship/incubation behaviors.
Chilean Flamingos (Phoenicopterus chilensis): Shifting, training them to be handled for feather trimming with minimum restraint. The capture and restraint for feather trimming is a traumatic process for the birds and people. By training the birds to shift on cue keepers can minimize the catch up procedure (as a start).  By conditioning adult birds to tolerate/accept keeper presence, chicks will have the opportunity to interact with keepers while still in the nest and not elicit fear responses.
Keel-billed Toucans (Ramphastos sulfuratus): Stationing while keepers are working in exhibit. This pair does not present behaviors that indicate they are bonded. The female is hand raised and the male is parent raised.  The initial goal is to teach the female to station away from keepers and to teach the male to station closer to people. The intent is to teach the female to keep her distance from people and to teach the male to be more comfortable around people.
American White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos): Stationing. The primary goal behavior is stationing in the water for public feeding.  The hope is that if they are more comfortable with people and activities, they will be more comfortable with breeding in the exhibit area.
Apenheul – Macaws
Another program facilitated by Phung Luu involved a pair of macaws that are on display in an open exhibit at Apenheul in Holland. The male of the pair is flighted. Prior to training this bird would present aggressive behavior towards keepers during breeding season. The male would fly and dive at keeper’s heads. The diving occurred at least one time per week. In addition offspring would fledge and follow the flighted male through the park. However on several occasions offspring did not return and were lost.

To address these problems a training program was initiated. Once the pair learned to interact with keepers for positive reinforcement, the aggressive diving behavior from the male reduced to only two to three times for the entire season. The parents allowed keepers to start training with the offspring when they were still in the nest. This resulted in a faster learning process once the chicks fledged.

Now the facility flies five birds (1 adult male, 4 chicks-from two separate years) free in the park.  They are released for a regularly scheduled public program and come back to be locked into an enclosure at night.   

African Lion Safari –Parrots and Raptors
Although not training birds during breeding season African Lion Safari in Cambridge, Ontario, Canada has had breeding success with a non traditional approach. A number of macaw species and cockatoo species are participants in a free flight bird demonstration during the summer season. When winter arrives shows are temporarily shut down and the birds are placed into breeding situations if there is a need for offspring. 

Bird Show Manager, Gareth Morgan shared that training is not maintained during breeding season and the birds do present aggressive behavior in regard to their territories while nesting and raising young.  However once the season passes and the nest boxes are closed the birds quickly return to their training regime and participate in presentations.

In addition to the psittacines several raptor species that were once flown in presentations have been paired for breeding. While not actively involved in training, they do show a greater comfort around people and breed and raise young on exhibit. This situation has produced offspring that are parent raised yet well socialized to people. These offspring have transitioned easily into handling for demonstrations.

As positive reinforcement training becomes more prevalent in the avian community, caregivers are seeing the potential for increased application. Traditional approaches to avian care and handling can be evaluated and possibly improved by the addition of training goals based in positive reinforcement. With the potential including increased reproductive success, and offspring well prepared for the challenges of transport and relocation it evident that training can play an important role in breeding programs. In addition rare and endangered species that are reproductively challenged present a vital opportunity for caregivers to use positive reinforcement training to increase captive populations. As more facilities embrace training as a means to facilitate reproductive success, it is the author’s hope that the avian community will continue to challenge traditional practices and also provide many more examples that demonstrate the value of positive reinforcement training in the care of birds in breeding situations.

A special thank you to the Bird Department staff members, past and present, of the Dallas Zoo for the opportunity to be a part of their program, and for the inspiration for this paper: Curator of Birds Chris Brown, Supervisor Dave Wilson, Trainers/Keepers Nathan Compton, Erik Corredor, Marnie Bacon, Jocelyn Womack, Debbie Milligan, Marcie Herry, Sherry Mossbarger, Kathy Fitzpatrick, Annabelle Stephenson, Andy Jacobs, Tara Sieverding, Colleen Hennigan, Becky Wolf, Louise Weeks, Dave Bolanowski, Chivan Ruddock, Morgan Fields and Laurette Leadon. This dedicated team of avian specialists have committed to providing the best they can for the animals in their care, including embracing a positive reinforcement approach to influencing behavior.

In addition, a warm thank you to the following people for sharing their experiences in training birds in breeding or destined for breeding situations: Nicholas Bishop of Taronga Zoo and Ryan Watson of Al Wabra Wildlife Preservation for the Spix’s Macaw training information. Gareth Morgan of African Lion Safari. Heather Leeson of Moody Gardens. Phung Luu of Behavior and Training Solutions and Roger Sweeney of Tracy Aviary.


Fowler, A. BSc(vet)(Hons)BVSc MACVSc(Avian Health)Capture Myopathy

Fyffe, J. BVSc MRCVS MACVSc Capture Myopathy

Heidenreich, B. (2004) Training Birds for Medical Behaviors to Reduce Stress. Proceedings Annual Conference Association of Avian Veterinarians. 299-305

Swengel, S. and Tuite, M. (1997) Recent Advances in Scheduling Strategies and Practical Techniques in Crane Artificial Insemination. Proceedings of the Seventh North American Crane Conference 46-55.

Williams, E. S., and E. T. Thorne. (1996) Exertional myopathy (capture myopathy). Pp. 181-193 in A. Fairbrother, L. N. Locke and G. L. Hoff (eds.), Non-infectious diseases of wildlife. Iowa State University Press, Ames, Iowa.

Womack, J. (2008) North American Regional Studbook for the Saddle Billed Stork

Womack, J. and Lynch, C. (2008) Saddle Billed Stork Population Management, American Zoo and Aquarium Association Population Management Center and the Dallas Zoo.


Facilities that generously provided examples for this paper:

Dallas Zoo

Al Wabra Wildlife Preservation

Moody Gardens

African Lion Safari

Tracy Aviary


Exertional or capture myopathy (disease of the muscle) is a non-infectious disease of muscles that is characterized by damage to muscle tissues brought about by physiological changes, usually following extreme exertion, struggle and/or stress. Animals that do not initially die may be predisposed to kidney failure, predation and accident. Capture myopathy is a disease complex associated with capture or handling of any wild species of mammals or birds. Prevention is the only treatment for this condition. Once the condition starts it is always fatal.

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