Conversations With an Owl: Training a New Animal Ambassador

A mother great horned owl watches over her nearby nest. The owl is sitting on a branch in a pine tree, it is staring menacingly directly at the camera.
A mother great horned owl watches over her nearby nest in a Minneapolis park. (Photo by Courtney Celley/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Midwest Region.)

For all the weird and wonderful things I have done in this vocation, training an owl is at the top of my list of challenges. I am happy to say that best practices in raptor care have come a long way in the last few years. In 2020, we accepted a great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) with a permanent wing injury into our care. I remember driving down a gravel farm road to collect the owl and looking into its carrier. Two huge, globe-like eyes stared back at me as it backed into the corner, feathers puffed out and mouth agape. I could feel the panic, see the fast, anxious breaths and hear the hisses and clacking of the beak.

A great horned owl sits on a perch. It has yellow eyes, black, light brown, and a few white feathers. The owl has two prominent feathered tufts on its head.
Our newest animal ambassador, a great horned owl.

To acclimate this animal to be comfortable in front of our guests would take some work. In the early training sessions, the great horned owl would either look around for an escape route, or sit on her perch with a fixed stare and her head tilted upward and retracted back into her neck. This was her attempt to camouflage in the face of danger. I gave her more distance, made myself smaller and avoided eye contact to seem a little less like a predator.

Nature Interpreter Julie stands in a bird mew, training a great horned owl
This great horned owl has become more comfortable with Julie, but still has training to do before she’s ready to participate in programs.

The first goal was to have her become comfortable to fly down for food while I sat 20 feet away outside the enclosure. Our relationship is based on a bank account of trust and I was overdrawn at this stage. Weeks later, once I was able to enter the enclosure without causing undue stress, I could offer positive reinforcement in the form of food thrown to a stump. In some of the tiniest of incremental steps, the owl was learning that humans are not always bad news.

She is getting much more comfortable, though we still have further goals to reach. Owls have their own language, and training is an ongoing conversation. Some of the language is through sounds, like hoots or hissing, but it is often more subtle. Ear tufts that arch around to almost touch each other show stress, as do bulbous eyes, frequent blinking and asynchronous blinking. In smaller owls, partially closed, squinting eyes are often perceived by us as a bird that is trying to sleep. When in reality, the bird is trying to hide from danger by concealing its eyes and relying on cryptic coloration to camouflage. Conversely, feathers fluffed loosely over the feet and toes show a bird that is comfortable; one that doesn’t need to alter its shape to camouflage.

An anklet owls wear during training with nature interpreters at Great Parks.
The leather anklet our raptor animal ambassadors wear during training. A jess will then run through the anklet, allowing nature interpreters to safely hold onto the bird and attach a leash.

I believe this great horned owl likes to “work,” and interacting with a trainer is an enrichment for a captive bird. Recently, she has been sitting on the lower perch, almost in preparation for our afternoon meet-ups. The next training goal for this bird is to feel comfortable with her legs and feet being touched so that when it is time to jess, we can do it in the least stressful way possible. Jesses are anklets and straps that allow us to attach a leash and work with her outside the enclosure without fear of her flying away, as she would not be able to survive in the wild.

To train a bird is not to take the wild out of it, but to develop a relationship built on trust. They are our co-workers. It literally benefits all of us. These amazing animals can lead lives that are lower in stress. We can keep them healthy by monitoring their weight easily and be close enough to observe physical and behavioral changes that might indicate a problem. In programs, people will see them as they were meant to be seen – as if viewing them through binoculars in the wild. This animal is a powerful conduit for a conservation message.

Julie Stubbs
Nature Interpreter, Farbach-Werner Nature Preserve