Friday, June 6, 2008

Taming the Wild-caught Shama

The article below was published on February 2nd 2007

I have had an interest in horses from a very young age but I have never owned a horse and do not bet on the races. My interest in horses has led me to read about them and the principles that I have learnt with regard to the taming and training of horses have had an influence on the methods that I use to tame and train the wild-caught shama.

We have all seen the Western movie where the cowboys on horses chase a herd of wild horses which they then coral or lasso. The wild horse is then “tamed” by a cowboy mounting it and riding it until he “breaks” it so that it gives up the will to resist and does the rider’s bidding. This is forced training and in my view, undesirable, but there are shama owners who essentially adopt the same method when trying to tame the wild-caught shama. They place the cage with the newly caught shama in an exposed area with plenty of human traffic with the idea that the bird will eventually get used to the presence of people and will become tame.

This method of taming is unsatisfactory and detrimental to the well-being of the bird as it is continuously under stress and does not have the time needed to recuperate. Animals, birds and humans learn to adapt to stressful situations only when the stress is not continuous and prolonged so that the mind and body can rest and recover between the stressful events. During these intervals, the mind learns to understand the event that causes the stress, to adapt to it and not to fear it. On the other hand, if the stress is prolonged as is the case where the wild-caught shama is continuously exposed to human traffic, adrenaline will constantly be released into its system and the body will be in a constant state of stress so that eventually the bird’s health and immune system breaks down and it suffers a “false” moult, or, in extreme cases, even dies.

Those of you who have read the novel, “The Horse Whisperer” or seen the movie by the same name, know that there is a better and more humane method of taming horses, and, also other animals and birds.

The method has even been applied to the capture of wild horses. By this method, the cowboys do not continuously chase the horses and lasso them. Instead, they openly ride up to a herd of wild horses. The horses will of course bolt. When this happens, the cowboys do not chase them. Instead, they wait until the horses have run their course and had time to settle and to feed before again showing themselves openly to the herd. Again the herd will bolt and the process is repeated. After a few times, the horses start to realise that the cowboys do not intend harm to them. As they get used to the presence of the men, the horses will flee shorter and shorter distances until eventually the men on their horses can approach the wild horses, mingle with them and even take titbits from their hands.

The method of winning the confidence of the horse can similarly be applied to the taming of the shama. It helps if an aviary is available to house the wild bird. Most of my aviaries are not large but I have several that are 5’ x 4’ x 9’ (h). When I have a newly caught wild-shama, I house it in one of these aviaries. When, I or someone else approaches, the bird can ‘escape’ by flying to the highest perch where it can observe what the person is doing. The aviary is approached openly (and not furtively). Each time we approach the aviary, we throw a white (moulted) mealworm, white cricket, pineapple beetle or other titbit on the floor of the aviary. Initially, we would then walk away so that the bird has barely begun to be stressed by our presence than the thing that causes the stress is removed. As soon as we leave, the bird will be attracted by the insect and it will descend to the floor and take it. As the bird gets used to our presence, it will tolerate us more and more and we can spend a little time with it until eventually it will even descend and eat in our presence. Over a surprisingly short period, the bird learns that a person who approaches the aviary is not going to harm it but will give it something that it likes and it starts to lose its fear of people.

Housing a wild shama in an aviary has an additional benefit in that it is easier to provide baths to the bird. These baths are necessary as they help to maintain the bird in good condition but they also assist in the taming process. When a bird is wet after a bath it is unable to fly well and injure itself against the bars of the cage as it tries to escape from your presence. This is therefore a good time to remain close to the bird. Initially, the period that you are with the bird will need to be short so as not to unduly stress the bird. As it gets used to your presence, more time can be spent with it.

If the shama is very wild, the taming process can be facilitated by placing a tame female with it. She will help to calm him and show by example that there is nothing to fear from the presence of people.

Now what if an aviary is not available and you need to keep the wild-caught shama in a cage. The applicable principles are the same. I prefer to place the cage on the floor against a wall in an area where my dogs cannot enter and frighten the bird. The reason for placing the cage on the floor is that the bird is less likely to be frightened from seeing legs than from seeing heads with black hair (if the cage is placed high). The cage is initially covered with a cage cloth except for a small opening at the front. From time to time, approach the cage and throw a titbit to it using the method that has been described above. If a tame female is available, place her cage next to that of the wild shama. As he becomes tamer, the cloth opening can be made wider. After about a week, depending on the bird as some are more difficult to tame than others, the cage may be hung at a location that the bird will feel provides some security. This is usually in a corner of the house.

I should emphasise that starvation of the bird should not be part of the method used in taming it. In other words, the bird should not be starved so that its need for food is so great that it overcomes its fear of you to the extent that it will even take food from you. If this method is used, it will be found that as soon as the bird is no longer starving, it will be as wild as ever. This may perhaps be better understood if we consider the case of a sick bird. Such a bird may appear tame because it is too sick to care what happens to it and will permit a person to approach it or hold it but as soon as it recovers it will be as wild as ever. The trick in taming a wild bird is to gain its confidence and trust in you. I hope I have clarified the way in which this can be done quickly and without undue stress to the bird or to you.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks David, this is one topic I find useful at the moment. Your blog makes searching by topics easier. I will try the method with the cage on the floor and a tame female nearby. Have been having this wild Shama for 3 months at least and it was with a friend for a further 8 or 9 months. Altogether must have been a year now. Still wild as hell. Like nothing I have seen before, frantically flying to and fro.

    If I did not promise the friend to keep him until he can care for him back, I would have freed him long time ago.