Friends of a Feather Cluck Together

sean and charlie
sean and charlie

Sean and Charlie

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.”


Silkie chick

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 and chiquita

Sean and Chiquita, TSA’s prehensile-tailed porcupine

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.


Barred rock hen

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!


(Photos courtesy Autumn Henry)


Totally Touchable: 16 Animals You Can See and Feel at the Aquarium

Kid with urchin

Kid with urchinAt the Texas State Aquarium, we’re all about providing extrasensory experiences to excite and engage visitors with animals and nature. It’s been scientifically proven that people, especially children, tend to feel more passionately for and care about things they can see and interact with up close and personal – that’s why we foster compassion, education, and conservation via the ability to touch and feel certain animals.

We hope the thrill of petting a shark’s tough skin, feeling the tingling tube feet of a sea star, and holding a live conch will create lasting memories in your child’s mind for years to come, and also inspire them to care about our world’s oceans and the inhabitants that swim, splash, and scuttle beneath their waves.

Below is a list of the many totally touchable animals you can encounter at the Texas State Aquarium:


  1. Hermit crabhermit crab small

Found in the Caribbean, Atlantic, and the Gulf of Mexico, the striped hermit crabs in our Living Shores touch pool area are only hermit-like as a defense mechanism, and because as they grow, they have to change shells, temporarily exposing their soft, vulnerable bodies to the world. The striped hermit’s body and legs are dark green or brown, streaked with white. Adult crabs often occupy shells of over 10 cm. (4 in.) in length.


  1. Horseshoe crab

Did you know we have an animal older than the dinosaurs that you can actually touch?! That’s right; the hard-shelled, blue-blooded horseshoe crab has been scuttling around the earth for over 300 million years! Though with their hard exoskeletons, ten legs, nine eyes, and long tails called telsons, they seem to look more like they come from outer space than earth. These can be found in our Living Shores touch pool area.slipper lobster sm


  1. Slipper lobster

You might notice that the slipper lobster seems to be lacking a very crucial part of lobster anatomy – where are its pinchers? Don’t worry; this crafty crustacean, found in our Living Shores touch pool area, comes equipped with multiple ways to fend off predators. This lobster has one of the toughest carapaces under the sea, and it also has amazing camouflage capabilities, as well as the ability to climb and cling to surrounding landscape to escape!


  1. Sea urchin

Also found in our Living Shores touch pool area, the spindly spindles of the pencil and short spined urchins in our touch pool area only look menacing – there’s nothing to fear! Urchins can be covered with hundreds of these spines and can range in color from white to purple to blue and even red. pin cushion urchin small


  1. Sea star

The Bahama, or red cushion, sea star found in our Living Shores touch pool area is the largest sea star found in its range, which stretches from the Caribbean Sea to the western Atlantic Ocean. The upper surface of this oceanic omnivore is hard and covered with blunt spines, but pick one up, and you’ll feel its tube feet moving against your hand.


  1. Southern Ray smallSouthern stingray

These flat, diamond-shaped rays are usually a stone gray or muddle olive color and the large adults are famously seen in the waters off the Cayman Islands swimming with visitors. Not only can you touch them in Stingray Lagoon, you can also see larger southern stingrays in our Islands of Steel and Flower Gardens exhibits.


  1. Cownose stingray

The distinctive w-shaped nose of the cownose ray looks just like that of its bovine namesake. These rays swim in multiple exhibits at the Aquarium and are among those that can be touched at Stingray Lagoon. Like most rays, cownoses have crushing plates they use to eat clams and oysters. And though they can use their barbs for defense in the wild, we trim the barbs of all the stingrays at the Texas State Aquarium. They’re made of keratin, just like our hair and fingernails, so the procedure is totally painless.


  1. Whitespotted bamboo shark

Just one of the three types of carpet sharks we have at the Aquarium, these benthic and banded sharks are easily identifiable by their medium and dark brown-striped bodies spotted with white dots. Visitors can get up close with them in our Saving Sharks exhibit.


  1. Brown banded bamboo sharkbrownbanded bamboo shark small

This small shark likes to search the sediment on the ocean bottom for prey and can also amazingly survive outside the water for extended periods of time! It can be found in the Aquarium at our Saving Sharks exhibit.


  1. Epaulette shark

These tan and black-spotted sharks use their fins for more than swimming – they actually walk with them! By wriggling their bodies from side to side and pushing with their paired fins, they can effectively walk across the bottom of the ocean and their Saving Sharks exhibit.


  1. Horn shark

Recognizable by its short, blunt head, ridges over its eyes, two high dorsal fins, and brown coloration with a plethora of small, dark spots, the horn shark can be found slowly swimming inside the touch pool area inside Saving Sharks.


  1. Sea cucumbersea cucumber sm

Named after its resemblance to the common green vegetable, sea cucumbers are important parts of marine ecosystems as they help recycle nutrients, breaking down detritus and other organic matter after which bacteria can continue the degradation process. They can be found in our Living Shores touch pool area.


  1. Horse conch

The largest gastropod in American waters, the horse conch is also one of the largest sea snails in the world. The animal can retract its bright orange soft parts into its shell and seal itself off from predators. Touch one in our touch area in our Living Shores exhibit!


  1. Common spider crab

Also known as a decorator crab due to its tendency to camouflage itself with algae and debris, the spider crab is a long-legged and slow-moving creature that can be found from Nova Scotia to the Gulf of Mexico in brackish, salty waters. At the Aquarium, you can catch this crustacean in our Living Shores touch pool.Spider crab sm


  1. Milk conch

This iconic conical conch can be found burrowing into sandy ocean floors all throughout the gulf and the Caribbean. The inside of the shell is creamy in color, and the animal itself is a greenish color with large eyestalks. When disturbed, it will retreat into its shell and close it using the operculum. Get up close in our Living Shores touch pool!


  1. Chiton smChitons

Chitons are marine mollusks that look more like fossils than living animals. They dwell on hard surfaces such as on or under rocks or in crevices and can be found all across the world’s oceans, as well as in our Living Shores touch pool area. They have plates that overlap and give them that tough, tank-like appearance similar to the body of a cockroach. Chitons creep slowly along surfaces thanks to a muscular foot – they’ve been doing so for close to 400 million years.