Time for a Trim

Each time I brought Carson the Red-tailed Hawk outside last week, I had to cringe a little. Her beak was overgrown and not only did it look bad, it was also getting in her way. It was so long that a piece of meat occasionally got speared by the hook and she had trouble getting it off. It was time for a trim.

Her last trim, or coping, was 10 months ago when she visited The Raptor Center last fall. While Aldo the American Kestrel’s beak grows so fast he needs a trim every 2 months, Carson’s beak grows slowly and requires less maintenance.

Coping a hawk beak feels like a piece of cake compared to a kestrel. Kestrels, as falcons, have specialized notches in their beaks that need to be shaped. Hawks conveniently have a smooth-shaped beak and I only had to concentrate on shortening the hook. We finished quickly and brought her back to her mew to enjoy half of a rat with her smooth, shortened beak.

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Shed

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Digger’s most recent shed (Western Hognose Snake)

Both of our snakes, Digger and Emory, have shed recently and it is fun to inspect the tissue paper-like skin. Snakes have a clear scale that covers each eye, and you can see how that scale sloughs off with the rest of the skin. There is even a hardened scale that covers Digger’s “hog nose” that sheds.

Snakes shed their tough outer skin so they can grow and I wondered how quickly our snakes have grown. I found that it is incredibly difficult to keep a live snake straight enough to measure its length, so measuring the shed skin is much easier. Digger’s most recent shed was 30.5 inches; he has grown 4 inches over the last 10 months! Emory has shed even more often and has grown nearly a foot longer since last September. At 52 inches long, she is nearing the typical length of adult Great Plains Rat Snakes, so I expect her growth spurt to slow down soon.

Molting in the Rain

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Aldo the American Kestrel enjoyed a rain shower on Thursday morning. As he spread his wings to soak in the rain, his molting flight feathers were visible. He has short primary feathers growing on his left wing and new rectrices, or tail feathers. About two weeks ago, I found most of his tail feathers on the ground in his mew. Now, new feathers are starting to grow in and give the appearance of a diamond-shaped tail almost like a raven. Aldo’s tail will keep growing, though, until the feathers are all the same length.

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Unlikely Relatives

Rainbow Lorikeet and American Kestrel (Source: birdnote.org)

In a raptor program last week, a young man asked why Aldo looks more like a parrot than a hawk. It seemed like an odd question and I wasn’t sure how to answer it.  Later that night I put Google to work and found that his observation was actually very astute.

 

Falcons have long been grouped with hawks and eagles due to their similar predatory lifestyles. On the outside, just about the only thing they share with parrots is a sharp, curved beak. This tool is used for very different purposes: parrots crack hard seeds with their beak while a raptor’s hook is used for tearing meat. But researchers recently made a surprising discovery by studying what we can’t see with the naked eye: DNA. By comparing these building blocks in a variety of birds, they found that falcons actually share more genes with parrots than they do with hawks. Falcons and parrots are, in a way, long-lost relatives.

Al Batt, birder and storyteller, said last week at his evening lecture that he learns the most when he answers questions. That seemed a little backwards to me, but I realized exactly what he meant when I thought of this question about parrots. The inquisitive visitor saw similarities between species that I wouldn’t have noticed. It forced me to look at Aldo from a new point of view, trigger new questions in my mind, and learn something new along the way.

 

 

 

 

Mobbing

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When Aldo the American Kestrel was perched outside in the backyard last week, he instantly made a few enemies. Our local robin pair swooped down low over Aldo’s head. They flew back and forth, chattering and flicking their tails along the perimeter of the yard. What did poor Aldo do to deserve such an attack? His crime was being a bird-eater too close to the robin nest.

Many songbirds are known to mob, or dive-bomb, raptors. Sometimes they will even come close enough to knock the bigger bird on the head or nip at their tail feathers as they fly away. It seems like a dangerous game, but they do it to protect themselves and their families. They take the risk in order to chase off a dangerous predator from the neighborhood.

Aldo’s charm and cute face could not fool the robins. He was a threat to their babies that recently fledged out of the nest so they were very persistent in their assault. I soon brought Aldo back inside for some peace and quiet.

 

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Rouse

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It is officially one year since I rolled into Cable and presented a raptor program with Aldo and Carson on my first day of work at the Museum. It has been amazing getting to know these birds more closely and see their progress over the last year. Carson the Red-tailed Hawk has come the farthest her training. A year ago, she ran away from me when I got too close with the glove. Today she ran toward me before I was even ready to start. She stepped on my glove (and got a chunk of rat for her effort) and we went outside to get weighed on the scale and enjoy the sun. A chipmunk rummaging through the garden piqued her interest. Every time I moved, she craned her neck to keep her eye on the little rodent, so we stayed outside to take advantage of the free entertainment. Naturalist Intern Bethany even snapped this photo as Carson roused and shook out her feathers to get comfortable. It took time – and a lot of quail, mouse, and rat tidbits – to get to this point, but seeing Carson rouse on glove is all the reward I need to know that the effort was well worth it.