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Digger, the Western Hognose Snake

Of all the animals in the Museum’s living collection, Digger has the most fitting name. This Western Hognose Snake really is an excellent digger. Some mornings he causes a momentary panic when I don’t see him in his enclosure. Luckily he has never escaped. He simply hides himself underneath the wood chips.

Hognose snakes are named for their upturned nose that they use like a shovel. Burrowing through leaf litter or sandy soil, they look for toads, which are their favorite meal. They also have a keel, or raised ridge, on each scale that may help them move through soil. (Keeled scales may also enhance camouflage by making each scale less shiny. No one quite seems to know for sure what the keel’s purpose is.) These snakes can also use their nose to excavate a burrow for winter hibernation. Digger doesn’t have to worry about cold temperatures or searching for toads at the Museum, but he still likes to dig!



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Last week felt like a good chance to try something new with Carson. She has been doing very well coming outside with me and is even willing to eat big chunks of food on my glove in the backyard. Considering that she has to lower her head – and take her attention away from her surroundings – when she eats, it is a great sign that she is comfortable. She’s ready for something new.

On a gorgeous sunny day, I brought Carson outside and let her step back to a perch in the backyard. She was very nervous at first, likely alarmed at the change in our routine. But after a few minutes on high alert, she grew accustomed to her surroundings once again. She finally took a large piece of food from me and carefully ripped it into bite-sized pieces. We basked in the sun a little longer and returned to her mew, happy to end our training session on a positive note.

Spring Cleaning


In spring, I love to find wildflowers blooming, to wait for migrating birds to return, and (perhaps most of all) to connect the outdoor hose. Winter makes a frozen mess in the raptor mews that we try to clean with buckets of hot water, but we can’t get everything. The birds don’t seem to mind since they spend their time on perches, elevated above the muck. But it was clear to us they required a heavy spring cleaning. We spent a full morning this week rinsing, washing, scrubbing, raking, and disinfecting every surface of the mews. With the help of above-freezing temperatures and a little elbow grease, the mews are practically sparkling!


Carson holding on to one of her sticks.

Even through the ice and snow last week, birds can sense that it’s spring. There seem to be more osprey than we’ve seen in recent years in the Cable area and they are busy nesting. Over the course of two or three days I watched one pair’s nest-building progress on my daily commute. What started as a few tree branches dangling precariously from a utility pole quickly became a sturdy mass of sticks. It is similar in structure to bald eagle and red-tailed hawk nests. In red-tailed hawks, the male and female work together to collect sticks and weave them together into a nest lined with strips of bark, fresh plants, or dried vegetation.

Our red-tailed hawk, Carson, has also sensed the springtime urge to build. Noticing an uptick in her activity this spring, I decided to test her interest in nest building. I placed 5 sticks around her mew one night and wondered if she would touch them. I was surprised to see each stick had moved the next morning. Since then, she moves the sticks around nearly every day, and occasionally she gathers them on top of her platform as if waiting for more sticks to appear so she can make a decent-sized nest.

Putting the “Tiger” in Tiger Salamander

Tiger Salamanders, one of seven salamander species found in Wisconsin, are named for their black and yellow markings that sometimes resemble tiger stripes. I think the name is still fitting for our salamander, “Scuba,” whose markings are more splotchy than striped. He lives up to his namesake by being a voracious predator.

Tiger salamanders are carnivores that eat pretty much anything that will fit in their mouth. As aquatic larvae, they might eat insect larvae, tadpoles, and small fish. Terrestrial adults eat worms, frogs, mice, or even other salamanders.

Scuba’s favorite snack is mealworms, but red worms are the bulk of his diet. When he senses a worm (and if he’s hungry), he strikes with surprising speed. A red worm is too long to swallow in a single gulp, so he vigorously shakes it to subdue his prey. Normally we see Scuba as a slow-moving and elusive creature, but he can become quite a tiger when food is around.


Our Red-tailed Hawk, Carson, has been very vocal lately. When I enter the mew, she often grumbles and squawks. And every once in a while, we can hear her from the office when she gives her typical Red-tail “keeee-er” call.

I had never heard the high-pitched, repeated squawks before, so I posed a question to an international group of bird trainers online: “Does anyone speak Red-tailed Hawk?” It turns out these sounds are quite common in some birds. Some trainers said their Red-tails only do this in the spring during breeding season. Others said their birds make the repeated squawks when they see the trainer coming with breakfast. It was interesting to hear what other birds do and to try to piece together an explanation for Carson’s chatty habits. The vocalizations just started this spring so it is likely due, in part, to breeding season. She is also very food-motivated; she may be telling me to hurry up and deliver dinner!


Bath time

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Last Saturday was finally warm enough for the birds to take a bath outside. When I gave Carson a pan of water, she hopped in as soon as I left the mew. I watched from the door for a moment, but she just looked back at me. I went back to my office to give her some privacy. An hour later I returned to check on her, expecting to see a dripping hawk after splashing and playing in the water. Instead I found Carson still standing in her water, completely dry except for her feet.

I continued to check on her throughout the morning and nothing changed. She simply stood in the water pan for three hours straight. I guess she decided that all she needed was a nice foot soak!