Vocal

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!

Enrichment

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To maintain healthy birds in captivity, we encourage natural behaviors to keep their minds and bodies active. Most of a wild raptor’s day is spent simply sitting on a perch and watching their surroundings. That is easy to replicate in the mews: our birds sit and watch the Museum’s backyard daily.

For the rest of their time, we place new objects in the mew for them to look at or toys to play with. Carson recently received a phone book that Jayme (Living Collections Assistant) carefully folded like a fan. After a few weeks, Carson had ripped up nearly half of the book! Shredding is a natural behavior that wild raptors do when they catch a large meal, like a rabbit. This kind of enrichment keeps Carson busy and gives her an opportunity to rip and tear something for fun.

Shed!

I normally write about our mew residents in “News from the Mews,” but this non-feathered member of our Living Collections is just too cool not to share. Emory, the Great Plains Rat Snake, has lived at the museum since 2013 and can be found basking in the Curiosity Center.

Whether you find snakes creepy or irresistible, it’s often for the exact same reason: snakes are weird. They are so different from the furry mammals or cute birds we find immediately appealing. It is difficult for us to relate to their strange scaly, legless bodies. Those differences, though, mean they have some unique adaptations that make them endlessly fascinating.

One example is their skin. Unlike mammals, snake skin does not grow with the animal; the snake has to shed the outer layer in order to grow. Last week, Emory had cloudy, opaque eyes that meant she was preparing to shed. A few days later, I noticed her rubbing her head on rocks and logs in her enclosure. The skin on her head broke free and she worked the rest off in once piece. The final shed is actually inside-out because it peels off the snake like you peel a sock off your foot. I was mesmerized by the whole process and I’m sure she feels good with her fresh, shiny scales.

Weights

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Animals are amazing actors with the ability to mask injuries and illness. They want to hide any weakness from potential predators or competitors, while still finding their basic needs to survive. Raptors will keep hunting for food even with extreme injuries. When our Great Horned Owl, Theo, was rescued, he appeared to be well fed. The rehabilitators believed he was actually running down mice despite having a broken wing. Since their behaviors rarely show signs of illness, their weight is often the first sign of a problem. We take daily or weekly weights to track our birds’ health. The key is knowing what is normal for each bird.

I chart each bird’s weight to keep an eye on patterns. Aldo’s chart, for example, shows daily fluctuations and seasonal changes. His weight last summer hovered around 108 grams (3.8 oz) and increased in November. The higher weight gives him a little extra buffer against cold temperatures through the winter. As spring approaches, he has begun shedding weight in preparation for breeding season and warmer weather. With a baseline of these normal weight patterns, I can identify abnormalities and keep him at healthy weight.

Basking

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Animal training is never a linear line; there are always ups and downs. One day Carson runs to greet me, ready to train. The next day she might ignore me completely and tuck her foot into her belly feathers, telling me she’s not going anywhere. Despite the occasional setback, I was reminded last week that our overall progress is overwhelmingly positive.

When I started working with Carson last July, she ran away from me multiple times before stepping on my glove. She remained uncomfortable when we came outside, often trying to fly away after any noise or sudden movement. I decided to “go back to kindergarten” with her training. We started with basic trust building and slowly reintroduced the glove, this time letting her tell me when she was ready to move to the next step.

We reached a huge breakthrough last week: we finally made it outside. She ran to me when I entered the mew and stepped on my glove right away. She stayed with me as I attached her leash and we stepped out the door. We basked in the sun for a few minutes as Carson calmly looked around the backyard and ate some rat tidbits. Not only was she calm that day, but she decided to do it all over again the next day. I couldn’t be happier or more proud of how far she has come. (I tried to be professional writing this article, but rest assured the original entry in my training log contained a plethora of incoherent exclamation points and smiley faces. 🙂 )

Beak Styles

It had been three months since Aldo’s beak was last trimmed and it was clear he needed another touch-up. The tip of the beak had grown long and his tomial tooth extended far below his bottom bill.

Birds don’t have teeth, so this unique feature of falcon beaks is poorly named. The tomial tooth is not a tooth at all; it is simply a notch in the corner of the hook. Compare that shape to the smooth line on the inside edge of the hawk beak. While this small notch gives me a challenge to shape when trimming Aldo’s beak, it helps falcons quickly dispatch their prey. The notch fits into the vertebrae of their bird or mouse meal and snaps the neck quickly, allowing the falcon to fly off without struggling with its prey. It must be a useful tool, especially considering falcons’ long, slender toes that might not have the power needed to kill prey with their feet alone. Another small meat-eater (one that has no talons at all) takes advantage of having tomial teeth: northern shrikes!

I carefully studied photos of the shape and position of the tomial tooth before trimming Aldo’s beak. I was reassured by knowing that the notches will grow back on their own if I don’t shape them properly, but I wanted to give him a proper falcon beak. Since I had worked on his beak two times before, I felt more confident as I dremeled away the excess keratin. This time he ended up with two intact, correctly-positioned tomial teeth, ready to slice through his mouse reward.