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.

Plumage

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Last time Aldo was inside due to cold temperatures, he spent some quality time in my office. He kept busy by watching visitors pass by in the hallway, listening to the strange noises emanating from my computer, and, apparently, mimicking the artwork on the wall. The watercolor prints were done by a naturalist that I worked with a few years ago. She painted a variety of animals, but my favorite piece is the male kestrel, shown at the perfect angle to highlight his handsome plumage. The solid block of rusty-brown on the tail and slate-blue wings contrast with the female’s rather plain brown wings and tail.

Such a striking difference is rare in raptors. In most species, there is no difference in plumage. The only way to tell male from female is by size: if you see them sitting right next to each other, the female is the larger one of the pair. With individual birds, it’s a bit of a guessing game. Our Red-Tailed Hawk, Carson, weighs just over 3 pounds. That falls in the upper range of Red-Tailed Hawk weights, so she is likely a female. With Aldo we don’t have to guess: his colors tell us without a doubt that he is male.

The People

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One of my favorite things about birds, other than the birds themselves, is the way they bring people together. Whether birding out in the field or setting up for a raptor program, birds open opportunities to meet people I would otherwise never speak to.

Aldo, Carson, and I did a program last weekend for the Sax Zim Bog Birding Festival in northern Minnesota. The weekend-long festival gathered 150 serious birders bent on finding boreal species that the Bog is known for. But it also connected birders and birds to local residents. Our raptor program was scheduled in the afternoon while birders were out on field trips, so the community center was packed with local families.

After the presentation, I had the opportunity to chat with some of the individuals in the audience. I met one gentleman that told me about growing up in Meadowlands, the quiet town just south of the Bog, and how he remembered it as a bustling community with frequent trains coming and going. A local artist proudly showed me his drawings of a kestrel and hawk. One young man remembered me from a program last year and asked detailed questions about owl adaptations while a 7-year-old boy (whose mother explained how much he enjoys nature) touched every wing, foot, and skull on my table. I hadn’t noticed these four people in the audience when I was focused on teaching, but it was exciting to later learn about them and hear their stories.

Mew Remodeling

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Carson’s mew has had quite the makeover this winter with the help of several volunteers. Her hutch was reinstalled in the fall as a wind block and space to contain body heat during cold nights. At the front of the mew we added a small spruce tree, delivered by volunteer Larry Baldus, for enrichment.

We also made adjustments to better suit her wing injury. Broken bones in her left wing never healed properly and left her unable to fly. Perching was reconfigured last fall to reduce the use of that wing. We lowered perches and installed a ramp built by volunteer Larry Hanson to help her navigate her mew with confidence. Carson was wary at first of the strange new structure, but I saw her use the ramp for the first time this week, finally a stamp of approval of her remodeled home.

Splish Splash

I offered Aldo a pan of water when he was inside last week and he took advantage of it right away! Bathing improves their feather condition, softens beak and talons to help them wear down naturally, and cleans off any leftovers from their last meal. But I think Aldo was just excited to have fun splashing in his bath.

Steps Toward Flight

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To prepare for a training session, I closed the blinds in the classroom and set out a step stool – just in case. I brought Aldo into the room and carefully closed the doors behind me. I removed the metal swivel and leash that normally keep him secure on the glove if he tries to fly away. He needs this level of freedom – in a controlled room like the classroom where he cannot escape or hurt himself – to accomplish his new training goal: to fly!

I let Aldo step onto the perch and take in his surroundings. He has seen the classroom many times before, but he was curious as he looked around the room, his head bobbing up and down. After a moment, I raised the glove to his feet once again. He looked down at it and stepped up with both feet. I bridged and gave him a few mouse tidbits, then set him back on the perch to try again. While not very exciting yet, this is the first step in flight training. I will gradually move the glove farther and farther away so he has to take a big step, then hop, then finally fly to the glove. Eventually, he will fly across the room during raptor programs to demonstrate falcon speed for audiences!