I wait patiently just outside Theo’s open door. To avoid a direct gaze that could be intimidating, I stare at the ground and count in my head: 34…35…36. In my peripheral vision I can see Theo completely ignoring the two pieces of quail meat sitting on the perch two feet away. He simply rests with one foot tucked deep into the fluffy feathers on his belly. 86…87…88. I am starting to get worried. All he has to do is walk over and eat the tidbits, but his window of opportunity, 1 minute and 45 seconds, is closing in fast. Unfortunately he seems quite content to keep watch over the quiet backyard. As my internal count reaches 105 seconds, I sigh and take a step forward. Theo instantly turns to me. I reach out with the forceps to take one tidbit from the perch. Theo’s eyes lock on the retreating meat and follow it all the way back to the pouch hanging from my belt. Before I can move again Theo places both feet firmly on the perch and his head begins to swivel quickly back and forth between me and the single tidbit left on the perch. He knows I am about to take it away. I pause. Finally he makes his move and walks down the perch to grab his food. I smile at this bold move and give him more quail as a reward. I marvel at how much this owl has learned in the past few weeks. He has learned enough about me to actually predict my behaviors and act to change them. Owls may not be known for their intelligence, but they certainly are not “bird brains!”
Imagine a hawk sitting on a fence post along the edge of a cornfield. Scanning the ground beneath her, she suddenly spots a mouse and must decide whether she will chase it or not. There are several factors that influence her decision. First, is she even hungry? If she just finished eating a rabbit, she probably won’t feel the need to work for an extra snack. She also considers if it is a desirable piece of food, whether the tiny mouse is worth her effort, and if she can obtain it without injury to herself. Now if she takes too long to consider all of this, she runs the risk of the opportunity disappearing completely: the mouse could scurry down a hole, out of reach. She will learn to think faster next time!
This “mouse went down the hole” theory is a useful tool in training our raptors. Knowing that their food may disappear, they are more motivated to act quickly. While station training Theo, I placed a piece of meat on a particular perch and gave him 5 minutes (his “window of opportunity”) to come eat it. If he didn’t move by the end of the 5 minutes, I took the food away, just like the mouse escaping down the hole. He learns that he must move before the 5 minutes are up if he wants the tidbit. I gradually shorten his window, working it down from 5 minutes, to 4 minutes, and eventually to a few seconds. I am happy to report that he is currently coming to his station as soon as I set the food down. In just a few weeks, he decided that he is not going to let those mice slip away!
Photo by Vera Domingues/Hopi Hoekstra.
My knack for crafty projects comes in handy when our birds need new equipment. Since pet stores don’t carry raptor supplies, I need to make their leather anklets and jesses from scratch. These two pieces of specialty equipment prevent the bird from escaping while outside or at a program, just like a collar and leash on a pet. Aldo needed new anklets (specifically known as “alymeris”) this week, so I gathered all the supplies and got to work.
I start by cutting the leather following a template, then cut slits on the top and bottom to add flexibility and punch a hole on both ends. Next the leather needs to be conditioned with “Jess Grease.” This is my favorite part because the aromatic blend of waxes and oils smells so good it could be a scented candle. The greased alymeri cooks in the microwave for 10 seconds to help the leather absorb the grease and soften. To fit it on Aldo, I wrap the leather around his leg and give it a spin to make sure it is not too loose or too tight. When satisfied, I crimp a grommet on to hold the loop together and slide the jess strap through the grommet. He will wear both pieces of equipment even while in his mew so he is always ready to come out for a program or to bask in the sun outside. Depending how quickly the leather wears down, it might be a few months or a year before I need to repeat the process and craft a new set of alymeris.
A wise professor once said, “fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.” I asked the students in my raptor program if they recognized the quote. After a moment of thought, one brave person called it out: Dumbledore! I’m not sure if I impressed those middle school students, but I was sure proud to incorporate a Harry Potter reference in a discussion about endangered raptors. That quote is the reason I put the chemical name dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane on the board. We broke down the intimidating word into parts that describe the chemical structure.
Once everyone had tried to pronounce the name and fear of it was gone, I admitted that most people just call it DDT. This mini chemistry lesson may seem like a tangent in a raptor program, but understanding raptors (or anything in nature) is not just about biology. When Peregrine Falcon populations plummeted in the 1960s, it took collaboration between biologists, chemists, authors, politicians, and falconers to understand the problem and to fix it. When we see problems like these as multidisciplinary puzzles, we begin to see the bigger picture with effective solutions and a greater appreciation of the world’s interconnectedness.