Insulation

 

The floor of the classroom was covered in tiny white feathers after Carson’s sojourn there last week during the cold weather. As I tried to clean, the fluffy feathers caught every wisp of air movement from my broom, sailed past my neatly-swept pile of dirt, and floated down on the other side of the room. I decided to find out why these feathers are so difficult to collect and placed one under the microscope. The branches, or barbs, of these downy feathers are very fine and delicate. Each barb sways independently to make a globe of loose fluff. That’s why birds like Carson have a base layer of thousands of downy feathers to stay warm. When puffed out, she literally has her own down comforter for the winter. The power lies in the air trapped inside the fluff, making dry conditions essential to maintain the insulation; a wet downy feather simply clumps together in a soggy mess.

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To protect this warm, fluffy layer, she has an outer layer of contour feathers. These body feathers are highly structured with each barb hooking tightly to its neighbor like Velcro. The interlocking barbs create a strong and waterproof layer. While Carson needs her insulation dry now that she is back outside, I find that sweeping the classroom can be made a bit easier by misting those pesky downy feathers to subdue their airborne tendencies.

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Cold Snap

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We eased into December with some mild winter weather, but this week gave us a good reminder of our northern latitude. Red-tailed hawks and great horned owls are common winter residents in Wisconsin. Owls are perhaps the best suited for winter with masses of fluffy down and extra feathers covering their toes. The wild barred owls that I hear calling in my backyard can cope with these temperatures, but our birds’ ability to stay warm is compromised by their permanent injuries.

Both Carson (red-tailed hawk) and Theo (great horned owl) had broken wings that never healed properly. It not only affects their ability to spread the wing for flight, it also means they cannot fold the wing completely. When standing on a perch, they can’t fold the wing against their body as usual, leaving an open door for the cold air. It might be the equivalent of you putting only one arm through your winter jacket and stepping outside. Since they can’t keep one side as warm, we give our birds the luxury of indoor heating when the outdoor temperatures dip below -10oF.

Identity

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In the spring of 2014, a young kestrel’s life was upended when he fell out of his nest and broke both wings. Luckily he was found and admitted to the Carolina Raptor Center in North Carolina. As his wings healed, the veterinarians realized that his recovery would not be perfect and he would never fly well enough to survive on his own. Rehabilitators continued to raise him and coincidentally influenced his sense of identity. This baby bird was at a critical stage of his life where he would learn who he is by carefully observing his parents. The kestrel looked up each day to see a human bringing food and a human speaking to him. He essentially learned that he is, by extension, a human. Learning to recognize humans as his own kind was a lesson he could never unlearn. If released, he would seek humans to socialize with, to breed with, and defend his territory against. He would be either too friendly or too aggressive toward people to stay safe in the wild. His perceived identity might be a liability in the wild, but it gave him a pleasant temperament for life in captivity where he would interact with people on a daily basis. This bird was placed at the Cable Natural History Museum where he was given a new identity: Aldo, Education Ambassador. With his background, he excels at bridging the gap between humans and wild kestrels, the two species he is caught between.

Inside a Training Session: Not Interested

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Sometimes training sessions go really well with big breakthroughs like the session I described with Theo last week. But sometimes we just don’t get anywhere. Here is an example of another session with Theo that was not as productive:

I stood outside and peered into the mew. His yellow eyes almost seemed to glow as he stared back at me cautiously. After making sure I was staying put, he turned away to watch the backyard. I silently willed him to turn his attention to the chunk of mouse sitting next to him on the perch. My mind controls proved ineffective, however, as something else caught his eye. He bobbed his head down, then stretched every one of his fourteen neck vertebrae to capacity as he reached his head to the left. Eyes wide, unblinking. I also swiveled my head around, searching for what would be so interesting to an owl. Did he just now notice the two men sitting quietly by the library? Otherwise the backyard was quite peaceful. Perhaps it was something inside the mew. Would a rogue fly warrant such focused attention? Finding nothing alarming myself, and Theo’s neck still stretched out as far as it would go, I tried to gently refocus his attention with more than mental vibes. I shuffled my feet, quietly crunching the gravel to remind him that I was still there and this was a training session. No luck. His eyes were still round globes locked on something more interesting than me.