Language of Falconry

Aldo equipment.JPG
Aldo’s equipment is literally “under my thumb.”

Some words used in falconry, like mew or jess, are very specific to raptors. Other terms have been adapted for use in our everyday lives. Considering falconry’s history going back thousands of years, it is not surprising to see these terms work their way into our language. These are just a few examples of common phrases rooted in falconry:

  • A bird that has eaten too much is “fed up” and lacks the motivation to hunt or work for the falconer, just like a person that is fed up and unwilling to cooperate.
  • Before and after a hunt, a falconer holds the bird’s equipment with his thumb to prevent the bird from flying away. The term “under your thumb” has expanded to mean anyone under your control.
  • Some falconry birds are trapped from the wild as adults. Called “haggard” birds, they are often caught during migration when they might be thin and disheveled from their flight, like a haggard human that looks a little rough around the edges.




Humidity Control

Emory cloudy eyes.jpg
Emory’s cloudy eyes indicate she is preparing to shed her skin.

When Emory, the Great Plains Rat Snake, had cloudy eyes last week, I set up a sort of spa to help with her upcoming shed. She had trouble shedding her skin last time and I suspect humidity was to blame. In dry conditions, the skin cracks and breaks off in many little pieces. It can even be more difficult to peel off and some skin might get stuck on. This can be a problem especially for the clear scale covering the eyes. If the eye caps stay on, layers build up during each shed and will eventually damage the eye.


To avoid these problems I installed a simple “fogger” in Emory’s enclosure. An ultrasonic fog generator (visible as the red glow in the photo) sits in a bowl of water and produces a fine mist. Just a 20-minute session with the fogger is enough to raise the humidity from 35% to 50%. With this daily burst of humid air, Emory was able to shed her skin overnight all in one piece.

Uropygial Gland

Do you ever see something so odd that you just can’t look away? I recently had that experience with a Barred Owl’s uropygial gland. This owl was unfortunately the victim of a car collision. When Curator Kaylee brought the bird back to the Museum, I took the opportunity to look at the gland that is very rare to catch a glimpse of on a live bird. This uropygial gland, also known as the preen gland, is hidden under layers of feathers on the bird’s back, just above the tail. It secretes an oil that keeps the feathers strong and waterproof. The bird spreads the oil by rubbing its beak near the gland and then preening the rest of its feathers.

A Barred Owl’s uropygial gland.

Most birds have a uropygial gland, but owls have a particularly conspicuous one. After parting the feathers you could see the gland on a hawk as a bump on the skin, but an owl’s gland projects out like a bulging flap. I haven’t been able to find an explanation for this difference, but it is interesting to ponder and quite a strange thing to see!

Carson’s Molt


All of the birds have started their annual molt in the last few weeks. With thousands of feathers to replace, the process can take months. If all the old feathers fell off at the same time, the bird would be quite helpless! Instead, wing and tail flight feathers are replaced in a specific order so the bird only misses one or two feathers at a time and can still fly.

I found a beautiful red tail feather that had been shed in Carson’s mew last week. This week, I noticed she had an uneven tail: the replacement feather is starting to grow in! The short feather you see in the photo is her first new tail feather. One by one, she will replace each feather in the next few weeks.

A close-up of Carson’s new tail feather growing in.


Many would be surprised to learn that I used to be afraid of birds, mostly because I watched Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” at a young, impressionable age. But a passion for animals drove me to volunteer at a wildlife rehabilitation center even though the Avian Nursery had the only open positions. On my first day, I was practically terrified of the helpless baby robins, with eyes still closed and bodies covered in soft down. Luckily, I quickly learned how to handle the chicks and be comfortable with them.

I became a true “bird nerd” in one spring day during my internship at the International Crane Foundation (ICF). In addition to caring for over 100 captive adult cranes, we were busy tending to their eggs. During an afternoon check, I carefully pulled a brown speckled Whooping Crane egg from an incubator and set it on the counter in front of a speaker. I played a recording of an adult’s brood call, a quiet sound almost like a purr. After a moment, the egg started to rock back and forth. I lowered my ear and heard a muffled peeping coming through the shell. Just a few days from hatching, that chick was able to recognize a parent’s voice and respond to it!

I was amazed to witness evidence of life hidden behind the eggshell and honored to hold such an important life literally in my hands. Whooping cranes nearly became extinct: just 21 birds remained in the 1940’s. With the help of captive breeding programs like the one at ICF, Whooping Cranes began their recovery. Their population is still not self-sustaining, however, and they remain endangered.

It is because of my moment with that chick, because of the inspirational conservation work by organizations like ICF, and because of a love of birds that I am participating in the Great Wisconsin Birdathon. On June 15, the Museum’s team “Namakagon Naturalists” will try to find as many bird species as possible to help raise money for bird conservation. By donating to our team here, you can support state-wide projects – like Whooping Crane reintroductions – that help Wisconsin birds. Donations to our team will also support a Museum scholarship to bring our live raptor programs into local schools. I hope you can take a moment today to think about your connection with birds and consider supporting our Birdathon team. Also be sure to check our calendar of events to join one of our birding trips on June 15!