Chilly Mornings

The first thing I do every morning is check on the birds to make sure everyone is okay. There’s always a little voice inside my head that echos “what if?” and I subconsciously worry that something terrible might have happened overnight. Luckily, I always find three healthy birds staring back at me.

Peeking in at the birds eases my mom-like concerns and also gives us the chance to say “good morning” to each other in our own way. Theo’s mew often has evidence of his busy night and, as the sun comes up, the owl tries to get some shut-eye. When I look in, he responds with a hiss as if telling me he wouldn’t like to be disturbed.

 

Carson foot tuck.JPG

I make my way to the next mew to check on Carson the hawk, who on this morning was basking in the sunshine at her window. The air felt colder than my car thermometer indicated and Carson seemed to agree. She sat with her feathers all fluffed to increase the effects of her down insulation. One foot was balled up, relaxed. Soon that foot tucked up and disappeared into the cloud of feathers to keep it nice and warm. Her eyes followed me as I continued on to the last resident.

Aldo the kestrel is always the most alert and active at sunrise – a real “morning bird.” I peek into his mew and he flies straight toward me, landing on the perch in front of the window. He trills and I imagine he is saying “good morning!” right back to me.

 

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Meal Prep

Our raptors have a pretty easy life in captivity, especially when it comes to food. They get something to eat every day and they don’t even have to kill it. The birds never get live prey because we don’t want them getting hurt; they already have injuries that would make it difficult to hunt, and even a little mouse can bite back pretty hard.

We feed a variety of animals they might catch in the wild like mice, rats, and quail.  These animals are fed whole, including feathers, fur, and even bones. When ingested, feathers and fur become “casting material” to aid in casting (coughing up) pellets. When not ingested, these materials just become enrichment. Carson the Red-tailed Hawk got a treat of a whole quail this week and before she started eating, she dutifully began plucking off its feathers. With no nutritional value, feathers are not very desirable so raptors often take the time to remove a few. I have noticed, though, the hungrier the bird, the more feathers or fur they will tolerate!

 

Remodel!

Last week was very exciting for the birds: their mews were remodeled!  Each bird’s enclosure received a plexiglass window in front and and open skylight. In addition to more natural light in the mews, the birds now have access to rain and snow, breezes, and even entertainment watching chickadees and cedar waxwings flutter in the trees above them.

You can see photos of construction and the birds’ reactions here!

mews

Jess Grease

Aldo jesses.jpg

This week I noticed Aldo’s jesses, the leather straps that hang from his legs, becoming more and more stiff. He seemed to notice, too, when he stamped his feet to move the leather to a more comfortable position. It was time to apply an oil to condition the leather. Luckily falconry suppliers make a conditioner specifically for this purpose: jess grease.

To condition the whole length of each jess, I need to remove the leash that binds the pieces of leather together and secures him to my glove when he is out of the mew. That means that if he tries to fly away during this process, he is more likely to escape. In case he gets away from me, I choose the smallest room with the lowest ceiling and fewest perches: the staff bathroom. Applying the jess grease is easy and I simply rub it in with my fingers. The grease will sink into the leather to keep it supple and waterproof for a few more weeks.

 

Time for a Trim

Each time I brought Carson the Red-tailed Hawk outside last week, I had to cringe a little. Her beak was overgrown and not only did it look bad, it was also getting in her way. It was so long that a piece of meat occasionally got speared by the hook and she had trouble getting it off. It was time for a trim.

Her last trim, or coping, was 10 months ago when she visited The Raptor Center last fall. While Aldo the American Kestrel’s beak grows so fast he needs a trim every 2 months, Carson’s beak grows slowly and requires less maintenance.

Coping a hawk beak feels like a piece of cake compared to a kestrel. Kestrels, as falcons, have specialized notches in their beaks that need to be shaped. Hawks conveniently have a smooth-shaped beak and I only had to concentrate on shortening the hook. We finished quickly and brought her back to her mew to enjoy half of a rat with her smooth, shortened beak.

Carson beak.jpg

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.