Unlikely Relatives

Rainbow Lorikeet and American Kestrel (Source: birdnote.org)

In a raptor program last week, a young man asked why Aldo looks more like a parrot than a hawk. It seemed like an odd question and I wasn’t sure how to answer it.  Later that night I put Google to work and found that his observation was actually very astute.

 

Falcons have long been grouped with hawks and eagles due to their similar predatory lifestyles. On the outside, just about the only thing they share with parrots is a sharp, curved beak. This tool is used for very different purposes: parrots crack hard seeds with their beak while a raptor’s hook is used for tearing meat. But researchers recently made a surprising discovery by studying what we can’t see with the naked eye: DNA. By comparing these building blocks in a variety of birds, they found that falcons actually share more genes with parrots than they do with hawks. Falcons and parrots are, in a way, long-lost relatives.

Al Batt, birder and storyteller, said last week at his evening lecture that he learns the most when he answers questions. That seemed a little backwards to me, but I realized exactly what he meant when I thought of this question about parrots. The inquisitive visitor saw similarities between species that I wouldn’t have noticed. It forced me to look at Aldo from a new point of view, trigger new questions in my mind, and learn something new along the way.

 

 

 

 

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.

A Big Step for Carson

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I have taken Carson’s training nice and slow. I go at her pace and let her tell me what she is comfortable with. But sometimes I have to take a risk. When Carson was inside last week to escape the cold temperatures outside, I decided to leap ahead in my carefully sequenced training plan to see how she would do in front of a group of people. We have spent months building trust in the mew, but I didn’t know if that comfort level would transfer to the classroom.

I was relieved to have a small group of well-behaved adults for Saturday’s “Talon Talk” program; it would be the perfect audience for Carson’s latest debut. Her first test was coming out of the crate. Just like we had practiced over the previous week, she hesitated at first, looking between the glove and the room outside the crate door. After a moment she set one foot on glove and tested its stability. My hand held her weight without wavering so she peeled the second foot off the perch and placed it on the glove.

Her next challenge was staying calm in front of the audience. I watched her body language out of the corner of my eye. She stood up straight, looking around at each corner of the room, and even took a few mouse tidbits. I was impressed; she didn’t seem concerned about a thing. After a few minutes, I brought her back to the crate while she was still comfortable, completing her portion of the program as a fun, positive experience for both of us.

No fear

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.

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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.

Peregrine falcons in Wisconsin

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These four chicks were banded this year at the Madison nest site. (Photo credit: Madison Gas and Electric Company)

“Why might a raptor become endangered?”  This was the first question I posed to students at the HACIL Charter School in Hayward last week. They came up with a great list including overhunting, pollution, and invasive species. With Aldo’s help, we talked specifically about the decline of peregrine falcons due to the use of an insecticide (DDT) and how they recovered. Our discussions made me wonder: how are peregrines doing in Wisconsin now?

I headed to the Midwest Peregrine Society’s website to find detailed banding records throughout the Midwest. Though peregrines were taken off the federal Endangered Species List in 1999, researchers continue to band chicks hatched at nearly every known nest site. Wisconsin started with just one nest in Milwaukee when the state’s first captive-bred chicks were released in 1987. The Wisconsin population has since grown to 34 successful nest sites in 2016 with a total of 103 chicks!  With efforts from chemists, politicians, biologists, and falconers, the peregrine falcon is an amazing example of what can happen when passionate people come together to save a species. I can hardly wait to see how our peregrines do next year. For now, I’ll have to settle for recorded nest cam videos until the birds come back next spring!