Herp Check

Once I’m satisfied that all of the birds are okay, the next stop in my morning routine is the Curiosity Center to check on the herps. I make sure their heat pads are working and heat bulbs are shining. But most importantly, I look in each terrarium to make sure no one escaped overnight. Finding the animals can be tricky when they are are designed for camouflage. I always expect to find Emory the rat snake curled up under her log, but am occasionally surprised when my eyes finally spot her stretched out over the natural branch, hiding in plain sight.

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The other critters are even better at hiding. Digger the hognose snake often coils deep inside her cave, leaving just a glimpse of her scales visible through the opening. My movement awakens Scuba the salamander next door, who bursts out from under the damp soil hoping for a worm or two.  His meal would have to wait, but I send down a fine mist to rehydrate the top layer of bedding and keep Scuba’s skin from drying out. Finally assured that all of the living collections made it through the night, I am able to focus on the day’s tasks ahead of me.

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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.

 

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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.

 

Slither

Emory the Great Plains Rat Snake went on an adventure this week exploring the Museum’s main exhibit. When I set her down on the Human Microbiome table, I wondered how she would use the handles on the puzzle pieces.

Emory curved around one knob and pushed off, propelling her head forward. I was amazed to see her use these points to even travel in reverse. With the very tip of her tail wrapped around one knob, she pushed back against another and eventually coiled her whole body around her tail. I watched the video over and over, but I have to admit that I still don’t understand exactly how she does it!

Tracks

Snowy landscapes give an opportunity to see what critters are around, even if you never see them. With the fresh snowfall last week, I did some investigating around the raptor mews to see who visited the birds overnight.

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A line of deer tracks wound around the building. A smaller mammal had crossed the deer trail, long and narrow back feet leaving the unmistakable print of a rabbit. These nighttime visitors are good enrichment for the birds, giving them something new and unexpected to watch. It may also be a little agonizing for them to watch a perfectly good meal hop by. This little rabbit was probably blissfully unaware that without the mew walls, he may have been a late night snack for our raptors.

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!

 

Wigglers

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What is perhaps our most numerous species in the living collections joined the Museum with a single purpose: to feed the tiger salamander. Red worms, also known as red wigglers, make up the bulk of Scuba’s diet. But their job description has expanded to include reducing office waste and teaching about compost.

These wigglers are native to Europe but have been introduced around the world. They live in the top layer of soil where they eat decaying plant material. Their lifestyle makes them very adaptable to being indoor composting companions. “Vermicomposting,” the art of using worms to make compost, has become a popular way to recycle food waste like apple cores, tea bags, and wilted lettuce. With a simple Rubbermaid bin, a few handfuls of shredded newspaper, and a steady supply of food scraps, a colony of red worms will find a happy home in your kitchen (or in my case, my office).

 

Talons

The tiniest detail can tell quite a story. If I were to take a magnifying glass to a raptor, I might look at the shape of the beak, its eye color, or the texture of the feathers. Zooming in on the talons, though, will give me a clear picture of how this bird hunts.

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Take a look at the Peregrine Falcon’s talons. Their slender toes end with equally slender talons. These relatively small talons tell me that they don’t have a difficult job to do when catching prey. Falcons often stun their prey by striking it in the air at high speed. Once caught, they will kill the animal with their beak, using a special notch to sever the neck quickly. That means the talons really don’t have to work very hard; small talons are sufficient when their primary job is holding onto subdued prey.

 

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Compare that to the talons of the Red-tailed Hawk. Check out those beefy talons, especially the enlarged talons on the toes labeled “I” and “II” in the photo. These talons have some serious work to do. Red-tailed hawks often catch prey on the ground that are larger than their feet. Imagine a hawk pouncing down on a rabbit. That rabbit will surely be fighting for freedom (and sometimes it succeeds), so the hawk needs a strong, deep grip. Those enlarged talons restrain its dinner until the hawk gets a chance to start eating.

 

GGOW talons.jpgAnd the Great Gray Owl presents a new set of talons and a new hunting strategy. These medium talons are relatively long on short toes and are less curved than other raptor talons. These weapons are ideal for catching small prey, like mice or voles, that fit in the bird’s foot. By maximizing grip strength, the talons can wrap around and constrict their prey. Unlike hawks, owl talons are just about equal in size. This ensures a uniform grip as they clench their bite-size meal.

 

You could probably tell the difference between a carpenter and a dentist just by looking at their fingernails. Whatever type of work we choose to do is imprinted on our hands. For birds, the correlation is flipped. The physical tools that raptors have dictate the lifestyle they need to survive.

 

Photos adapted from the scientific paper, Predatory Functional Morphology in Raptors: Interdigital Variation in Talon Size Is Related to Prey Restraint and Immobilisation Technique,” by Fowler, Freeman, and Scannella. (2009)