Carson’s Molt

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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.

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

Spring Cleaning

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In spring, I love to find wildflowers blooming, to wait for migrating birds to return, and (perhaps most of all) to connect the outdoor hose. Winter makes a frozen mess in the raptor mews that we try to clean with buckets of hot water, but we can’t get everything. The birds don’t seem to mind since they spend their time on perches, elevated above the muck. But it was clear to us they required a heavy spring cleaning. We spent a full morning this week rinsing, washing, scrubbing, raking, and disinfecting every surface of the mews. With the help of above-freezing temperatures and a little elbow grease, the mews are practically sparkling!

Sticks

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Carson holding on to one of her sticks.

Even through the ice and snow last week, birds can sense that it’s spring. There seem to be more osprey than we’ve seen in recent years in the Cable area and they are busy nesting. Over the course of two or three days I watched one pair’s nest-building progress on my daily commute. What started as a few tree branches dangling precariously from a utility pole quickly became a sturdy mass of sticks. It is similar in structure to bald eagle and red-tailed hawk nests. In red-tailed hawks, the male and female work together to collect sticks and weave them together into a nest lined with strips of bark, fresh plants, or dried vegetation.

Our red-tailed hawk, Carson, has also sensed the springtime urge to build. Noticing an uptick in her activity this spring, I decided to test her interest in nest building. I placed 5 sticks around her mew one night and wondered if she would touch them. I was surprised to see each stick had moved the next morning. Since then, she moves the sticks around nearly every day, and occasionally she gathers them on top of her platform as if waiting for more sticks to appear so she can make a decent-sized nest.

Bath time

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Last Saturday was finally warm enough for the birds to take a bath outside. When I gave Carson a pan of water, she hopped in as soon as I left the mew. I watched from the door for a moment, but she just looked back at me. I went back to my office to give her some privacy. An hour later I returned to check on her, expecting to see a dripping hawk after splashing and playing in the water. Instead I found Carson still standing in her water, completely dry except for her feet.

I continued to check on her throughout the morning and nothing changed. She simply stood in the water pan for three hours straight. I guess she decided that all she needed was a nice foot soak!

Enrichment

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To maintain healthy birds in captivity, we encourage natural behaviors to keep their minds and bodies active. Most of a wild raptor’s day is spent simply sitting on a perch and watching their surroundings. That is easy to replicate in the mews: our birds sit and watch the Museum’s backyard daily.

For the rest of their time, we place new objects in the mew for them to look at or toys to play with. Carson recently received a phone book that Jayme (Living Collections Assistant) carefully folded like a fan. After a few weeks, Carson had ripped up nearly half of the book! Shredding is a natural behavior that wild raptors do when they catch a large meal, like a rabbit. This kind of enrichment keeps Carson busy and gives her an opportunity to rip and tear something for fun.

Weights

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Animals are amazing actors with the ability to mask injuries and illness. They want to hide any weakness from potential predators or competitors, while still finding their basic needs to survive. Raptors will keep hunting for food even with extreme injuries. When our Great Horned Owl, Theo, was rescued, he appeared to be well fed. The rehabilitators believed he was actually running down mice despite having a broken wing. Since their behaviors rarely show signs of illness, their weight is often the first sign of a problem. We take daily or weekly weights to track our birds’ health. The key is knowing what is normal for each bird.

I chart each bird’s weight to keep an eye on patterns. Aldo’s chart, for example, shows daily fluctuations and seasonal changes. His weight last summer hovered around 108 grams (3.8 oz) and increased in November. The higher weight gives him a little extra buffer against cold temperatures through the winter. As spring approaches, he has begun shedding weight in preparation for breeding season and warmer weather. With a baseline of these normal weight patterns, I can identify abnormalities and keep him at healthy weight.

Basking

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Animal training is never a linear line; there are always ups and downs. One day Carson runs to greet me, ready to train. The next day she might ignore me completely and tuck her foot into her belly feathers, telling me she’s not going anywhere. Despite the occasional setback, I was reminded last week that our overall progress is overwhelmingly positive.

When I started working with Carson last July, she ran away from me multiple times before stepping on my glove. She remained uncomfortable when we came outside, often trying to fly away after any noise or sudden movement. I decided to “go back to kindergarten” with her training. We started with basic trust building and slowly reintroduced the glove, this time letting her tell me when she was ready to move to the next step.

We reached a huge breakthrough last week: we finally made it outside. She ran to me when I entered the mew and stepped on my glove right away. She stayed with me as I attached her leash and we stepped out the door. We basked in the sun for a few minutes as Carson calmly looked around the backyard and ate some rat tidbits. Not only was she calm that day, but she decided to do it all over again the next day. I couldn’t be happier or more proud of how far she has come. (I tried to be professional writing this article, but rest assured the original entry in my training log contained a plethora of incoherent exclamation points and smiley faces. 🙂 )