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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

Rouse

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It is officially one year since I rolled into Cable and presented a raptor program with Aldo and Carson on my first day of work at the Museum. It has been amazing getting to know these birds more closely and see their progress over the last year. Carson the Red-tailed Hawk has come the farthest her training. A year ago, she ran away from me when I got too close with the glove. Today she ran toward me before I was even ready to start. She stepped on my glove (and got a chunk of rat for her effort) and we went outside to get weighed on the scale and enjoy the sun. A chipmunk rummaging through the garden piqued her interest. Every time I moved, she craned her neck to keep her eye on the little rodent, so we stayed outside to take advantage of the free entertainment. Naturalist Intern Bethany even snapped this photo as Carson roused and shook out her feathers to get comfortable. It took time – and a lot of quail, mouse, and rat tidbits – to get to this point, but seeing Carson rouse on glove is all the reward I need to know that the effort was well worth it.

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!