Fall Fest

The town of Cable was hopping last weekend during our 16th annual Fall Festival. Not one to miss out on the fun, Aldo made a few appearances in front of the Museum to meet festivalgoers and appreciate the classics in the car show.

Aldo was raised at a rehabilitation center and imprinted on his human caretakers. He learned to associate with people rather than other kestrels, so he cannot be released back into the wild. It also makes him the perfect ambassador at a crowded festival. He can handle noise and activity better than the other birds, but he still has his limits. After about 15 minutes of watching the crowds, he started to spread his wings to tell me he was ready to leave. I brought him back to his mew to rest and watch activity from his new window.

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Jess Grease

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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.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

Beak Styles

It had been three months since Aldo’s beak was last trimmed and it was clear he needed another touch-up. The tip of the beak had grown long and his tomial tooth extended far below his bottom bill.

Birds don’t have teeth, so this unique feature of falcon beaks is poorly named. The tomial tooth is not a tooth at all; it is simply a notch in the corner of the hook. Compare that shape to the smooth line on the inside edge of the hawk beak. While this small notch gives me a challenge to shape when trimming Aldo’s beak, it helps falcons quickly dispatch their prey. The notch fits into the vertebrae of their bird or mouse meal and snaps the neck quickly, allowing the falcon to fly off without struggling with its prey. It must be a useful tool, especially considering falcons’ long, slender toes that might not have the power needed to kill prey with their feet alone. Another small meat-eater (one that has no talons at all) takes advantage of having tomial teeth: northern shrikes!

I carefully studied photos of the shape and position of the tomial tooth before trimming Aldo’s beak. I was reassured by knowing that the notches will grow back on their own if I don’t shape them properly, but I wanted to give him a proper falcon beak. Since I had worked on his beak two times before, I felt more confident as I dremeled away the excess keratin. This time he ended up with two intact, correctly-positioned tomial teeth, ready to slice through his mouse reward.

Plumage

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Last time Aldo was inside due to cold temperatures, he spent some quality time in my office. He kept busy by watching visitors pass by in the hallway, listening to the strange noises emanating from my computer, and, apparently, mimicking the artwork on the wall. The watercolor prints were done by a naturalist that I worked with a few years ago. She painted a variety of animals, but my favorite piece is the male kestrel, shown at the perfect angle to highlight his handsome plumage. The solid block of rusty-brown on the tail and slate-blue wings contrast with the female’s rather plain brown wings and tail.

Such a striking difference is rare in raptors. In most species, there is no difference in plumage. The only way to tell male from female is by size: if you see them sitting right next to each other, the female is the larger one of the pair. With individual birds, it’s a bit of a guessing game. Our Red-Tailed Hawk, Carson, weighs just over 3 pounds. That falls in the upper range of Red-Tailed Hawk weights, so she is likely a female. With Aldo we don’t have to guess: his colors tell us without a doubt that he is male.

Steps Toward Flight

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To prepare for a training session, I closed the blinds in the classroom and set out a step stool – just in case. I brought Aldo into the room and carefully closed the doors behind me. I removed the metal swivel and leash that normally keep him secure on the glove if he tries to fly away. He needs this level of freedom – in a controlled room like the classroom where he cannot escape or hurt himself – to accomplish his new training goal: to fly!

I let Aldo step onto the perch and take in his surroundings. He has seen the classroom many times before, but he was curious as he looked around the room, his head bobbing up and down. After a moment, I raised the glove to his feet once again. He looked down at it and stepped up with both feet. I bridged and gave him a few mouse tidbits, then set him back on the perch to try again. While not very exciting yet, this is the first step in flight training. I will gradually move the glove farther and farther away so he has to take a big step, then hop, then finally fly to the glove. Eventually, he will fly across the room during raptor programs to demonstrate falcon speed for audiences!