Perch Variety

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Aldo tried out two new perches this week to spice up his time indoors. First he sampled a flat block perch for an afternoon, then he tried out a small hemlock branch that I bent over his normal perch. New substrates keep him engaged, test his balance, and promote foot health. Wild raptors perch on a variety of branches, wires, fence posts, and ledges, constantly changing how weight is distributed on their feet. Captive birds also need options; otherwise they risk developing pressure sores that can develop into swelling called bumblefoot. Aldo has one favorite perch, but it is beneficial to switch things up every once in a while.

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Falcon pellets

Learning about digestive systems and pellet schedules is interesting (at least for me!) and it is also useful to know when caring for the birds. This week Aldo the American Kestrel wasn’t interested in training and wouldn’t take any food from me. This odd behavior could have multiple explanations. Did he suddenly decide to boycott quail? Was he overweight or sick? Or did he just need to eject a pellet? Soon enough, he opened his beak. With a little cough, he shook his head and flung this tiny pellet at my arm. He simply had to empty out his digestive system to make room for more food.

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Occasionally Aldo’s pellet isn’t a pellet at all. Sometimes he coughs up a few pieces of gravel. Oddly enough, this is a normal behavior, especially for falcons that often pick around feathers, fur, and bones on their prey. Without these materials to form a pellet, falcons replace them by ingesting small stones to clean out their crop. Knowing this tidbit of their natural history keeps me from being alarmed whenever it happens with Aldo. Instead I marvel at a bird’s ability to take care of itself, even if it means eating gravel from the floor of the mew.

 

Cat TV

It can be challenging keeping Aldo entertained when he needs to come inside during cold weather. This week we tried a fun new form of enrichment. I propped up my phone on Aldo’s table and started up “Cat TV.”

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This series of videos is designed to keep cats entertained with scenes of squirrels and songbirds. It proved interesting for Aldo, too! Having something to watch is very stimulating for raptors. They would spend most of their day in the wild simply sitting and looking around, so these videos are a way to replicate wild behaviors in an indoor setting.

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.

 

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.