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.

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.

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. 🙂 )

A Big Step for Carson

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I have taken Carson’s training nice and slow. I go at her pace and let her tell me what she is comfortable with. But sometimes I have to take a risk. When Carson was inside last week to escape the cold temperatures outside, I decided to leap ahead in my carefully sequenced training plan to see how she would do in front of a group of people. We have spent months building trust in the mew, but I didn’t know if that comfort level would transfer to the classroom.

I was relieved to have a small group of well-behaved adults for Saturday’s “Talon Talk” program; it would be the perfect audience for Carson’s latest debut. Her first test was coming out of the crate. Just like we had practiced over the previous week, she hesitated at first, looking between the glove and the room outside the crate door. After a moment she set one foot on glove and tested its stability. My hand held her weight without wavering so she peeled the second foot off the perch and placed it on the glove.

Her next challenge was staying calm in front of the audience. I watched her body language out of the corner of my eye. She stood up straight, looking around at each corner of the room, and even took a few mouse tidbits. I was impressed; she didn’t seem concerned about a thing. After a few minutes, I brought her back to the crate while she was still comfortable, completing her portion of the program as a fun, positive experience for both of us.

Insulation

 

The floor of the classroom was covered in tiny white feathers after Carson’s sojourn there last week during the cold weather. As I tried to clean, the fluffy feathers caught every wisp of air movement from my broom, sailed past my neatly-swept pile of dirt, and floated down on the other side of the room. I decided to find out why these feathers are so difficult to collect and placed one under the microscope. The branches, or barbs, of these downy feathers are very fine and delicate. Each barb sways independently to make a globe of loose fluff. That’s why birds like Carson have a base layer of thousands of downy feathers to stay warm. When puffed out, she literally has her own down comforter for the winter. The power lies in the air trapped inside the fluff, making dry conditions essential to maintain the insulation; a wet downy feather simply clumps together in a soggy mess.

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To protect this warm, fluffy layer, she has an outer layer of contour feathers. These body feathers are highly structured with each barb hooking tightly to its neighbor like Velcro. The interlocking barbs create a strong and waterproof layer. While Carson needs her insulation dry now that she is back outside, I find that sweeping the classroom can be made a bit easier by misting those pesky downy feathers to subdue their airborne tendencies.

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