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.

 

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Meal Prep

Our raptors have a pretty easy life in captivity, especially when it comes to food. They get something to eat every day and they don’t even have to kill it. The birds never get live prey because we don’t want them getting hurt; they already have injuries that would make it difficult to hunt, and even a little mouse can bite back pretty hard.

We feed a variety of animals they might catch in the wild like mice, rats, and quail.  These animals are fed whole, including feathers, fur, and even bones. When ingested, feathers and fur become “casting material” to aid in casting (coughing up) pellets. When not ingested, these materials just become enrichment. Carson the Red-tailed Hawk got a treat of a whole quail this week and before she started eating, she dutifully began plucking off its feathers. With no nutritional value, feathers are not very desirable so raptors often take the time to remove a few. I have noticed, though, the hungrier the bird, the more feathers or fur they will tolerate!

 

Water

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With her confidence growing, Carson has been taking each new step of our training like water off a duck’s back.

Like ducks, all birds have to work to waterproof their feathers. By rubbing their head and beak in an oil gland at the base of the tail, birds spread the water-repelling oil to all of their feathers while preening. Drops of rain will bead on the surface of the feather, rather than sink in, and roll right off. Waterproofing keeps the fluffy down feathers dry underneath and maintains their insulative qualities. The bird stays warm and dry even through heavy showers.

From beak trimming to meeting groups of visitors at the Museum, Carson doesn’t seem to mind. She is still eager for training even after these mild stressors. Just like waterproofing takes some effort to maintain, building our relationship and Carson’s confidence in new situations took time. But we are seeing the rewards now as she takes everything in stride, like water off a hawk’s back.

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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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.