Signs of Spring

Despite the chilling temperatures this week, spring is in the air. I was glad to hear the chickadees singing their “Spring’s Coming!” song as a reminder while I shoveled an inch of fresh snow off the sidewalk.

Some migrating birds are returning, including my first-of-year (or “FOY” to serious birders) red-winged blackbird singing last week. I also saw my FOY American Kestrel as Aldo and I drove to Ashland for a program on Monday. That kestrel looked like a fluffy cotton ball as he balanced on a powerline, feathers puffed out to stay warm. I wondered if he regretted coming back so early!

PEFA cam Pleasant Prairie WI.JPG

Peregrine Falcons in southern Wisconsin are well into their nesting season with many pairs already sitting on eggs. I caught a quick glimpse of an egg on this camera in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin and have been checking back regularly to try spotting it again. While we don’t know how long our snow will last, birds farther south and optimistic migrators like the kestrel remind us that “Spring’s Coming!”




The People


One of my favorite things about birds, other than the birds themselves, is the way they bring people together. Whether birding out in the field or setting up for a raptor program, birds open opportunities to meet people I would otherwise never speak to.

Aldo, Carson, and I did a program last weekend for the Sax Zim Bog Birding Festival in northern Minnesota. The weekend-long festival gathered 150 serious birders bent on finding boreal species that the Bog is known for. But it also connected birders and birds to local residents. Our raptor program was scheduled in the afternoon while birders were out on field trips, so the community center was packed with local families.

After the presentation, I had the opportunity to chat with some of the individuals in the audience. I met one gentleman that told me about growing up in Meadowlands, the quiet town just south of the Bog, and how he remembered it as a bustling community with frequent trains coming and going. A local artist proudly showed me his drawings of a kestrel and hawk. One young man remembered me from a program last year and asked detailed questions about owl adaptations while a 7-year-old boy (whose mother explained how much he enjoys nature) touched every wing, foot, and skull on my table. I hadn’t noticed these four people in the audience when I was focused on teaching, but it was exciting to later learn about them and hear their stories.

Travel crates

The view inside Theo’s crate.

Anytime the birds are in a program or traveling, they rest inside a crate. These custom-made boxes have solid walls with small holes for ventilation. It might not seem like a pleasant place to us, but the dark environment helps the bird feel calm when outside the mew. Raptors are easily agitated by visual stimuli. Whether there is just one person or one hundred, watching unpredictable strangers in an unfamiliar place can be scary for the birds. Their sharp eyesight might help them spot a quick-footed mouse in the wild, but also makes for some stressful situations for an education bird. Their dark, secure crates help them stay calm by blocking their view of the activity around them.

Peregrine falcons in Wisconsin

These four chicks were banded this year at the Madison nest site. (Photo credit: Madison Gas and Electric Company)

“Why might a raptor become endangered?”  This was the first question I posed to students at the HACIL Charter School in Hayward last week. They came up with a great list including overhunting, pollution, and invasive species. With Aldo’s help, we talked specifically about the decline of peregrine falcons due to the use of an insecticide (DDT) and how they recovered. Our discussions made me wonder: how are peregrines doing in Wisconsin now?

I headed to the Midwest Peregrine Society’s website to find detailed banding records throughout the Midwest. Though peregrines were taken off the federal Endangered Species List in 1999, researchers continue to band chicks hatched at nearly every known nest site. Wisconsin started with just one nest in Milwaukee when the state’s first captive-bred chicks were released in 1987. The Wisconsin population has since grown to 34 successful nest sites in 2016 with a total of 103 chicks!  With efforts from chemists, politicians, biologists, and falconers, the peregrine falcon is an amazing example of what can happen when passionate people come together to save a species. I can hardly wait to see how our peregrines do next year. For now, I’ll have to settle for recorded nest cam videos until the birds come back next spring!

“Coping” at The Raptor Center

Processed with Moldiv

Like our fingernails, beaks and talons grow continuously. Wild birds have a rough enough lifestyle that they wear down naturally. With an easier life in captivity, we occasionally have to trim our birds’ beaks when they grow too long. To learn how to do that, Aldo and I went on an exciting road trip to The Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota last week. Clinic Manager Lori Arent demonstrated the technique for trimming, or “coping,” a kestrel beak. These falcon beaks are more difficult than other raptors because they have a special notch that needs to be shaped in addition to shortening the whole hook. I observed Lori before it was my turn to cope Aldo. She made it look so easy, but once I was in the hot seat I quickly learned this is a skill that will take some practice. Balancing a dremmel in one hand and holding his beak in the other, it was difficult to maneuver everything at the right angle. I was glad to have someone with so much experience looking over my shoulder. About 10 minutes later, I could finally take a deep breath. Aldo’s beak wasn’t quite as polished as the bird Lori just finished, but it was the proper length and would make it easier for him to eat. Next time he needs a trim, possibly in two or three months, I’ll be ready with this new skill!

False eyes

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Sometimes even a kestrel needs time to relax after a busy day of work. Aldo had the opportunity to enjoy the view of Lake Namakagon after an outreach program at Lakewoods Resort this week.  As he watched boaters coming and going on the lake, I had a great view of the back of his head. In this photo, you can see the black spots on his nape. These “ocelli” are thought to act as false eyes. They might protect the kestrel from a predator like a Cooper’s or Red-tailed Hawk. The spots might also prevent angry songbirds from getting too close when trying to chase off a kestrel. In either case, they will wait to attack until they have the element of surprise. If the kestrel’s trick works, the attacker will choose to back down rather than risk getting tangled in the talons of the seemingly vigilant kestrel. The false eyes are a simple illusion that helps wild American Kestrels enjoy a nice view without worrying too much about predators.