Water

Carson waterproof feathers.JPG

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.

Advertisements

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.

Carson beak.jpg

Shed

IMG_1073.JPG
Digger’s most recent shed (Western Hognose Snake)

Both of our snakes, Digger and Emory, have shed recently and it is fun to inspect the tissue paper-like skin. Snakes have a clear scale that covers each eye, and you can see how that scale sloughs off with the rest of the skin. There is even a hardened scale that covers Digger’s “hog nose” that sheds.

Snakes shed their tough outer skin so they can grow and I wondered how quickly our snakes have grown. I found that it is incredibly difficult to keep a live snake straight enough to measure its length, so measuring the shed skin is much easier. Digger’s most recent shed was 30.5 inches; he has grown 4 inches over the last 10 months! Emory has shed even more often and has grown nearly a foot longer since last September. At 52 inches long, she is nearing the typical length of adult Great Plains Rat Snakes, so I expect her growth spurt to slow down soon.

Molting in the Rain

IMG_1286.JPG

Aldo the American Kestrel enjoyed a rain shower on Thursday morning. As he spread his wings to soak in the rain, his molting flight feathers were visible. He has short primary feathers growing on his left wing and new rectrices, or tail feathers. About two weeks ago, I found most of his tail feathers on the ground in his mew. Now, new feathers are starting to grow in and give the appearance of a diamond-shaped tail almost like a raven. Aldo’s tail will keep growing, though, until the feathers are all the same length.

IMG_1275.JPG

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.

 

 

 

 

Mobbing

IMG_0752

When Aldo the American Kestrel was perched outside in the backyard last week, he instantly made a few enemies. Our local robin pair swooped down low over Aldo’s head. They flew back and forth, chattering and flicking their tails along the perimeter of the yard. What did poor Aldo do to deserve such an attack? His crime was being a bird-eater too close to the robin nest.

Many songbirds are known to mob, or dive-bomb, raptors. Sometimes they will even come close enough to knock the bigger bird on the head or nip at their tail feathers as they fly away. It seems like a dangerous game, but they do it to protect themselves and their families. They take the risk in order to chase off a dangerous predator from the neighborhood.

Aldo’s charm and cute face could not fool the robins. He was a threat to their babies that recently fledged out of the nest so they were very persistent in their assault. I soon brought Aldo back inside for some peace and quiet.

 

Robin - angry