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fun with owls, and other experiences at the wildlife center.

October 28, 2010

It’s been awhile since I wrote about work.

From May through September, I worked almost entirely with songbirds, hardly worked with raptors at all. This was a change for me. I’d spent over a year working with raptors, and decided I wanted a change

Last summer and fall, I was having quite a bit of trouble with the raptors, more so than I had in the past. Hawks were playing their intimidation games, flying at me quickly, but not with talons extended – mind games hawks play when they are in captivity. Most hawks aren’t likely to find themselves in a bedroom-size room, stuck there for awhile until it is time for release. It doesn’t exactly please them to have human visitors.

Perhaps the hawks are intelligent enough to know it was humans who put them there. This is my guess. So, when I walk in to clean the cages or put in some dead mice for the birds to eat, they sometimes have liked to fly at me. Last year, I had to shove some of them off me, because I had no room or time to duck. This kept happening. Most hawks that came at me didn’t seem like they were trying to hurt me though, just mess with me. On only a few occasions did the hawks come at me with talons out (extended). Scary!

Most of our outdoor cages are not flight cages – but bedroom-sized as I mentioned. We have 2 flight cages – one for hawks, once they are well enough to fly, and one for the owls. We have to be very careful to put only certain kinds of hawks in the hawk flight cage – the smaller ones aren’t allowed in because the bigger ones would kill them.

Hawks in the flight cage don’t present as much danger as those in the much smaller rooms. I just walk down one side of the cage, and duck when necessary. I’ve several times spent close to an hour in the hawk flight cage with 14 hawks surrounding me on their high perches, and I wasn’t very worried. We just kept an eye on each other. If one flew to a perch right over my head, I looked it in the eye, and used my tongs – what I use to pick up debri with – and lightly knocked the perch under its foot and it would fly away. Only had a few close calls in the hawk flight cage.

The Great Horned Owl cage… First time I went in there, last year, when there were 12 of them, I just walked in like it was the hawk cage, and spent over an hour cleaning it out while surrounded by Great Horned Owls. This turned out to have been very dangerous! I just didn’t realize it then. One of them flew at me but I waved it off several times, and it turned in mid air and left me alone. One little Great Horn followed me around on foot for a while. This was odd. It looked cute and rather creepy at the same time. If you see the picture used when I am responding to comments – that’s the owl (not the one on the heading of my blog – which is a Barn Owl).

Turns out the Great Horns did present a serious danger. I went in on a different day and almost lost an eye. I wore a thick knit cap and very thick sunglasses. I bent down to pick up some uneaten dead mice, and an owl perched right above me landed on my head. It scratched through my hat, but didn’t draw blood. It also left a nick just below my eyebrow. The nick healed, but.. damn.. Too close!!

That was last year, July of ’09. I kept working with the raptors, but was wanting a change. I took two months off from work- March and April – family issues and other things, and in May, when I returned, I was on the songbird team, mostly working indoors with the little birds instead. I handled raptors on rare occasions, but did get to release a few during this time.

The busy season wound down in September, and there were much fewer songbirds to care for. So, for several weeks, I didn’t do a whole lot of animal care – mostly a lot of clean-up. You can probably imagine the ghastly messes at the center! I won’t go into details. Be glad.

I switched shifts this month, because the evening shift for the songbirds was not needed anymore. I arrive at noon now, and have been on raptor duty (not exclusively – other work to be done as well, of course) for several weeks.

I go into each cage (or almost each cage) with a pair of tongs to pick up uneaten mice and castings – castings are capsules of feather and bone and other indigestible material the birds spit up. I put the stuff in a plastic bag, and spray off feeding platforms and add fresh water when needed. I come back around a second time to do the feeding – more dead mice. We keep a little chart for each bird or birds – how many mice we remove and how many we put in.

In the past, we live-prey tested the birds to see if they could catch live mice. There is a pit in the hawk cage about 3 feet deep. Live mice would be put in there, and next day someone would check to see if the mice were gone.

They haven’t been live-prey testing the birds much, if at all this year, and I’ve never heard of owls being live-prey tested – there isn’t even a pit to put live mice in the owl flight cage. Curious. Lots of things I don’t understand. Sometimes I don’t even bother to ask, because I don’t always get reliable answers to my questions..

Anyway.. it’s dead mice on the menu. We get the mice pre-killed. I was told they come from some college – not laboratory mice that have been experimented on chemically – but mice used in psyche labs, running mazes, that sort of thing – or so I was told. This sometimes sounds like.. more bullshit to me.

Going into each cage can be risky. Usually, not too much risk, though.

Today, I started with the semi-tame barn owl that is a permanent resident at the center. His wing never healed properly from an accident, so I was told, so he is non-releasable. (The Department of Fish and Game has many strict rules about certain injuries rendering animals non-releasable). I was also told this owl could not fly.

He was put into the big owl flight cage last year, after all the Great Horns had been released (no other owls can be kept with Great Horned Owls, because the other owls would be killed…quickly), and had the cage to himself. At dusk, I would watch him through the bars, and through the viewing port in the door, and he would be zooming around that cage quite easily and obviously enjoying himself. His own cage doesn’t have enough room for him to fly – just hop from branch to branch – very sad.

I used to hold him quite a bit, trying to keep him tame, and also, for his companionship. He even used to let me pet him – give him a bit of an owl massage. But his jesses – ankle straps, were removed last year, because some people on staff were afraid he might hurt himself getting the straps caught on the branches in his cage. (VERY unlikely, considering the branches are quite thick). Since he doesn’t have jesses, I cannot go and grab him and secure him to my glove. No way to do it, so this year I’ve only held him once, and that was for a special fundraising event. Two people had already put jesses on him. It’s a two person job.

At least I got to visit him for a little while inside his cage. Sometimes, he can be quite moody, even dangerous. But today, he was fine.

We have another resident barn owl. When I say “resident,” I mean permanent resident – a non-releasable animal. This one can’t fly. Her wing is badly damaged. I sometimes wonder if she is in pain. I hope not. She is not tame, and is kept because she serves as a surrogate parent for baby barn owls which are brought in each year. I went to her cage next.

Then, a room with our 2 resident Great Horned Owls. They also live in a small room – with no window. I really don’t approve of the way some of the animals are treated! But I have no authority to change things.. so I do what I can for them. One of the Great Horns in this room can’t fly and is a surrogate parent, the other, her mate, can fly, and is another of the animals we handle during events and show to the public. I also got to hold him during the fundraiser event last month, but not for long – he gets stressed out quickly by being around a lot of people.

I also cleaned a cage that held a sharp-shinned hawk – a small, long-legged and very hyperactive hawk. It didn’t fly at me though, which was nice.

Next cage was the big Red Tail Hawk that had been in an indoor hospital cage for weeks, but had gotten better enough to be moved. This one is an atypical Red Tail Hawk! Red Tail Hawks are the birds that novice falconers start out with. This is because, although larger than falcons, the red tails are more mellow. Usually.

This one – wow. Before I even tried to walk in, it flew against the door, hard – not hard enough to hurt itself, but still, hard. A very aggressive bird! I just opened the door a crack and it flew at the door again. Far too dangerous to walk into that cage! I just threw the dead mice in there, missing the feeding platform, but who cares. It can easily find its food on the ground. Scary bird.

Next was a Cooper’s Hawk – very similar to a Sharp-Shin hawk, but slightly bigger, and worse. Even more hyper-active. That one scared me a little. I had to duck and keep my head down.

The big hawk cage is undergoing some renovations, and parts of the wall are not in place, so there aren’t any birds in there. 3 hawks reside in a smaller walk-in cage. Two of them can’t fly because there is something wrong with their feathers. They might be non-releasable. There is another one in there that can fly, but is non-releasable due to a damaged eye. I don’t know what nature facility, wildlife center, or zoo these birds will eventually be placed in. Sometimes, I think it is far more humane to just kill them, instead of condemning them to a life of captivity. But rules are rules. The three birds in this cage don’t trouble me. I think one of these hawks, the one that can fly, is a Swainson’s Hawk – comparable in size to a Red Tail, but with a slightly worse disposition, so I have read. However, the Swainson’s Hawks I’ve worked been around have never bothered me.

The last raptor cage I went into was the owl flight cage. All 11 Great Horns that we had in there this summer were released last Wednesday. I got there a little to late in the shift to participate in the owl roundup, but that’s ok.

Strangely, the owls were released into the orchards surrounding the grounds of the wildlife center. This is something we almost never do. We take the birds to different orchards, sometimes far away. It seems irresponsible to have released all these owls right in the same area – I could be wrong, but it seems to me a certain area can only sustain a certain number of owls. Also, there is at least one wild barn owl living near the center. I have had the good fortune to see it clearly several times as it hunted at dusk or after dark. Great Horned Owls kill Barn Owls. It’s a big enough area.. the barn owl is probably safe, but I worry a little about it.

In the owl flight cage now dwell 3 barn owls, which for over a month were in one of the smaller rooms. They have lots more space to move around now! Barn Owls tend to be far less dangerous than great horns, so I spent over a half hour in that cage. I didn’t have to duck much at all. Owls are very good at turning around in circles in the air – changing direction. I stared cleaning in the cage, but walked out, got my camera, and walked back in.

Barn Owls are very agile! They kept hanging upside down like monkeys from the bars lining part of the ceiling of the cage. Very strange to see! And, they also liked to play on the ropes the hanging perches are attached to. I will include a picture with this posting. It was lots of fun to be in there with them! I cleaned up quite a bit (some of the mess from the great horns hadn’t been removed yet- stinky) and the rest of the time, took pictures, made videos, and just watched them. I was in there for awhile.

That was certainly the highlight of the shift!

I also cleaned out 2 hospital cages – these are all in the main building – small stainless steel cages like you’d find in a vet’s office. Raptors and are kept in these cages because they need to be in small areas where they can’t flap their wings – they are in intensive care, so to speak, not ready for the outdoor enclosures. Other animals are also kept in hospital cages. I had to grab one Great Horn and move it to another cage, and one duck. The hospital cages are mostly empty now. Besides 2 Great Horns and the duck, there is a tortoise, 2 squirrels, and a mink. One of the squirrels is a permanent resident. I don’t know why. The other squirrel is recovering from an injury or illness unknown to me.I don’t handle the veterinary work, except to assist once in awhile.

I helped with the duck – held it down while another worker tube-fed it. It hasn’t been eating well enough on its own, so a rubber tube has to be inserted down its gullet to its stomach, and a special thick liquid went into the tube, and into the duck. After awhile, it had had enough, and spit up the thick liquid all over my windbreaker. No worries. I’ve gotten dirty so many times working this job I didn’t even sweat it.

The worst part of the shift was processing envelopes for our quarterly news letter. I HATED doing that! I finished a small stack, before deciding I would go mad if I were to continue. I got up, did some sweeping and emptying trash, and left.

Quite a good shift, overall!

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