More Training

Today's Raptors: I found one half of the reliable pair of red-tailed hawks perched on light post on hwy 36 on my way to The Raptor Center today. Interesting to note was a male kestrel perched on the speed limit sign just underneath the light post the red-tail was sitting on. That's the first time I have seen those two species perched so close together.

Speaking of kestrels, I did some bird handling training today with one of the male American kestrels at TRC (pictured at the top of the entry--look at that tomial tooth!) and I also got to work with the light phase great horned owl Samantha. She's kind of famous, Robert Bateman did a portrait of her for the public to watch at an art gallery for a fundraiser. It's kind of a funny story, he was supposed do one of our education eagles and for whatever reason the eagle kept staring down at its own feet--apparently its talons were more interesting than a well known artist, but that's a bird for you. Anyway, since no one wants a portrait of the national symbol staring at its feet like Garrison Keillor, Bateman ended up doing the white phase great horned instead. Which I think is a much better choice anyway. I love eagles, and I think they're majestic and all, but really there are quite a few portraits of them out there and I'm hard pressed to find too many of light phase great horned owls.

What's weird is that when I first started handling birds in 1998, Samantha was an education bird everyone wanted to work with because being female she's big (and let's face it, when you handle raptors there's a small part of you that feels macho when handling a bird of prey--handlers who read this, don't even try to deny it, we both know it's true), two she's unusual, it's not every day you see this color phase unless you live near lots of birches and three she is generally very relaxed and easy going during a program. The only down side is if she gets irritated and starts hissing--she has bad rat breath. Now, as I'm refreshing my handling skills, Samantha has a reputation as being kind of a "dangerous" bird. Granted, she has flown at the heads of a few people going in to get her or when they are removing dried up rats and pellets from her mews, but all birds are unpredictable and if I had a nickel for every great horned owl that has flown at my head during mating season, I could buy a couple of Happy Meals.

I remember when I was first training and one of the education red-tailed hawks had a "reputation" for being moody and difficult. Since I was so surprised to learn that Samantha now has a "reputation" for with new handlers, I wonder if that perception of the red-tail was ever true?

I love working with the great horned owls this time of year, they are so "hooty". The hormones are kicking in and all the education owls--especially the ones imprinted on humans are anxious to establish territory and maybe find a mate in the form of a handler (alas, there is no such fraternization allowed at TRC). One of the coolest things ever is to have a great horned hoot while it is sitting on your arm. You feel the whole sound vibrate through you. Today, Samantha let out one giant squirt from her back end and then gave a loud hoot as if to announce, "Oh, yeah that was great. I really had to go." That last line is even funnier if you do it to the rhythm of a great horned owl hoot--maybe that will be a new mnemonic to show up in field guides?

I just realized, if you would like to learn more about Minnesota owls, I giving an owl talk with some of TRC's owls on January 29, 2006. In the past we have car pooled out to see reliable owls, but this year the most reliable ones I know are at the Minneapolis/St Paul Airport and I'm pretty sure airport security will frown on me carpooling out with about 50 people. Anyway, if you would like to see some cool owls up close and learn more than you possibly wanted to about owls, sign. These events always fill up fast, so please register in advance (we usually end up having to turn people away that don't make reservations). Also, the class is intended for people 12 and older.