A Day in the Life of a Raptor Rehabilitator

Sometimes people ask what my job is, so I give them my title: Raptor Management Specialist.

But that’s not always helpful, so I thought it’d be interesting to write down everything I do in a day. So here’s what I did on the last day I was at the Avian Reconditioning Center.

IMG_9717-19:15 – Open everything up, do a health check on all the birds. Between our education birds and birds in for rehabilitation, we currently have 65 raptors to care for. Many of these are young birds, so they need to eat multiple times a day, which can take a lot of time. Thankfully, adult raptors only have to eat once a day, so we don’t have to get up at the crack of dawn to start feeding them. Usually we have volunteers to help out with chores, like laundry, cleaning, and feeding, which is a huge help! It takes a village.

It was already 80+ degrees when I got to work, so I knew it was going to be One Of Those Days. (That being, one of those days where I sweat buckets and need 3 showers by the end)

Bald Eagle Talons

9:45 – Take food out of the freezer to thaw. Raptors are carnivores, and we try to feed as close to their natural diet as we can. That may mean thawing frozen fish for eagles, mice for owls, insects for kestrels, and so on. Thawing food takes some time, especially in the winter, so this must be done first thing in the morning.

10:00 – Return messages. Sometimes these are phone calls from people who have found an injured or orphaned raptor. Other calls may be from another rehab center who wants to transfer birds to us, or people who want to book an education program. One email is from the local humane society, who will be bringing an owl to us later.

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Young American Kestrel

10:15 – Prepare food and feed Kestrels and Screech Owls. Kestrels and Screech Owls are very small, and when they come in as nestlings, they often weigh under 100 grams. So tiny! Since they grow so fast, they need to eat multiple times a day, so they get fed first.

When we have orphaned birds, we always use our education birds as surrogate parents when possible, to prevent imprinting. Sometimes we can give food to the surrogate bird and they will feed the babies for us. Other times, we hand feed them using a puppet, and play natural noises to simulate the parent.

Before feeding them, I weighed and recorded their weights in our log book to make sure that each nestling was growing, and not losing weight. Since raptors grow fast (full size in three months!) any weight loss means that the bird isn’t doing well. Thankfully, everyone was healthy this morning.

While the young birds are being fed, I had help to clean their enclosures, replacing the dirty bedding from the night before with clean paper or blankets.

We also set up a new enclosure for the young screech owls, so they had more space to move around and practice flying.

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Red-shouldered Hawk, thrilled to be weighed

10:45 – Weigh and clean young Red-shouldered Hawks. We have two Red-shouldered Hawk nurseries at the moment, with younger birds in one, and older birds in a larger enclosure. We weighed each of the younger birds to check that they were growing well, and cleaned their enclosure of old food and castings (partially digested prey, like an owl pellet).

11:15 – Prepare food for and feed Red-shouldered Hawks. The older birds are flying and eating well on their own, and need less attention, but the young hawks still need their food cut up into bite-sized pieces, like their parents would do for them. They’re old enough to eat on their own though, so I prepare the food, and leave it in their enclosure.

While I’m getting food ready, volunteers help with cleaning our education birds enclosures, and changing the water in their bath pans.

Eastern Screech Owl

Eastern Screech Owl

11:45 – Admit – A member of the local humane society arrives with a nestling Eastern Screech Owl for us. They tried to put it back in its nest, but it kept falling out, so they brought it to us for rehab. I take its weight and fill out an admit sheet. The bird is healthy and alert, but I want to make sure it’s eating well before I put it with our other nestling Screech Owls and surrogate ed birds, Hunter & Lucy.

The man who brought the screech owl is interested in doing raptor rehab in the future, so we talk for awhile about the housing and time requirements, and getting a permit. He offers to come pick up the Screech Owl when it’s old enough for release, and take it back to the same area.

We always try to release a bird back to the same area when possible, because often the birds parents will still be around, and can sometimes help it through adolescence. Plus, if Screech Owls are nesting in that area, then it must be good habitat for them. Although since most of a wild Screech Owls diet seems to be cockroaches and moths, they can survive pretty much anywhere in Florida there are trees!

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Osprey Talons = Fish-catchers

12:15 – Clean kennels for rehab birds.  Some birds that are in for rehabilitation need medications, and so we keep them in kennels, separate from the other birds. Kennels can get quite messy though, and need daily cleaning. Other volunteers were weighing our education birds at this time.

12:45 – Change Perching for Eagle. One of our permanent eagles needed a sturdier perch in her enclosure. Sounds simple enough, but it involved bringing her out, perching her outside, digging up her old perch, finding a new suitable perch, anchoring it in the dirt, then cleaning everything up and putting her back in her house. It wouldn’t have been so bad, except this was on a 90 degree day, and I was dying by the end of it. Thankfully, I had a volunteer to help, so I wasn’t digging alone.

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Red-shouldered Hawk

1:15 – Fill out rehab log book. I was pretty wiped out from digging the perch hole, so I took a break to fill out our daily log on each of the rehab birds. We keep a record of their weights, health, and general wellbeing. It’s also a place to note if we notice any problems with a bird.

1:30 – Prepare food for and feed all birds. Although adult raptors only eat once a day, each bird gets a different amount of food, or type of food, depending on the species and size of the bird. Additionally, some birds get medication, young birds need their food cut into small pieces, and some birds need to be fed a certain way. We need to keep all of this in mind as we get their food ready for the day. It takes awhile to prepare food for 65 birds of prey.

2:00 – Feed baby kestrels and screech owls again. Second verse, same as the first. Volunteers usually go home around this time, and I have time to work on smaller projects.

2:15 – Make equipment. All of our education birds wear leather falconry equipment – jesses, leashes, swivels – that allow us to bring them out and meet the public. Since it’s leather, it’s soft, and gentle on their legs, but it also wears out every so often. I’m always making new straps and anklets out of leather, so we have equipment to replace the old ones when they get worn. This is also something I can do in the air conditioning, which at this time of day is a precious precious thing.

3:00 – Falconry training. I really wanted to get to this earlier, but right now we have so many rehab birds that it got pushed back until the end of the day. I’m a permitted general falconer, so sometimes I use falconry training on certain birds that aren’t getting strong enough in their enclosure. By training them to fly over long distances, they can build up strength, rather than just sitting on a perch. With this strength training, hopefully they can then be released. Essentially, it involves weighing a bird, making sure that they’re the right weight for flying (too heavy and they won’t be interested, too light and you’re not doing your job right), preparing food, and putting telemetry on the bird (a radio tracker in case they fly off).

This day I had a Red-tailed Hawk with a weak wing to exercise. He did well, although I can tell he was getting tired. The actual flying part can sometimes take less time than the preparation. At the end, I gave him a bath in the hose (which he loved), fed him his extra food, and put him up for the day.

We also fly some education birds at our center for education programs, and if I had extra hours in the day, I’d fly them all every day just for the exercise, but it’s just not in the cards.

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Someone will be in later to give the young birds their third meal of the day, but for me, it’s time to go home.

This does change throughout the year – spring is far busier than the fall. Some days we are open to the public or have a fundraiser, and some days we have educational programs to present, and on those days things go a bit differently. Other days I have to take a bird to the vet, or take birds out for release. There really is no typical day – every day truly is different, but this was probably as close as I could get to a regular work day with the birds.

It’s not a glamorous job – by the end of it, I’m usually covered in sweat, feces, blood (which may or may not be mine) and possibly parasites, depending on what kind of day it’s been. But for someone who loves birds, and spending every day with them, I wouldn’t know what else to do with my time.

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P.S. – As I was writing this, Animal Control brought me a very thin juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk. I gave it fluids, and put it in a kennel to rest for the night, but it’s 8pm, and the birds are still keeping me busy.

How to Become a Falconer (In Florida)

Red Tailed Hawk

Last week we held the first ever Intro to Falconry Workshop at ARC.We had a great group of raptor enthusiasts come and learn more about the sport, and it was really a blast. To prepare, I made a booklet on becoming and being a falconer for each participant, and I thought it would be fun to post some excerpts here.

Since the US Fish and Wildlife Service stepped away from regulating falconry in 2012, the rules for becoming a falconer are now a bit different in every state, especially regarding the types of birds apprentices can/can’t have. Generally, they all have the same requirements, but I only really know about Florida laws because that’s where I live, and where I practice falconry.

It’s worth noting that falconry is illegal in two states – Washington DC (although the surrounding states seem to have active falconry clubs – Virginia especially), and Hawaii. Many of Hawaii’s native birds are threatened, endangered, or already extinct, so they can’t have escaped falconry birds flying around eating their endangered species (the feral cat and mongoose populations do enough of that already).

Before you start, it’s best to figure out if falconry is really for you. A hawk or falcon isn’t like having a pet. Even on the days when you don’t go hunting, a bird requires at least an hour a day to clean/feed/care for it. A good idea is to look online and see if there’s a falconry club near you, and go to a meet. Talk to some falconers and see if this is really something you want to commit to.

Because falconry really is a commitment, even before you get a bird. From start to finish, you want to budget about a year to get your permit. This includes the time it takes to find a sponsor, acquire equipment/housing, and process your permit. If you want to have your bird for the fall season, you want to start working on your permit twelve months before. I wish I was kidding, but that’s really how long it takes sometimes – four months of mine was permit processing alone.

In Florida (and most states, honestly) there are three main requirements for an apprentice falconry permit.

  1. The Falconry Exam – A general exam consisting of 100 questions about falconry laws, techniques, terms, raptor biology, natural history, ID, and other related subjects. It is administered by Florida Fish and Wildlife at one of their offices. You must score at least 80/100 to pass.
    • You do not need a sponsor to take the exam, although a sponsors experience is helpful in studying for the test.
  2. A Sponsor – Before you apply for a permit, you must have a General or Master class falconer who is willing to oversee your apprenticeship and training and make sure you don’t screw up.
  3. Housing – This is kind of a no-brainer, but you need a place for your bird to live. At least an outdoor weathering mews, as well as adequate perching and equipment. Your facilities will be inspected by a Fish and Wildlife officer before approval of your permit.

Once you get your sponsor, pass your test, build a mews, send in your application and pass inspection, The Wait begins. Permit approval times can vary wildly from person to person. Some people get their apprentice falconry permit fairly quickly – I’m convinced mine got shoved under a stack of papers for three months, but it did finally arrive.

After you get your permit, the real fun begins!

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Top Speed of a Peregrine Falcon – The Fastest Animal on the Planet

“Cheetahs are the fastest animal on the planet.” It’s something I was taught in grade school, and a fact I still hear repeated on nature shows today. But, at a top speed of only 70mph, that speedy cat can only claim the record for fastest land animal.

Flying at upwards of 200mph, the true champion of speed is the Peregrine Falcon.

Aerodynamic and powerful, this falcon was built for speed, with large chest muscles for pumping wings, long streamlined tails and wings, and nasal baffles to prevent their lungs exploding during descent.

In 2005, a National Geographic television show recorded a peregrine in a dive, or stoop, at 242mph – she dropped from an airplane, chasing her skydiver handler. It was the highest recorded speed for any animal on record.

And in 1998, before anyone had the technology to measure the speed of a peregrine, a Duke University biologist published a paper stating that “An ideal falcon…with a mass of 1 kg reaches 95% of top speed after traveling approximately 1200 m. The time and altitude loss to reach 95% of top speed range from 38s and 322 m at 15° to 16s and 1140 m at 90°, respectively.”

That’s 0-200+mph in only 16 seconds! So, sorry cheetahs, it wasn’t even a contest.

Raptor Conversion Weights

conversionIt’s no secret that birds don’t weigh very much – Feathers weigh almost nothing, and birds are mostly feathers. So when we weigh birds, whether for falconry or just general husbandry, we do it in the smallest unit of measurement we can – grams. Pounds, and even Ounces, are too great, and don’t allow for the tiny fluctuations that, to a 100 gram Kestrel, might mean the difference between life and death.

But grams don’t translate very well in conversation. Since we (sadly) don’t use metric in the US (aside from the puzzling proliferation of the 2-liter) telling someone that a bird weighs 450 grams doesn’t mean much to them. I can almost hear peoples eyes glaze over when I start talking about conversion rates.

So on education programs, I usually use a stand-in. Instead of saying our Bald Eagle, Ike, weighs about 3500 grams, I say he weighs about as much as a jug of milk. And that usually helps make a connection. Ike is clearly much larger than a jug of milk, so it better conveys the idea that birds aren’t as dense as you might expect, and makes it that much more impressive that they can catch and carry prey that may be heavier than themselves.

I got to thinking about what a strange conversion chart this would make, so without further ado – Raptor Conversion Weights.

  • 100g – American Kestrel, Screech Owl – 20 Nickels
  • 140g – Merlin – an iPhone
  • 350g – Barn Owl – Can of Coke (340g)
  • 400-500g – Short Tailed Hawk, Red Shouldered Hawk – Hardcover book
  • 560g – Peregrine Falcon – 20oz Bottle of Coke (567g)
  • 700g – Barred Owl – Large box of cereal
  • 1000g – Great Horned Owl – A bag of flour
  • 1200g – Red Tailed Hawk – The last Harry Potter book (or just a large book)
  • 3500g – Bald Eagle – Jug of Milk

This list is rather specific to Florida birds (and even more specifically, our own education birds), which can be much smaller than their northern counterparts (think an 8lb Bald Eagle vs a 14lb Bald Eagle), but I can’t be the only one that does this – I’d love to hear about other peoples Raptor conversion weights.

Hawking with the Gopro

Taking pictures when you’re flying two birds is hard. So I usually don’t bother, unless they’re being especially comical that day. I used a Gopro the other day (my birthday!) just to see how they turned out.

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I took a movie in the field, and then trimmed it in VLC at home and gif’d in Photoshop. Watching the Harris Hawks extend their wings right before takeoff in slo-mo is mesmerizing. I just need to figure out a way to make the head strap fit over my hat.

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Falconry for Rehabilitation: Imping

Imping is something really cool I learned to do from my falconry sponsor, and now I use it on rehab birds fairly often.

Essentially, it’s the falconry practice of replacing damaged flight feathers on birds with unbroken feathers, either from a previous molt, or a donor bird.

Here’s a Before & After of a Coopers Hawk that needed new tail feathers (from rather different angles):

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In rehabilitating wild birds, it helps birds who have broken feathers so that they can be released sooner, rather than waiting around until they molt. Most raptors only molt once a year, so imping really comes in handy.

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