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.

Resident Raptors

One great thing about living in Florida is that in the winter, even though some summer birds migrate south to Central America, a ton of northern birds come down to escape the cold, and we get a double dose of raptors all season long. It almost makes up for all the other weird stuff that happens in the state.

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This was a single Red-tailed Hawk that soared overhead for so long, I couldn’t help but snap a bunch of pictures. None of them were super great, but there were so many of them, I thought it’d be fun to splice them into a faux RTHA kettle. One can wish, right?

Bald Eagle

And the Bald Eagles have been back and forth all day, flying from one lake to another, presumably to look for Osprey to steal fish from.

RSHAfly2The interloping juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk has been all over the yard lately, eating lizards and starting fights with our resident adult Red-shoulder. I wake up almost every morning these days to a RSHA screaming match outside my window. It’d be annoying, but after spending a few years with Archer, I’m mostly immune to RSHA screaming.

Red-shouldered Hawk

Our resident adult is still hanging around, and I sort of wonder if they’ll work something out between them, or if one hawk will eventually move on. This bird moved in as a juvenile when Archer was still staying in my back yard, so I’m rooting for her. I’ve watched her turn into a beautiful adult of the Florida sub-species, and I’m hoping she’ll defend her right to live in the yard and eat lots of frogs. Right now they seem to be sharing the territory.

Red-shouldered Hawk

They’re just so much fun to watch, especially on windy days.

Nestbox Portraits 2: Hawks, Kites, and a Falcon

After taking portraits of the Owls, I decided to try the Hawks and Kites as well. Callie, an American Kestrel, snuck in there too.

If you’re interested, you can purchase prints of the birds at on Etsy, and the proceeds will go to the Avian Reconditioning Center.

Short-tailed Hawk

 

Sable, Short-tailed Kite

Callie

Callie, American Kestrel

Archer

 

Archer, Red-shouldered Hawk

Mississippi Kite

Pepito, Mississippi Kite

Swallow-tailed Kite

Scooter, Swallow-tailed Kite

SableSable, Short-tailed Hawk

Part 1, the Owls.

Bug Hunting with Archer

Archer is a Red Shouldered Hawk that lives at the Avian Reconditioning Center. We went on our first flight of the fall today, and he put on a show, chasing grasshoppers all over the fields and chasing off the local songbirds.

It’s kind of hard to fly a bird and work a camera at the same time, so I usually don’t bother, but I gave it a shot today – and if nothing else, I came back with a fun record of our afternoon.

Archer Archer

Archer Archer Archer

Archer

Archer Archer

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Archer

Things to take Hawkwatching

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After spending a week camping in the sun, hail, and rain, I thought it’d be fun to get a list together of what I brought to the Goshute Mountains for Hawkwatch (and a little of what I wish I’d brought)

My Hawkwatching Essentials:

  • Binoculars – I have a pair of Eagle Optics Ranger 8x42s, which were perfect for spotting birds, and clear even far over the ridge. I briefly used a pair of higher magnification 10x42s that were at the site, but my hands must wiggle too much, because they seemed to pick up every little shake and jitter.
  • Water bottle
  • Birding Field Guide App – iBird, Peterson, Sibley, etc. I like iBird as a birding guide, rather than a traditional field guide that would have added extra weight to my pack. With its help, I was able to identify some of the more elusive birds in camp just by their calls.
  • Hat with sun protection – Less important if you’re going to be spending your day in the blind. Essential (for me) when spotting birds in the open.
  • Solar battery and charge cord – this saved my trip, since solar power was the only way to get electricity on the mountain. The Hawkwatch crew had some already, but I tried to use my own, so I didn’t steal their power too much. A cheap solar battery cost me $20 on eBay, and was able to mostly charge my phone after a day in the sun. Unfortunately, it was less than helpful on rainy days.
  • Sturdy closed-toed shoes
  • Snacks/candy/coffee to share I really should have brought ground coffee for the camp – it’s light, easy to pack up, and used by everyone. It never hurts to bring snacks.
  • Non-cotton clothes – to wick away sweat
  • Rainproof clothes – in case of rain/hail/sleet/snow
  • Camera gear – if that’s your thing. I didn’t want to hike up a DSLR + lenses, so I made do with my iphone and some rad natural light. It would have been nice to have though.
  • Backpack – One with a hip belt makes life a lot easier if you’re packing in gear for more than a day.

And if you happen to be staying in the field longer:

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  • Tent with rain guard – you might not need the rain fly, but if you do, you’ll be glad you have it. I lucked out and there was an extra tent for me at the site. Score!
  • 20 degree sleeping bag – more if it’s colder
  • Ground mat – To keep the ground from sucking away all your body heat at night, and smoothing out the rocks and gnarly roots.
  • Warm hat + Cold weather clothes
  • Extra socks
  • Bowl & spoon
  • Two headlamps and extra batteries – Overkill? Maybe. But being out at night without a headlamp sucks, and mine always seem to get switched on by accident in the pack, leaving me with dead batteries and no light.
  • Asprin/cough drops/meds
  • Face wipes – Good for faces and hands
  • Deodorant – so you don’t stink up the blind

Migration isn’t over yet, so there’s still time to get out there and see some raptors. There’s probably even a site near you, so you don’t have to go as far as I did. Or you can just go outside and look up!

Happy Hawkwatching!

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Hawkwatch

I just spent a week in the Goshute Mountains of Nevada helping Hawkwatch band and count migrating raptors. Amazing doesn’t quite cover it. On one Friday, we banded 80+ hawks and falcons, and counted 2200+ raptors. It was mostly Coopers and Sharp-shinned Hawks, but Prairie Falcons, Peregrines, Kestrels, Red Tails, Broadwings, Swainsons Hawks, Merlins made appearances. There was even a wayward Mississippi Kite spotted by one of the counters!

Having never spent much time Out West before, there were a few life birds for me in camp. Before we went out to the blinds, I was able to watch Clarks Nutcrackers drop pinecones on my tent, plucky Mountain Chickadees and Red-Breasted Nuthatches zip through the trees, and Dark-Eyed Juncos hop around in the brush.

Among the raptors there were new birds for me as well. I was beyond excited to take my first Prairie Falcon and Goshawk out of the nets, and watch my first Golden Eagle soaring by overhead. You could have pushed me over with a feather.

The Goshutes are a special site because of the way the wind and mountains come together to give lift and speed to birds on their migration – they hardly even have to flap, and birds will come from all around to take advantage of the free ride, making it a great place to count raptors. The unceasing bird parade made the 2+ mile hike to 9000ft more than worth it. I would go back in a second.

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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.