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.

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Bald Eagle Check-in: Success!

Today I went to check on the eaglet that we had re-nested on Monday. I wanted to make sure that he was doing well, the parents were taking care of him, and that he hadn’t fallen back out of the nest again.

This was what I saw when I arrived at the nest tree.

IMG_8207Hmm, what is that?

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It was our eaglet! And by the looks of it, he was hunched over, chowing down on something tasty.

IMG_8231At this point, I was satisfied, because he looked healthy, alert, and content, sitting in his nest. And if he was eating, the parents must be bringing food. I could have left, but I wanted to stick around and see if I could spot any adults.

After a bit of waiting and looking around, I realized that I was being stared down from a nearby tree!

IMG_8228The parent must have been there the whole time, keeping a watchful eye on the nest, and making sure that I didn’t get too close.

After a bit more peering around, I spotted another eagle perched in a tree right next to the nest.

IMG_8230-1What a handsome bird!

Reassured that the eaglet was under the watchful eye of his parents, and clearly well cared for, I said goodbye and let them be. It was good to see the eaglet contentedly sitting in his nest, where he belonged. Hopefully the rest of his childhood is less eventful than the last week.

Re-nesting a Bald Eagle Chick

Last week this young Bald Eagle came to ARC for rehab, after falling out of its nest.

IMG_7996-1He might look a little big for a chick, but raptors grow very fast – from egg to full grown in about three months. This guy is probably just over two months old. His feathers weren’t done growing, and he still had some downy fuzz.

Since the nest was still active, and the parents still in the area, we wanted to try to get him back with his family. The nest was on private land, but thankfully, the landowner was willing to let us access the tree.

One problem with renesting Bald Eagles is that their nests are very high up off the ground. This nest was 30′ in a tree, deep in the woods – there was no hope of using a cherry picker.

Thankfully, Jim, the master tree climber, was willing to help. This afternoon he met us at the tree site with his climbing gear, and we prepared to return the eagle to its nest.
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This was something new for me – a giant slingshot! Jim used it to throw a beanbag with a rope attached over a branch of the nest tree. It took a few tries, but eventually he got a good branch, and was able to secure a rope for climbing.

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Once Jim was up there, you could really see how big the nest was. It was probably 10′ wide.

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With Jim in position, it was time to get the eaglet ready for his ride to the top.

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First, Devin placed a hood on the eaglet to keep him calm. Or that was the idea – the bird quickly wiggled out of the hood.

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If you’re wondering why this eaglet has a black beak, and not a yellow beak like in all the pictures, it’s because of his age. It takes Bald Eagles about five years to get a white head and tail, and for the beak to turn yellow. When they’re young, they’re a very dark brown all over.

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He also went back to the nest sporting some new jewelry. This aluminum band will allow wildlife researchers to gather data about his age and travels if he is found again in the future. Check out those shiny new talons!

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One more step – we swaddled the eagle in a towel to keep him from moving about too much on his ride up.

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And finally, into a duffel bag, so he can be securely raised to the top of the tree.

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We attached the duffel bag to Jims climbing rope, and he pulled the bird up to the nest.

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At the top, Jim made sure to secure the bag to the tree before bringing out the eagle. We also sent up thick gloves so he didn’t get taloned!

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Finally, the eaglet is brought out of the bag, and returned to his nest.

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Jim took this picture of the eaglet in the nest before descending the tree.

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As we were leaving an adult Bald Eagle started making swoops down towards the nest tree, so hopefully that was mom or dad. We figured it would be best to leave the area so they can get back to taking care of their kid.

Although we’ve released several, I’d never been able to help return an Eagle to its nest before, so this was an exciting day all around. We couldn’t have done it without a lot of help from all the volunteers at ARC, and Jim especially. It was a great day for everyone to come together and help out this young eagle. Hopefully the family is back together tonight.

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.

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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