Saturday, September 6, 2014

Red-tail Retirement

by Calah Beckwith
Lead Wildlife Keeper

When we say we provide a life-long home for raptors with disabilities, we really mean it. A good number of our raptors have been with us for more than 20 years, and the high-quality habitat, health care, and diet we provide ensures that many of these birds will double or even triple the lifespan their species could expect in the wild. 

In addition to providing all of the "physical" necessities for the birds who call VINS home, we also make every attempt to stay attuned to their mental needs, as well. We come to know our birds quite intimately, and we develop an understanding of their routines, habits, and normal behaviors. When a bird begins to deviate from these routines and behaviors, we make every attempt to find the cause of the change. 

A few months ago, we noticed a behavior change in a male red-tailed hawk who has been a member of our raptor education team for many years. This particular bird LOVES his food and has always eaten every last bit of food provided. Despite the injury to his wing and limited flight ability, he's always been quite agile and mobile. One week, we noticed that he had gone three days without eating any of his food. We also observed that he had developed a bit of a limp with one leg. We did a full examination and did not find any outward injuries. 

Now this hawk is at least 20 years old, though he could certainly be older. He arrived at VINS in 1998 as an adult, and we believe him to be a few years older than that. He is certainly a senior citizen, and his behavior and limp led us to believe he was suffering from arthritis. It wasn't that he didn't want to eat, he was just having trouble accessing his food. When he did get to his food, though, he had trouble lifting the mouse clinched in his talons up to his mouth. 

The male red-tailed hawk (top, left) 
relaxes in his new habitat with his new lady companion.
We started him on an anti-inflammatory to help with arthritis-related pain and stiffness, and we began to hand-feed him to ensure that he received sufficient nutrition. He took all of this in stride and was a very cooperative patient. Obviously, his arthritis would prevent him from being comfortable siting on a glove and participating in education programs. 

So we made the decision to retire our beloved red-tailed hawk. Retirement at VINS means a cushy life as an exhibit bird with lots of space to move around, trees to sit in, a forest to gaze at, plentiful food - and no expectation of being handled by people. He thrived as an avian ambassador and glove-trained education bird, but even red-tailed hawks deserve a rest after a job well done.

After a few weeks of medication and hand-feeding, our red-tail started showing signs of improvement, and he was eating on his own and bouncing around his enclosure like a spry youngster. Just this week, he made the transition to our exhibit area; and one of the perks of his new home is that he is sharing it with a female companion. Within minutes of his introduction to his new habitat, he was sitting next to the female hawk and they were chatting up a storm. He settled in like he had lived there forever, and the lady hawk seems to enjoy his company. 

A well-deserved retirement for a hard-working, much-loved bird. Congrats, red! 

Come to VINS Nature Center to visit all of the birds who call VINS home, and see the red-tailed hawk in his new habitat. He loves visitors!       

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

VINS Incredible Insect Festival

Naturalist Photographer Sam Jaffe
Alyssa MacLeod
VINS Intern

What a perfect saturday in August - learning all about the wonderful world of insects at VINS. The Incredible Insect Festival on August 2 was a smash hit bringing out a total of 349 visitors. All day visitors were able to browse the large caterpillar collection of Sam Jaffe, an Master's student of environmental education at the Antioch University of New England. Among the over 50 different species he brought, my favorites were the Cecropia moth caterpillars. They were so big and colorful, I overheard one kid exclaim "It looks like candy!"

Being such a success as a first time event, I sure hope to be here for an even bigger turn out next year! There were many things I just didn't have enough time to try. For example, Anne Dannenberg taught some people how to make bee hives out of bamboo.  These small, easy to make hives are great to put around gardens to help attract pollinators, and also make great decoration! This activity was earlier complemented by a pollinator workshop also given by Anne. For those not interested in the workshop, story time was another alternative.

Story time was a blast with some stories read from books, some told from memory, and some acted out with puppets. Later in the afternoon I was also able to lead a bug hunting expedition. After quickly going over the basics of what a bug is, what they are good for, and how to collect them, those kids were itching to get their hands on a net. They each picked a net and a collecting jar and we were off to the field. We didn't make it far in before they started sweeping everything in sight. It was maybe 38 seconds into this adventure before I was called on to pull out my trusty field guide. Every insect was a fascinating find whether it was an invasive ladybug, a Halloween Pennant dragonfly, or an ambush bug. I thoroughly enjoyed how much they felt ownership over what they had caught and wanted to know more about it.
At the very end of the day as I was helping to clean up, I passed my dad who had come out for the day with my mom. He was practicing fly casting with a few other folks, led by Brian Burkholder. They were all so involved in this task, they nearly caught me with a cast a few times. It was clear to me that everyone found something to capture their fancy at this event from the 4 year olds enthralled by story time, to the older kids eyeing the candy-like caterpillars, and even the old-timers meditatively fly casting over and over again.

After spending my days this summer mostly helping kids to appreciate raptors better, I felt refreshed and invigorated spending a day helping others learn more about insects - my true passion. Being a naturalist, I love learning about all things - birds, bugs, plants, mammals, geology, etc - but without a doubt bugs are my favorite. As a group of organisms that often receives a "ewwww!" it was nice to see so many "ohhhs" and "ahhhs" at the VINS Incredible Insect Festival.