Three and a half years ago, when I started this job, I didn't feel love for RAPTOR's education birds.
It was more like a healthy dose of respect and a little fear. This is because I didn't know them well.
I do now. I can read their body language, I can tell when they are content and when they are stressed. I can tell when they are about to bate and when they are about to poop.
Tiny muscle shifts, minute clenches of their feet. Their eyes, their breathing.
I recognize it all.
With all of this recognition, it was bound to turn into love. A love for each individual bird and all of his or her quirks. Each has a distinct personality, distinct likes and dislikes.
I can tick them off like a laundry list, though it is more than that, culminating into something more solid and real.
Earl the Turkey Vulture:
Now 24 years old, she is our oldest resident bird. A human imprint, she is in a category all her own. I don't work with her often, due to her dislike of certain women. But holding her, what needs to be remembered is that she bites. Nibbles. Barfs.
She is also fully flighted, and is strong enough to spin me in a circle. Curious and full of personality, even her idiosyncrasies are endearing.
Scarlet the Red-tailed Hawk:
At five years old, Scarlet is still a young bird. As she is about 90% flighted, she is fun to try and catch as she swoops back and forth in her mew. But once she is on the glove, she settles in quickly. It is less of a surrender, and more of a transfer of her will to mine. She is strong and proud and an easy bird for audiences to identify at programs.
Isis, leucistic Red-tailed Hawk:
She is what I call RAPTOR's "flagship" bird. Leucistic animals are not albino, but able to present some pigment. Isis has small brown spots on the back of her head, and her eyes are fierce pools of ocean blue. Stronger than any of our other birds, she has gone through many a glove with her two-inch talons. More quirky and jumpy than the others, she needs a bit of extra time to settle down at programs. She is fond of "marching", lifting her feet and trying to get more of her jesses free from my hand.
Sylvester, the Great-horned Owl:
One of my favorites, Sylvester exudes nothing but strength, power and absolute confidence. He is sure of his badness and ability to maim whatever he chooses.
A secret, though...he is our most gentle bird. A "pussycat" of nearly endless patience, he has lived at RAPTOR for 12 years and wowed audiences across the Tri-State area. Unbothered by physical contact, he will sit perfectly still while I change his jesses (other birds need to be "toweled" and held down) and I can gently massage his right foot when it gets too clenched.
He is unprecedented in his politeness and manners. We are so lucky to have him.
Priscilla, the Barred Owl:
This bird was practically my neighbor, though I didn't know it until she was brought in to RAPTOR nearly two years ago. Found just a few miles away from our house, she was treated for a broken left wing (car impact). She needs some reassurance when taking her in hand, but I love the feel of her feet on my glove as she relaxes and slowly blinks her eyes at me. Soft and fluffy, she pulls "oohs-and-ahhs" from crowds, as they drink in her liquid brown eyes and sweet face.
Storm, the Barn Owl:
Sigh and laugh...Storm. A jewel in our crown, Storm can be heard all through the neighborhood RAPTOR inhabits. As the only bird we have who regularly vocalizes at will, he stuns everyone who gets the pleasure of hearing him scream out the call of a barn owl. A jumpy, feisty thing, he keeps me on my toes, as he is also the only bird we have who will lunge AT my face.
Lucy, the Peregrine Falcon:
Any regular reader of this blog recognizes Lucy. My favorite, my one-and-only, my moon-and-stars. A six-year old Peregrine, she hatched in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and made her way to our airport where she ran into something that partially severed her left wing. In many ways, she reminds me of a parrot, from the way she climbs her mew ladder, to the way she will "step up" onto my hand. No chasing Lucy. She is nervous and sweet, proud but shy.
Steel, the male American Kestrel:
Steel is our third-oldest bird. He was admitted way back in 2000 as an adult, so he is at least 10 years old, a very respectable age for a kestrel! Kestrels are normally a spazzy species, and Steel is no exception. I have noticed, however, a slight slowing down of his jumpy nature. Blind in his left eye, he is keen to keep his good eye aimed right at me during glove time. He bites, he bates....but his color and form is a joy for my program participants.
Magnolia, the female American Kestrel:
Magnolia was originally treated for an injury to her left eye, but her mothering skills became apparent when she began fostering our orphaned kestrel chicks. The next nesting season, she decided she didn't want to be a foster mom anymore, so she is now a regular program bird. She also keeps her good eye on me during programs, and when I hold her in front of me, she swivels her head like a tiny marionette and sometimes yells out a shrill, perfect kestrel call.
And the last, but most certainly not the least....
Angel, the brown morph Screech Owl:
Angel was a special bird. From the first day we put jesses on her legs, she was a perfect program bird. Occasionally vocal, and always calm, she exemplified her name by sitting gently on my hand, putting forth nothing but a sweet aura of screech owl presence. I will never forget the thin line of pale feathers on the back of her head, like a halo...that prodded us to call her Angel. Her non-existent weight on my thumb. The silk of her feathers as I would brush her head free of the sawdust picked up from her roosting box. Her low churring voice that rose up to me when she was feeling nervous. Her presence will stay with me forever.
Two years ago, we lost a program bird to a resident mink who broke his way into one of the cages. Though he was dispatched, we are located in prime mink habitat. We kept an eye out for more disturbance around the cages.
The other night, I put Storm back in his cage after a program. I shined the flashlight around to make sure he had been given food while we were gone...and it looked as if something had taken bites from his dinner. I looked around his cage and found chew marks on the outside of his cage.
I transferred him to the basement and alerted the staff. Cages were reinforced.
This morning, I went in to refit Priscilla's cage with lower perches so she would be more comfortable. As I was pulling old perches off, a volunteer came in to tell me bad news. We were "missing" a screech owl.
Angel had been killed. We looked at every angle, every tiny space in the slats of that cage, and can not figure out how something got in.
As a raptor center, the food we put out for our birds is bound to attract predators and scavengers. It can't be avoided. The cages must smell to predators like McDonald's smells to a toddler.
Multiple traps were baited and set out. We'll catch it.
And I can't be mad at the mink. I can't be mad at anyone. Our volunteers work unbelievably hard to keep our birds safe. We are barricading against Nature the absolute best we can.
I can only mourn quietly, and remember our tiny screech owl.