Monday, June 27, 2005

Look Mom, No Tail!

Alice is well into her molt, and our house and the nature center are well stocked with loose feathers.

A couple of days ago Alice dropped the last of her 12 tail feathers. She dropped the first one on May 18, so her longest tail feather is only about half grown in right now. This leaves Alice looking kind of silly.

I'm not sure how normal it is for a Great Horned Owl to have NO fully grown tail feathers for a time, but I remember seeing photos of a tail-less Bubo, (the owl featured in Bernd Heinrich's book "One Man's Owl.")

Alice has never lost all her tail feathers at once like this before. She normally has retained at least her two central tail feathers while the rest were regrowing, then lost the central feathers. But she's also been exposed to more unnatural light in other years since we used to bring her downstairs in the evenings on a regular basis.

Looking back on her tail molts in previous years, it doesn't seem like there's a lot of rhyme or reason to her molt (so far anyway.) Even the sequence of feathers drop is only somewhat similar from year to year. Maybe it'll have to be a lifetime study before I can draw any conclusions.... But maybe I won't be able to draw any conclusions since she'll always be exposed to some unnatural light.

Sunday, June 05, 2005


Coping is the official term for trimming the beak and talons on a bird of prey. Alice was a little overdue for a beak coping, as Alice was getting a little "long in the tooth" as far as owls go.

It's important not to let an owl's beak get overgrown. A long beak makes it more difficult for them to eat, but there is also a small risk that the beak could break off. If it breaks off too high up, then they can't tear up their food anymore.

So what is involved in coping Alice? Three people, a dremmel, and a bit of courage. It takes one person to hold her feet (that's me), one person to hold her head and run the dremmel to grind her beak down, and one person to hold her wings to her body.

Jeff Broberg, my falconry sponsor's husband, has coped hawk and falcon beaks for umpteen years for his wife's birds. Coping takes talent and skill, since you need to file the beak down to the proper proportions and shape. Jeff is a pro at this, and has done Alice's beak half a dozen times.

Jeff planned to stop in at the Houston Nature Center when he was in the area a few days ago. I just needed to round up a third person to hold Alice's wings. Normally my husband Ken does this, but he works nights and would be sleeping at the time Jeff was stopping in. We decided I could call and wake him up if I couldn't pin anyone else down to do the deed.

I called one person I thought would be up to the task, but he wasn't around. Then I just figured I'd wait and see who (if anyone) was around when Jeff came. It just so happened that a former co-worker of mine who is very good with animals stopped in for a chat right when Jeff showed up. And I suckered her into the task....

It was 4:30 PM. This is significant because this is usually when Alice and I head home from work for the day, and Alice always has a HUGE poop cooked up. I walked with her outside to see if I could get her to go before we started coping, but no luck. She knew something was up and didn't poop.

So we started the coping procedure in the nature center lobby (on a tile floor in case she pooped.) It took a couple of tries for everyone to get a proper hold on Alice, and after the first unsuccessful attempt, Alice let loose with her enormous "morning" poop. My former co-worker cleaned it up, so she was really getting a taste of what it's like to be in my husband's shoes.

Alice of course did a loud, screaming chitter as we grabbed her and got situated. I always feel really bad--probably something like a mom who's baby is getting a painful shot. But Alice must be getting used to the whole coping thing--she settled down and stopped screaming after a few seconds and let Jeff do his work. It seems like she's figured out it goes faster if she doesn't struggle....

It only takes Jeff a couple of minutes to do the actual grinding. Then we let her stand up on my glove and get her bearings. Thankfully she's very quick to forgive.

I let her hop to her normal work perch where she proceeded to rouse (shake her feathers to get them back in place), droop her wings, and pant. She was hot/stressed from the ordeal, so I let her just chill out (literally--in the air conditioning).

Now she has a nice-looking beak again. I figured it wouldn't be as sharp, but when she bit my forearm right between the bones the next morning when I was leashing her up I changed my mind on that issue. It hurt, and left a nice mark!

Friday, June 03, 2005

New Jesses

Every year or so, Alice's jesses (the leather strap doo-jobbies on her ankles) get a little stiff and need to be replaced. This is not a fun job.

When I flew American Kestrels as a falconer I made the jesses myself. They were always the new style which consists of an anklet piece secured by a grommet and a separate removable strap that goes through the grommet. The idea is if the bird ever gets away, it could pull the straps out and wouldn't likely get hung up on a tree branch.

Since Alice doesn't fly free, I can use the traditional jesses on her. These are a single leather strap with a few slits in them. After flipping, twisting, inserting here and pulling there, they can be put on and are pretty much unremovable by the bird (but are removable by the human.)

I've always ordered the traditional jesses pre-made for Alice, but this year I decided to make them myself. I used thick kangaroo hide softened with Neat's-foot oil. And now you're saying "Kangaroo hide?!?" This is a fairly standard leather for falconry purposes because it is strong yet soft. It's only obtained from legally harvested kangaroos in Australia. And it's not cheap.

So once I had the new jesses cut, oiled and properly twisted, it was time to put them on Alice. She doesn't like this, which makes it into an ordeal.

In the past we've enlisted the "use" of a neighbor's dog while Alice and I are in my parked vehicle nearby. Alice is quite afraid of strange dogs, so she usually ignores whatever I'm doing to her to watch the dog. But changing out her jesses bugs her enough that she ignores the dog for brief seconds here and there to bite my hands--HARD. Yes, this often results in some superficial wounds.

This year we tried something different. We brought Alice out into our screen porch one evening, and she perched on my knee. (I was wearing jeans.) She's always a little leery until she gets a feel for where our dog is and what he's doing. As she craned her neck to find the dog, I calmly changed out her jesses....and didn't get bit once! (This was especially good since her beak was extra sharp and long and in need of trimming. More on that in the next Alice News.)

Hopefully the screen porch tactic will work in the future. Our dog will be 15 (in human years!) this year, though, so he may not be able to hold up his unknown-to-him part of the bargain.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Great Horned Owl Protection Bill Signed By Governor

Well, it's official! Apparently everyone figured it was high time the Great Horned Owl got off the "unprotected birds" list in Minnesota so that state law agreed with federal law (under which they are considered protected.)

The House of Representatives voted unanimously to pass the bill, the Senate voted unanimously to do the same, and the Governor signed the bill on Friday, May 17. The new law goes into effect on August 1, 2005.

What does this mean for Alice? It means I now need to get a state permit to have her like I'd need for any other raptor. The woman in charge of permits can expect me on her doorstep at 8:00 AM on August 1st.

How did Alice celebrate? She brought her leftover gopher head into our bedroom last night and ate it on our bed.