Saturday, March 17, 2007

Beak Work

Talons are like toenails—they’re made out of the same stuff (keratin) and they are always growing. Beaks (or “bills” if you want to be more scientific about it) are like talons on a raptor’s face—they’re sharp and always growing.

I don’t think I’ll ever understand how it works, but beaks and talons grow in a way that makes them self-sharpening. And another aspect of beak growth has been fascinating me lately—that somehow beaks “know” how to flake and break to maintain the proper shape.

Alice’s talons get trimmed every couple of months or so, but her beak is an every year or two kind of a thing. It’s been a couple of years since it’s been coped (trimmed.)

Her upper mandible flakes off on the side to maintain its narrow size (most Great Horned Owls have wider beaks than Alice does.) And the tip of her beak almost “pinches off” and breaks when it gets a bit long. Her lower mandible has notches on the side—it has “sides” up to maybe the last few millimeters, then the sides drop off and there is just a “bottom.” These notches adjust themselves, too, as the beak grows by breaking off where appropriate.

Alice’s lower mandible has been overgrown for quite some time. I hadn’t done anything about it because I could clearly see the notches moving themselves backward and a notch forming where the front part was going to break off…in just the right spot of course.

But her lower mandible had gotten to the point that she couldn’t close her mouth completely. This didn’t seem to affect Alice at all. She could still eat fine (and is actually at the heaviest weight she’s ever been at since I got her 8 ½ years ago), and somehow she manages to hoot just fine too, even though hoots are made with the beak shut. (She must use the back of her tongue to cut off airflow to her mouth or something.)

I didn’t want to do anything before the Festival of Owls, since lopping off the chunk of the lower mandible that needed to go might be quite a radical change for Alice. But Tony Warburton, Honorary President of the World Owl Trust, said it really needed to go and that it would be a piece of cake to do it with the dog toenail trimmer I use on her talons. He said it would just pop right off if I cut where it was working on breaking off anyway.

Well, I finally got up the guts to try it. I had visions of splitting her beak, or really having to crank on it to get it off. But I gave it a shot.

Standard operating procedure for doing anything that Alice doesn’t like involves the use of a dog to get her just alarmed enough to let me do just about anything to her. So we walked next door to Korey and Jennifer Kinstler’s to “borrow” Sully, their black lab. It's handy to have relatives with a dog next door!

We changed Alice’s jesses (the leather straps on her legs) not long before the Festival with Sully’s help, so the big, black dog was fresh in Alice’s memory…even before she saw him. My husband Ken went into the garage to get Sully settled, and Alice went into full alert mode. Time to do the deed!

So I fitted Alice’s bill into the trimmer, got it lined up with the spot where it was going to go, and gave a cautious snip. It popped right off, just like Tony said it would! I shouldn’t have been surprised since Tony has been working with captive owls for 40 years…. The straight cut actually only went a few millimeters before the rest just broke off where the “abscission layer” was forming.

Sully wasn’t even out of the garage yet, so I hollered to Ken and picked up the chunk of Alice’s lower mandible. It was a sizeable chunk to have removed! Then I had a look at her beak: she could now close it properly again! That had to feel different. And when Sully came barreling out of the garage to welcome Jennifer home from work, I found out that Alice’s “clacker” didn’t work anymore.

When very alarmed, owls clack their upper and lower mandibles together, making a “clacking” sound. When you mess with the beak, it can screw up the clacking sound. Alice made no noise as she tried to clack. This will correct itself as her beak flakes, wears, and adjusts to the new length of her lower mandible.

Check out the photos to see just how much came off!

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