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!

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Alice's First Flight

OK, so it wasn't THAT dramatic. But Alice flew for the first time in her life this past Sunday, with much assistance from flight instructor Dale Scobie of Spring Grove, MN.
Alice broke her wing when she fell from her nest at only three weeks of age. Her wing damage is permanent, leaving her unable to fly or live in the wild, hence her job working at the Houston Nature Center. So she has never flown....

Several people were quite concerned that flying in an airplane would be anything but fun for Alice. Marge Gibson, Alice's rehabilitator, has transported Bald Eagles in small aircraft before, and they spent the whole time looking out the window. It seemed likely Alice might like it too, so we did a trial run taxiing around on the runway to make sure Alice would be OK with it, and it didn't phase her one bit.

After a bid off between Ellyn Baumann and Ron Evenson at the Festival of Owls' banquet auction, Ron paid $260 for the privilege of being the person to fly with Alice for the first time, and he passed those honors on to his son Matt.

The flight was to have taken place on Sunday, March 4, during the Festival of Owls. The weather had thankfully cleared by then and would have been great for flying. But the Caledonia airport hadn't been cleared of snow yet! So the flight was postponed a week to March 11.
Again, the weather was sunny and nice, but this time the runway was clear and we were good to go.

First I put Alice's box into the back seat of the Cessna, then I put Alice in her box. I climbed in next to her, and Matt took the front seat next to Dale. After many photos, we were off.
I think Alice was a bit stressed by the noise and commotion of getting airborne (she had her beak open just slightly), but once we were up, she took it like a drive in the car. No big deal one way or the other.

We flew to Houston, which only took a few minutes. There we circled town while Thomas Hibbs had the honor of blowing the siren to announce our flight. It was at this point my stomach started to have some input on the flight.

I've flown in small airplanes before. In elementary school my family twice flew to northwestern Minnesota where my mom is from with Doc Bender. No problems that I remember then. And as a junior in high school I flew with Greg Wenness around the area—a prize from our After Prom Party. No queasiness then either, despite circling my parents' farm.

But that last flight in a small plane was 13 years ago. Wow does time fly. Apparently my stomach didn't remember that we had done this before.

By the time we were circling our place, thoughts of locating our local wild Great Horned Owl nest from the air were starting to fade. I did look hard, and Dale did an excellent job of giving me clear views of the hillsides, but my stomach was starting to override the fun.

I don't think I was green (but probably pale), and I didn't lie when asked how I was holding up. Dale then took us up higher where the flying was smoother and pointed us toward Spring Grove. That helped.

After a few more minutes, we were circling Pastor Lane Zaffke's farm and looking down at the folks waving back to us from the sugar shack—Ron and Larry I presume. By now Alice was spending her time looking out the window as I concentrated on calming my stomach.

As we headed back to Caledonia to the airport, I noticed one of Alice's eyes was starting to close. I guess she was so thrilled by the whole ordeal that she was going to celebrate by taking a nap! Guess it didn't bother her or excite her much either way. But then again, she is a commuter owl.

A huge thanks goes to Dale Scobie for donating this flight, both for Alice and to raise money for the Houston Nature Center. And thanks to Ron for bidding so high on the auction!

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Festival of Owls 2007

Photo (c) Houston Banner
Left to right: Denver Holt, Mary Bethe Wright, Owly the Short-eared Owl, Laura Erickson, Dorothy Purge, Tony Warburton, Clive Mojonnier, Karla Kinstler, Alice the Great Horned Owl

Photo (c) Alan Stankevitz,
Denver Holt, Karla Kinstler, and Alice the Great Horned Owl's back

The weather was looking pretty hairy in the days leading up to the Festival of Owls. I figured the weather would be OK by the weekend, but I started to sweat bullets when our first flight in was canceled.

The Festival of Owls may not be the hugest event in Houston, but it sure does draw people (presenters, award winners, and participants) from all over Timbuktu. Flights were due in from England, Alaska, Jamaica, and Montana. I myself have only flown once in the last 15 years, but I figured out how to set up e-mail notifications from the airlines if our expected flights were delayed or canceled. Those notifications only worked all too well.

The guys from England had their flight to La Crosse from Chicago canceled, but were thankfully able to catch a flight later that evening. The flight from Alaska was canceled 24 hours in advance, but was rescheduled to come in Friday morning (and thankfully made it only an hour or two late.) The Jamaican flight got the same treatment in Chicago as the English flight: the flight to La Crosse was canceled, but a later flight was possible. The one that really had me sweating was the one from Montana carrying our keynote speaker, Denver Holt, President of the Owl Research Institute.

Denver called just before his flight left to say that the flight was leaving, but they were making no guarantees about landing in Minneapolis. His connecting flight to La Crosse was already canceled. To make a long story short, his flight miraculously landed on time in Minneapolis and Laura Erickson, another of our wonderful speakers, swooped in to pick him up at the airport and deliver him safely to Houston...after driving 30 mph all the way from Duluth. Thank you Laura!
With everyone here safe and sound, we started to get cancellations for the banquet. But the caterer could make it, and since rescheduling would have been virtually impossible, the show went on with about 75% of the people attending. Their trek through bad weather was well worth it.

Not only is Denver Holt incredibly knowledgeable, but he is a very animated, passionate speaker with a great sense of humor. I figured he must get a good aerobic workout with every presentation he gives, and someone else commented that he must be a good dancer given his moves up on stage. We all had a great time learning about the Snowy Owls breeding in Alaska, and are probably happy NOT to be the researchers trekking 12-15 miles per day surveying these birds.

Then came the World Owl Hall of Fame award presentations. Last year these awards were just North American in scope, but this year they were expanded to the global level. We were very blessed to have both Tony Warburton, Honorary President of the World Owl Trust and Owly the Short-eared Owl from the Bird Treatment and Learning Center in Alaska in the audience to receive their respective awards in person.

Tony has done so much for owls over the past 40 years that he is considered the forefather of owl conservation in the UK. He even wore a tie when receiving his award, which his friend and colleague who came with him, Clive Mojonnier, said NEVER happens! (Sounds about like me wearing a dress....) I don't think anyone who met Tony and Clive will forget their accents and fun-loving attitudes. Despite being colder than they've ever been in their lives on the Saturday evening adult owl prowl, both pronounced the Festival of Owls “brilliant.”

Owly the Short-eared Owl was accompanied by one of his handlers, Mary Bethe Wright from the Bird Treatment and Learning Center in Anchorage, Alaska. His main handler, Barbara Doak, didn't feel up to the flight as she is an octogenarian. Owly received the Lady Gray'l Award for his work teaching humans that there is more to an owl's health than just the physical; that a visually impaired owl can forge incredible connections with blind and visually impaired humans; and for inspiring an autistic child to being speaking for the first time in his life. Both Mary Bethe and Owly were a delight to be around all weekend, and made appearances at storytime, the live owl programs, and at Alice's hatch-day party. Pretty good for an owl of advanced age!

Friday evening finished off with our first ever LIVE auction. Top items were going up with Alice in an airplane for her very first flight ($260) and a set of days-of-the-week owl dish towels that went for $160. (My Grandma made them and my Dad bought them for me!) All in all the live auction over doubled the proceeds from last year's silent auction.

Saturday was the big family day, and thankfully the weather had mostly abated as crews worked diligently to clear the latest snow from our streets (and around our festival signs!) Marge Gibson of the Raptor Education Group drove down from Antigo, Wisconsin that morning after much snow. Despite going in the ditch less than a mile from her house, having to use 4-wheel drive most of the way, and getting up at 4 AM, she arrived with her assistant Steve and owls in one piece with time to spare. Marge's programs are always something special, and this was no exception. Mary Bethe and Owly were neatly woven into the programs along with Alice, to make for a whopping SEVEN different species of owls!

Thanks to some of our board members, there were all kinds of new kids activities. There were a variety of owl crafts plus a station where kids could get banded after having some measurements taken, just like owls. And of course kids could get their faces painted like an owl and make origami owls as in years past. There was also an owl bake sale, and almost nothing remained by the end of the day Saturday!

Laura Erickson again led her famous pellet dissections. I don't think anyone could give more information about owl digestion than Laura! As author of “101 Ways to Help Birds”, Laura also gave a marvelous presentation about what WE can do to help owls specifically, and specially adapted it to highlight the organizations participating in the Festival of Owls.

Our frozen English guests as well as everyone else were quite thankful for the hot chocolate and other treats following the Saturday night owl prowls. While the first two groups didn't hear owls, the adult group mustered a few Barred Owl hoots. Who can blame the owls for not saying much after probably not eating for several days during the winter storm that had just finished? But as a special treat, the moon was full and going through an eclipse during the prowls!
For the folks that came out on Sunday, there were some very special programs. Dorothy Purge from Jamaica gave a program about owls and Jamaica, and even got the Elderhostel folks attending to join in on a traditional dance at the end. Woodsy Owl, with much help from Forester Jon Sobiech, gave an excellent program for kids about planting trees and what kids can do to help the environment. All attending went home with a bag of Woodsy goodies (shoelaces, magnets, pencils, bookmarks, etc.) and a burr oak tree or two to plant. They also had tummies full of owl-shaped pizza.
Houston's wonderful German restaurant hosted Carrol Henderson's great Central American Owls program. It may have been a small crowd, but they got a great program and Rosie's sumptuous food. Previous to this Carrol had led an owl nest box building class at the gym. Who better to teach such a class than the man who wrote the book “Woodworking for Wildlife”?
With blue sunny skies on Sunday, it was a bit strange to have Alice's first flight (in an airplane) canceled. But apparently no one had bothered to plow out the tiny little county airport we were to fly out of yet, so the flight didn't happen. It has been rescheduled for Sunday, March 11 at 1:00 PM.
It's impossible to give a rundown of all Festival details in any kind of space short of writing a book. If you want to know more, talk to one of the 350-400 people who attended, and plan to attend yourself next year!
While I tend to get credit for this event, it's important for everyone to know that it would not be possible to pull off such an event without a huge number of volunteers, many of whom put in untold hours of planning and preparation. I don't dare to even begin to mention names because I probably don't even know everyone who helped! You know who you are, from the landowners who made arrangements for owl prowls to our dedicated Friends of the Houston Nature Center board, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for making this a successful event that is helping to put Houston on the global map!
And I would like to extend a very special thank you to all of our presenters who drove and flew into a blizzard to make this event happen. What dedication!
The 2008 Festival of Owls will be held February 29 through March 2, with C. Stuart Houston, a man who has banded over 7,000 Great Horned Owls (and has half a million other credits to his name) as keynote speaker. Just remember "Houston in Houston 2008"!

(c) Alan Stankevitz,

Mary Bethe Wright, Owly the Short-eared Owl with the Lady Gray'l award, and Karla Kinstler

(c) Alan Stankevitz,

Tony Warburton with the Champion of Owl award and Karla Kinstler

(c)Alan Stankevitz,

Marge Gibson and Little Bit the Northern Saw-whet Owl

(c)Alan Stankevitz,