Wednesday, July 08, 2009

4th of July Coping

Alice went to the dentist on the 4th of July. At least she experienced the owl version of going to the dentist, since owls don't have teeth.

Owl bills (beaks) grow continuously, in some miraculous fashion that is self-sharpening. In the wild the bill is worn down through exposure to hot and cold, wet and dry, and by feaking (rubbing) the bill on perches after eating to wipe off those leftover bits of meat. In captivity Alice doesn't eat as much and isn't exposed to the elements, so her bill needs to be trimmed every now and then to prevent it from getting overgrown.

Alice sometimes bites me when I pick her up off her perch to take her someplace. When she's getting a little "long in the tooth", her bill is more like a fang, and it really hurts even if she's not biting hard. And believe me, it was high time to get that weapon trimmed down a bit.

Erica Broberg from St. Charles, Minnesota was my falconry sponsor back in the 1990s. Her husband Jeff has had lots of practice trimming the bills on Erica's birds over the years, so he more often than not is the one who serves as Alice's "dentist."

As it happened, the 4th of July wound up being the day that worked to do the deed. Alice and I were working, so Jeff and Erica met us at the Houston Nature Center toward the end of the day. I cleared off the front desk, since Alice usually winds up flapping her wings pretty good, which sends everything that's not tied down flying. I also fished out my elbow length gloves for the job while Jeff got his Dremmel ready to go.

I put on the hefty gloves and had Alice step back onto my left gloved hand as usual. Then I reached in with my right hand and firmly grabbed her "ankles." This of course causes screaming protests from Alice and some wing flapping. Erica helped me gather Alice's wings against her body, then I held Alice's back against my chest with my left hand.

Jeff took Alice's head in his hand and started grinding away with the Dremmel. The tip of the upper mandible especially needed to be ground down. Once Jeff got going Alice behaved and didn't wiggle much. I think she's learned that struggling doesn't help. Besides the tip, Jeff also ground down the tops of the sides of the lower mandible, as the left side was flaring out.

In a few minutes it was all over. I let Alice stand on my glove again, then promptly put her back on her work perch in front of the office window. She gave a huge rouse (puffed up and shook her feathers like a dog), drooped her wings and started panting. The drooped wings and panting are the owl way of cooling down. After all, being manhandled, even if only for a few minutes, is quite stressful.

Thanks to Jeff for doing the coping and Erica for taking the photos to share.