Eagles and other raptors captivate crowd

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PERSEUS, a barred owl was one of the birds shown at the live bird presentation at the Prairie du Chien Bald Eagle Appreciation Days event. The presenter explained how owls had adapted to become silent, nighttime hunters.

OTIS THE PEREGRINE is a falcon, a nine-year-old male, and a representative of a species considered to be the fastest animal on Planet Earth.

VALKYRIE THE EAGLE was the clear star of the show. A 12-year-old female bald eagle, she exited her cage with spirited chatter, but remained calm like the experienced performer she is.

By Gilliam Pomplum

A beautiful day on Saturday, Feb. 25, sandwiched between two late winter storms, drew a large and enthusiastic crowd for ‘Prairie du Chien Bald Eagle Appreciation Days.’ The gymnasium at Hoffman Hall was filled with families that came out to hear Cheyenne Smith, Raptor Educator with the Schlitz Aud-bon Nature Center, discuss raptors and to view a variety of live birds.
For those that missed the fun, the Ferryville Tourism Council and Friends of Pool 9 will offer ‘Eagle Day’ at the Ferryville Village Hall on Saturday, March 4, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. The free, family-friendly event will offer beloved events like eagle nest building for children, a live eagle program, a hooting contest for all ages, and more.
The Schlitz Audubon Nature Preserve is located on a property on the shores of Lake Michigan that once raised draft horses for the Schlitz Brewery. Described as “Milwaukee’s comprehensive nature center,” the facility offers six miles of trails that take visitors through 185 unique acres of forests, wetlands, restored prairies, ravines, bluffs and shoreline. The property is designated as an ‘Important Bird Area’ because of the habitat it provides for waterfowl.
The organization’s web-site describes their conservation philosophy:
“At Schlitz Audubon, we have a comprehensive and dynamic Conservation Plan to create a more biologically and visually diverse landscape. Our conservation philosophy takes inspiration from the land ethic of Wisconsin ecologist and writer Aldo Leopold - “A thing is right when it tends to pre-serve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
The birds
There is no question that the highlight of the event was the showing of six different live birds – a screech owl, a barn owl, a red-tail hawk, a Peregrine falcon, a turkey vulture, and a bald eagle.
“We founded our Raptor Program as a way to help educate the public about these dynamic birds, and their importance to the eco-system,” Smith explained. “Every one of our resident birds is not releasable to the wild, and are in our permanent care. They have taken up the mantle of feathered ambassadors, and are dedicated to providing information about their wild relatives, habitat concerns, and issues facing raptors today.”
The first birds shown at the presentation were both members of the owl family, one of the many species of birds known as ‘raptors.’ Owls are characterized by the adaptations they have developed to support their nighttime hunting behavior. Those adaptations include big, round eyes (so large they take up 75 percent of the bird’s skull), a flexible neck allowing almost 360-degree rotation of their head, and a flat face, which serves to funnel sound to their ears.
Willow, the Screech Owl, was found on a sidewalk in Milwaukee, and had lost the ability to extend one of her wings. Perseus was found in a park in the city, and be-cause humans interacted with her, she lost the ability to survive in the wild be-cause she was “imprinted.”
“One of the key features of owl’s feathers is that they are shaped to allow for silent flight,” Smith explained. “The adaptations that allow this are softness of the feathers, and a serrated edge.”
The next bird to be shown was Skywalker, a female red-tail hawk. The bird is 24-years-old, and has lived at the Schlitz Audubon facility her entire life. Be-cause she was removed from her nest by a human, she is ‘human imprinted,’ and so unable to survive in the wild.
“Hawks are very adaptable birds, able to survive in a wide variety of habitats,” Smith explained. “Because they are generalists, they can eat a wide variety of food and aren’t particularly picky eaters.”
Smith said that Skywalker weighs four pounds, and can carry prey that weighs up to a third of her body weight, dispelling the myth that raptors are a danger to pets. She said that in different environments, hawks will have varying appearances to better camouflage them. For instance, in the Great Plains they tend to be lighter in color, and in Alaska they tend to be very dark in color.
Peregrine Falcons
Peregine falcons were the next up in the presentation, represented by Otis, a nine-year-old male.
“You are in the presence of what is considered to be the fastest animal on Earth – the Peregrine falcon,” Smith told the crowd. “When they dive in a ‘stoop,’ they can achieve speeds of up to 240 miles-per-hour.”
Smith explained that some of the adaptations that allow Peregrine’s to achieve these speeds include sharp, ‘boomerang’ shaped wings that can cut through the air with less resistance, and a ‘tubecule’ or bone in the center of their beak that allows the bird to breathe while travelling at high speeds.
“Peregrines are not generalist feeders like hawks,” Smith said. “What they eat are other birds that they capture in mid-air.”
Tallulah, a 19-year-old turkey vulture was the next bird to be displayed. According to Smith, she is at the center because she was imprinted as a chick by human contact.
“Turkey Vultures are characterized by their strong sense of smell, which al-lows them to smell some-thing that is dead from far away,” Smith explained. “The bird only eats things that are dead, and so, function as nature’s clean up crew.”
Smith said the reason the turkey vulture has no feathers on its head is so it can stay clean while feeding on dead animals. She said that the birds have an extremely acidic stomach that allows them to consume things that would kill another bird – even botulism, polio and anthrax.
Eagles star of show
It was ‘Eagle Appreciation Day,’ and there’s no question that Valkyrie, a 12-year-old bald eagle was the star of the show.
“There are 60 different species of eagles across the planet, and they can be found on every continent except for Antarctica,” Smith explained. “Eagles are primarily known by their primary food source, so there are snake eagles, fish eagles, and more.”
Smith said the two most common eagles in North America are the golden eagle and the bald eagle. She pointed out that eagles had almost been wiped out be-cause of use of the pesticide DDT, which weakened the shells of their eggs and made them vulnerable to being crushed by the weight of the adult birds.
“DDT was really good at killing insects, and also really good at seeping into the food web from the bot-tom up,” Smith said. “The result is that the toxin will accumulate in the largest predators.”
Smith said that DDT had been banned from use in 1972, and the Endangered Species Act passed in 1973 by the U.S. Congress. She said that in 1972, there were only 108 eagle nests left in the U.S. By contrast, in 2019, there were over 1,700 nests.
“The current issue that is threatening raptors and other wildlife is lead poisoning,” Smith pointed out. “Lead is used in fishing tackle and ammunition, and what the birds need to survive is smarter hunting and fishing, avoiding use of gear containing lead.”
Smith said that eagles, like other raptors, are characterized by adaptations in their feet, eyes, beaks and talons, which aid them in hunting for food. She said that the primary diet of bald eagles is fish, which is why they are commonly found near water. She said that they build their nests in the springtime, and nests will typically be four-to-six feet across and two-to-three feet deep. She said that eagles mate for life, and will find each other in the spring even if they have separated for the winter to migrate in search of food.
“Eagles are a mix of a food generalist and a food specialist,” Smith explained. “Fish is their preferred diet, but they will also hunt mammals, scavenge, and steal food from other birds.”
Smith said that eagles have incredible vision that can allow them to see prey over a mile away, and even see fish a foot or two under water. Their feet have special ‘skidules’ that help them to grip onto slippery fish.

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