My Neighbors are Raptors

I recently began working with the World Bird Sanctuary on a project to improve their trail network. The sanctuary cares for many birds of prey and is located in the St. Louis area in Missouri. Check out their Facebook page to see cool pictures and videos! My work with birds began with an internship at the sanctuary in 2010. That experience stirred my passion for conservation and birds and influenced the career decisions I’ve made over the past 6+ years. From handling a Golden Eagle, to marching up to 12 miles a day in the hot sun along the Gulf Coast, to being held-up at gunpoint while doing bird surveys on a Navy base, I’ve had some interesting experiences working with birds. Besides, who wouldn’t want to spend their life working with birds after being bitten and scratched by ravens, hawks, eagles, owls, and vultures? Cleaning up bird poop and preparing fine meals by gutting fish, rabbits, rats, and venison is also a bonus.

Some of the raptors that I worked with during my internship in 2010.

I’m staying on site and my room is connected to a building which houses some of the raptors which are trained for education. Many of the raptors kept at the sanctuary either cannot be released into the wild due to injuries, or have been raised by the sanctuary for educational purposes. During the day, many of the birds here spend time outside in weathering areas, which allow them to get some fresh air and sunshine. At night, they are moved indoors and provided dinner. Seeing powerful birds up close and playing a part in their conservation is an awesomely rewarding experience! There are also a number of birds staying in mews, which are structures built to house raptors. Right now, my neighbors include Bald Eagles, hawks, owls, and vultures. There are also two young Barn Owls next door that will potentially become educational flyers and ambassadors for the sanctuary. Finally, there are two Thick-billed Parrots which like to pretend they are Laughing Kookaburras. As you might imagine, my “neighborhood” is not very quiet!

A few of my new neighbors. Clockwise from top left – Livia the Red-tailed Hawk, Patriot the Bald Eagle, Desi the Hooded Vulture, and Goblin the Barn Owl.

Last night, I had a very tiny visitor – a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird. There are a number of songbirds that live in the area as well as some groundhogs, possums, and a family of Raccoons! I’m fortunate to have such interesting neighbors and am looking forward to working closely with raptors again. As I’m finishing this blog, I can hear Orion (one of the young Barn Owls next door) making loud rasping noises. His roommate Whisper is quieter and rarely makes a sound. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go make a bunch of bird calls and eat some rats to fit in with my neighbors.





Birds in Pop Culture

What famous superheroes and villains have bird-like abilities or appearances? How many professional sports teams in the U.S. incorporate birds into their logo? What bird call is often used by shows and movies to represent both vultures and eagles?  Why do storks carry babies? How large are the eagles in Lord of the Rings? Can roadrunners really outrun coyotes? This blog will dive into the influence of birds in pop culture and reveal some interesting facts. I’ll try my best not to make up stories along the way. 

Image result for bald eagle arkive

Who wouldn’t want to fly like an eagle?

We seem to be in the golden age of superheroes. The upcoming slate of movies is extensive, not to mention the dozens of movies that came out in the last few years.  Superhero TV shows are also rising, and there seems to be no end in sight. You probably know that many superbeings can fly like an eagle, but what about a vulture? The upcoming Spiderman flick is set to have a villain named The Vulture, who uses an electromagnetic harness and wings to increase his strength and take flight. Vultures are often excellent fliers, using updrafts from cliff faces or rising currents of warm air called thermals to soar and glide across the sky with minimal flapping. Unlike the Spiderman villain, vultures are not deadly killers and prefer to scavenge on carrion. Birds of prey are often viewed as strong and fierce, so it’s not surprising that two of the more famous “bird” superheroes are Falcon and Hawkman. Falcon is shown in the recent Marvel movies to have sharp vision and the ability to fly and dive at high speeds using special technology. The real-life Peregrine Falcon is the fastest creature on earth and can dive at speeds of over 220 mph!

Image result for falcon marvel Image result for peregrine falcon flying

Left – Marvel hero Falcon. Right – speed hero Peregrine Falcon.

Image result for vulture spiderman  Turkey vulture stretching its wings


At least 15 pro sports teams in the U.S. include a bird in some version of their logo, ranging from songbirds to raptors to . . . the Mighty Ducks! There is even a soccer team in Minnesota that uses a loon in its logo! If they turn off the lights in the arena and play a loon call, that could be eerie and intimidate their opponents. There are also some really interesting bird choices for some college teams. Among my favorites are the Endicott Power Gulls, the Oglethorpe Stormy Petrels, and the Oregon Tech Hustlin’ Owls. There are also over 70 collegiate teams that use some kind of eagle in their name, which brings me to my next point. Most of the time when an eagle is pictured in a show or movie, the call used is that of a Red-tailed Hawk. One possible reason for this is that the Bald Eagle has a wimpy sounding call, while the screaming call of the Red-tail sounds more fierce. I’ve even noticed that Red-tailed Hawk calls are used for vultures in scenes from Westerns!

Image result for oregon tech hustlin owls Image result for minnesota soccer

The exact origin of the myth that storks carry babies is unclear, but the stories most likely originated from German folklore. This concept became more widespread after a story about storks was written by Hans Christian Anderson. I just read the tale and . . . well let’s just say that the story is unusual and a little disturbing. Anyway, storks have been unfairly villainized due to their evil deeds in Lord of the Rings. There is a sword named “Sing” that glows and plays bird songs every time a stork is near. I guess you want me to put a stork in this joke? I will as soon as I finish eating some stork chops. Speaking of Lord of the Rings, giant eagles play small, but important roles in The Hobbit and in The Return of the King. The movies portray them as very large and impressive birds, but what about Tolkien’s books? There is one reference from the Silmarillion that states that Thorondor, the mightiest of the eagles, had a wingspan of 30 fathoms. As one fathom = six feet, Thorondor’s wings stretched about 180 feet!! Just the wind force from him flapping his wings could have probably taken out quite a few enemies! In comparison, a Golden Eagle has a wingspan of up to 7.5 feet.

White stork landing with nesting material Proof: Gandalf Planned on Flying to Mount Doom

Left – White Stork preparing for babies by practicing with a stick. Right – art showing Gandalf riding on an eagle in LOTR.

Now for the answer to the question that you’ve been dying to know: could Roadrunner truly beat Wile E Coyote in a footrace? Coyotes can reach speeds over 40 mph, while the Greater Roadrunner can run about 15-20 mph. However, Roadrunner was much larger than the average roadrunner and had really long legs, so I believe it’s possible that he could run close to 50 mph. On a side note, roadrunners are most commonly found in deserts in the southwestern U.S., which is why many of the classic cartoons were set in the desert. Also, roadrunners are related to cuckoos and are active predators, even feasting on venomous lizards, scorpions, and snakes! Roadrunners will sometimes work in pairs to kill a snake, with one bird distracting the snake while the other bird goes for the head. Roadrunners will also eat eggs, chicks, fruit, seeds, and amphibians.

Image result for roadrunner Image result for roadrunner

Left – Roadrunner’s giant feet help him make large strides. Right – Greater Roadrunner photo by Christopher Schwarz/Audubon Photography Awards.

Hopefully you’ve learned something from this brief foray into the world of birds in pop culture. Maybe you’ve also gained a deeper appreciation for the avian world and realized that you should never mess with a roadrunner. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to create an intimidating logo for a new sports team – the San Diego Sandpipers.


Jays and Eagles: A Love Story

Jays have an interesting reputation. Jay Leno is known for stand-up comedy, a great car collection, and a large chin. Jay Z is a famous rapper and music producer who boldly named his daughter Blue Ivy. Then you have Blue Jays, perky birds that work in flocks, munch on nuts, and pirate eggs from other songbirds. Hmm . . . if Jay Z joined the Blue Man Group, would he become Blue Jay Z? Anyway, jays are known for harassing large birds of prey such as eagles. However, sometimes love can arise out of conflict. This is a story about a jay falling for a Harpy Eagle, one of the largest and fiercest eagles in the world, and how their flocks come together despite interference by magpies (cousins of jays). I know I know, eagles don’t travel in flocks. They do in desperate times. By the way, harpys have been known to take down sloths and monkeys! Now I present you with my take on a modern wedding song (“You and Me” by Lifehouse).

Blue jay adult portraitHarpy eagle, front view  Magpie portrait

A match made in heaven cannot be ruined by magpies.

Blue and Harpy
(Sung to the tune of Lifehouse’s “You and Me”)

What jay is that? And in what tree?
This flock never seemed so alive
I can’t keep up and I just can’t see
All the birds that are blowing my mind

Cause it’s Blue and Harpy, with all of the eagles
There’s flying to do, no time to lose
And it’s Blue and Harpy, and all of the eagles
And I don’t know why, I can’t keep magpies off of you

All of the things that you want to say
Just aren’t coming out right
I know it’s because, you’re just a jay
But can’t you just call out in flight?

Cause it’s Blue and Harpy, with all of the eagles
There’s flying to do, no time to lose
And it’s Blue, Harpy, and all of the eagles
And I don’t know why, I can’t keep magpies off of you

Something about your face
So full of brilliant gray
Everything she does is powerful
Everything she does shows might

Cause it’s Blue and Harpy, with all of the eagles
There’s flying to do, no time to lose
And it’s Blue and Harpy, and all of the eagles
And I don’t know why, I can’t keep magpies off of
Blue and Harpy, with all of the eagles
There’s flying to do, no time to lose
And it’s Blue and Harpy, and all of the eagles
And I don’t know why, I can’t keep magpies off of you
What jay is that? And in what tree?
This flock never seemed so alive

How to Identify Backyard Birds: Part 3

What’s the difference between a hawk and an eagle?  What about a vulture and a falcon?  If you’ve ever spent sleepless nights wondering about such questions, then this blog is for you.  If you love to watch birds of prey or want to know more about them, then this blog is for you.  If you want to learn a few more tips on how to identify birds you might see in your yard or at the park, this blog’s for you.  If you like watching cartoon birds, this blog’s for you.  And if the only thing you like about birds is shooting them or eating them, well, I just might have something that suits your fancy.  In the third post in my bird identification series, birds of prey are the focus.  Now on to the birds!

In my last post on identifying birds, I mentioned the importance of looking at the shape of a bird’s body and bill.  Let’s use those features to examine birds of prey.  First of all, what are the differences between hawks, eagles, falcons and vultures?  Here is a picture to illustrate some of the differences.

 (Silhouettes picture from Hilton Pond Center)

Here is where looking at the shape of a bird can really come in handy.  Take a look at the silhouette of the falcon.  Notice that falcons have narrow, point wings and a long thin tail.  If you’re wondering what in the world a buteo or an accipiter is, don’t worry, I’ve hidden a secret message in this blog that explains them.  A harrier is a kind of hawk that has a face shaped similar to an owl, which allows for a great sense of hearing.  Ospreys are pretty cool birds that I have often seen when vacationing in Florida.

adult femaleAdult female

(Top – Northern Harrier photo from  Bottom – Osprey photo copyright Kim Taylor, VA, August 2009)

Ospreys are unique among raptors in that they dive to catch fish.  Their wing shape is also different from most hawks.  Pay attention to the ‘M’ the body seems to form while in flight.  Ospreys are usually found near bodies of water and due to their fish-hunting efficiency, are often the target of eagles who are hungry for an easy meal.  Bad pirates!  Now do you want to know what a buteo is?  I’ll tell you as soon as the U.S. is no longer in debt.  Okay, okay.  Buteos are hawks which have large, broad rounded wings and fan-like tails.  Most hawks that you see soaring over your neighborhood or in the country are buteos.  Accipiters are hawks that dwell in wooded areas and have short wings and long tails that enable them to quickly fly through the trees.   Because they spend a lot of time in the woods and tend to shy away from heavily inhabited areas, accipiters are seen less often than buteos.  Here are some pictures to help you visual the differences between these two groups of hawks.


(Left – Red-tailed Hawk, Right – Cooper’s Hawk.  Photos from Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

Take a close looks at the hawks above.  Which one is a buteo and which one is an accipiter?  Check out the size of the wings and the shape of the tails.  The Red-tailed Hawk is a buteo and the Cooper’s Hawk is an accipiter.  Red-tailed Hawks are prevalent throughout the U.S. and can be seen in almost any habitat.  I often see Red-tails perching on a tree or powerline near roads.  Cooper’s Hawks, often called sparrowhawks, are shy birds but there is a female that has been visiting my house lately and even landed by my patio.  She is possibly being attracted by the tasty buffet of songbirds feeding on birdseed.  I should also point out the presence of bands on the Cooper’s tail, which can prove helpful in identification.

Okay, here is another test, see if you can figure out which of the birds below is a falcon, which is a buteo hawk and which is an accipiter hawk.

Juvenile Light morph

(Pictures from Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

Now let’s take a quick look at eagles and vultures.  Eagles are heavy raptors with long wings and large, hooked bills.  Vultures are not as large as eagles and have smaller heads and bills.  Here are some pictures for comparison.

Adult in flightJuvenile

(Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

Obviously, vultures and eagles have very different heads.  Here the Turkey Vulture’s pink head stands out.  But if you saw these birds flying high in the air, shape and flight patterns would be important.  This is an example of where behavior comes into play.  Vultures tend to flap their wings in short bursts and soar in a v-shape with wobbly flight patterns while the flight of eagles is more level with slow, powerful wing movements.  Also, the Turkey Vulture’s wingspan is around 65-70 inches while Golden Eagles, like the one shown above, have wingspans between 73 and 86 inches.  Discerning between vultures can be tricky as immature Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures both have grayish heads.  Black Vultures are a bit smaller and tend to fly with their wings flat, instead of the v-shaped posture of the Turkey Vultures.  Also, Black Vultures have white primary feathers near their wingtips.  Think of them as wearing gloves.  Here are pictures for illustration.

Adult in flight

Most of the time you would be able to distinguish an eagle from a hawk by the size and coloration of the bird.  Besides their larger size, eagles also have larger beaks.  In the U.S. we only have two common eagle species, so if you have the eyes of a hawk you would easily pick out an eagle with practice.  Of course, identification can be very tricky with immature Bald Eagles and Golden Eagles, but that’s a topic for another time.


(Left – Golden Eagle, Right – Zone-tailed Hawk –> Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

Well, I’ve decided to write one more blog on identifying birds which will be posted this week.  I still want to examine behavior and habitat and songs.  I’ll also tell a few stories about my birding adventures.  In case you’re wondering, a roadrunner is a real bird that runs through the deserts of the western U.S.  Could a coyote catch a roadrunner?  Who is the greatest cartoon bird of all time?  I’ll have the answers to those questions and more in my next blog!  One more thing, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology just came out with a really cool bird ID app.  The app is free and helps you identify birds by asking questions and showing pictures.  If you have an iphone or ipad, be sure to this out –> Merlin Bird ID

Fly Like an Eagle

Eagles are such powerful and majestic birds, which is why the Bald Eagle was chosen as the national symbol for the U.S.  Eagles have powerful talons and huge wingspans.  In part 3 of my series on birds of prey, I want to take a look at eagles AND falcons.  I’m sure your heart is literally beating faster than Usain Bolt right now.  I get adrenaline rushes just from thinking about falcons.  If you missed out on my posts about vultures and hawks, check out the blog links on the right sidebar.

The Bald Eagle is the most recognizable raptor in the U.S. with its bold white head and tail.  Now these eagles normally have a full head of feathers so you may be wondering why they are called ‘Bald’.  Well this actually comes from the word ‘balde’, which is an old English term for white.  Young Bald Eagles are darker and often do not develop the distinctive white head until around their 4th or 5th year.  Hmm . . . all I remember about turning 4 years old was my totally awesome Cookie Monster cake.  Anyway, the Bald Eagle usually has a wingspan between 6 and 7 feet and weighs between 8 and 14 pounds.  You want to know something interesting?  Female raptors are generally larger than males and this holds true for eagles.  I bet that makes for some awkward conversations in the nest.  “Hey honey, do you think I look fat?”  “No dear, you’re just 50% heavier than me.”  Speaking of nests, Bald Eagles are capable of constructing enormous nests.  According to National Geographic, the largest nest ever recorded was 9.5 feet wide, 20 feet tall and weighed more than 4,000 pounds!  I would never want to play stick pick-up with that!

Bald Eagles are viewed by many people as powerful predators, but did you know that eagles are pirates?  They often will harass a smaller raptor, such as an osprey, into giving up its catch of fish.  Ospreys are actually more efficient hunters, but eagles are opportunistic bullies.  Sometimes even a fishing mammal will have its dinner taken away by an eagle!  This tendency towards piracy was what led Benjamin Franklin to push for the turkey as our national emblem instead of the Bald Eagle.  “I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly . . .”  Personally, I’m glad Ben didn’t get his way because I would much rather eat turkey for Thanksgiving than eagle.  Bald Eagles also eat a lot of carrion and will occasionally hunt live prey such as a rabbit.


(Here I am holding Liberty, a Bald Eagle from the World Bird Sanctuary)

Now it’s time to briefly examine some lesser known members of the eagle family.  Golden Eagles are often viewed as fierce hunters, capable of taking down cranes, deer and bighorn sheep!  They also will resort to piracy at times but they seem to have a special fondness for rabbits and hares.  Golden Eagles are named for the beautiful golden-brown feathers on the back of their head and neck.  They are powerful fliers and are known for their wonderful aerial displays during courtship.  How fast can they fly?  Well, Golden Eagles have been recorded reaching speeds of almost 200 mph during a dive!  Bugs Bunny wouldn’t stand a chance against one of these incredible birds!  The largest bird I have ever handled was a Golden Eagle who weighed around 11 pounds.  11 pounds is a lot heavier than it sounds when you are balancing it on one hand while holding your arm straight!


(Golden Eagle)

Bateleur Eagles live primarily in the African plains and are very colorful members of the eagle family.  Their name comes from the French word, ‘bateleur’, which means acrobat or tumbler.  These eagles put on an beautiful display during courtship as their unusually short tail allows them to make quick maneuvers in the air.  What’s interesting is that young Bateleurs actually have longer tail feathers than their parents!  This helps them balance as they are learning how to fly.  Eventually the tail feathers grow shorter as the Bateleur molts.  Bateleurs hunt snakes, birds, mammals, and will occasionally eat insects and fish.  Like all eagles, they also will feast on carrion and are often one of the first scavengers to arrive at a fresh carcass (Peregrine Fund).


(Bateleur Eagle named Shadow that I worked with at the World Bird Sanctuary.  Note the short tail and red-orange face and legs.  Shadow liked to nip me a lot and hissed at me one time when I tried to dance with him.)

Falcons are the sleek, agile predators of the raptor world.  While hawks generally have broad wings and widespread tails, falcons have narrower wings with pointy tips and longer tails (Hope you can handle that super technical explanation).  This slick design allows the Peregrine Falcon to dive at speeds of over 200 mph!  The Peregrine Falcon is the most widespread falcon in the world as it can be found on every continent except Antarctica.  The reason they don’t live in Antarctica is that they’re deathly afraid of Adelie Penguins.  Peregrines almost became extinct in North America at one point due to pesticide poisoning from DDT.  With efforts from conservationists and ornithologists, Peregrine Falcons eventually bounced backed and today they are fairly common throughout much of the U.S.  One of the cool things about the Peregrine is that it will sometimes strike a bird in the air and then swoop back around and strike it again before it hits the ground!  They hunt primarily birds but also enjoy tasty bats and an occasional mammal.  According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Peregrine Falcons have been documented attacking at least 400 different species of birds in the U.S. alone!  When I was acting as a personal chef for Peregrine Falcons, I usually prepared them quail or chicks.

Peregrines are often a favorite of falconers and are usually well behaved birds.  One of the Peregrines at the World Bird Sanctuary had previously worked at an Air Force base to keep songbirds away from the airfields!  Why?  Because birds crashing into planes is a major problem that results in millions of dollars in damage each year and sometimes even the unfortunate loss of human life.  I love Peregrine Falcons and enjoyed working with them tremendously.  They were such cool birds and I can still hear their lovable piercing screams.


(This is me holding Lightning)

Whew!  I’m exhausted now.  Time to take a break and gear up for my final installment in the birds of prey series, which will examine owls.  Be prepared for crazy stories and lots of pictures!  May you fly like a falcon, dance like a Bateleur, and use piracy like an eagle!