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BirdTLC – Update

I’ve now been to two trainings at Bird Treatment & Learning Center (BirdTLC). At the first, they talked to us about BirdTLC’s history, about basic bird anatomy and behavior, about the permits that BirdTLC has from the state and federal government, and about how to give presentations about the birds. They emphasized that these birds are not pets, but are wild, and besides maybe the corvids (crows, ravens, magpies, and jays), they are totally uninterested in us. Even the corvids, though very social and intelligent, are not really tame. After the various presentations we had the opportunity to practice handling birds—I got to hold Kodiak the crow and Taz the merlin, which was very exciting! Isn’t Taz pretty? He’s a little spastic, but tiny enough to be manageable.

The second training, last night, was more about the practicalities of dealing with the birds. It was also where we got signed up to work with a mentor so we can get to know all about one specific bird and be “signed off” to present with that bird. We started by looking at falconer’s gloves (which I’ll need to buy), jesses, leads, swivels, and other bird-handling gear, then learning the falconer’s knot—which is a one-handed knot that I can reliably do when attaching a lead to another object like a perch, a stepladder, or a mug handle (what? I practice!), but which I’m having a little bit of trouble doing when attaching to my arm. I’ll get it, though; don’t worry. Next we went over a bunch of bird terminology and behavior. Some of it I was familiar with from having pet birds, though I didn’t always know the formal term for any given behavior (like rousing—when a bird fluffs up its feathers and resettles them, it’s a sign of contentment; I always referred to it as, well, “fluffing feathers,” though I correctly interpreted the emotion). Some of it was totally new. And then, again, we got to practice handling birds.

I got to hold Willow the magpie for a long time! So long, in fact, that when I handed him off my arm was completely cramped. (Which was super embarrassing, by the way! This bird only weighs 200 grams. But I guess I had my muscles tensed weirdly, or something.) I fell totally in love with him, and he seemed to like me pretty well, for a human—I got a mini-rouse and the beginnings of a “look at me the impressive magpie!” display, which I took as high praise.

But there isn’t a lot of call for magpie presentations, unfortunately. I guess since people can see them in their yards, they don’t get as excited about them as they do about raptors, owls, and even ravens. Kodiak the crow has lots of presenters. The raven (I forget her name) doesn’t have enough presenters, yet, but she lives in Wasilla, a 45 mile drive from where I live and work; I wasn’t sure I was willing to commit to driving out there, picking her up, taking her to a presentation (probably back in Anchorage), then taking her back home every time.

So… they asked if I’d be OK with a bird that isn’t a corvid, and I said yes. (I admit, I was a little disappointed, but probably only because Willow was so great. And because I have a deep, irrational love of magpies.)

We looked at the list of birds and their presenters, and I expressed some preference toward a smaller bird, if possible. And it turns out that Fang the boreal owl needs another presenter! That’s him in the photo. Isn’t he a cutie? I haven’t held him—it isn’t as though all of the birds came, last night—but I’ve been to several BirdTLC presentations where he was in attendance. I currently know nothing about his personality and next to nothing about little owls (I mean, I know the basics: big eyes that don’t move, amazing hearing and asymmetrical ear placement, mentally kind of dumb, strong grip with their talons, smoothing down their feathers to look like tree branches when frightened), but in true librarian fashion I’ve placed holds on 3-4 owl books and looked up information from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Within the next couple of days the volunteer wranglers at Bird TLC will put me in touch with my mentor (probably the person who takes care of Fang), and I’ll be able to start on the next step of the process, getting to know all about the bird and preparing my “dry run” presentation. All volunteer presenters are supposed to do a practice presentation for their mentor, before they start handling the bird. That seems like a sensible step, since it gives the new presenter time to understand the species and its behavior and to memorize the idiosyncrasies of that specific bird before they get their hands on it.

After my dry run, I’ll be able to practice handling Fang. I’ll watch my mentor give presentations with him. And then I’ll have to do a full presentation, with Fang, for a group of Bird TLC volunteers, which terrifies me—these folks know more than I do about wild birds, and several of them will probably still know more about owls in general and Fang in specific than I do! But apparently everyone is terrified by that step, so that’s OK; I’ll get through it. Then I’ll do three public presentations with my mentor in attendance. And then I’ll be “signed off” on Fang the owl. After that, if I still want to work with Willow (if? ha!), I imagine they’ll let me sign off on him and on some other birds, as well. It’s the first bird that’s the hardest; the process for later birds is more abbreviated. Eagles, though… they take years to sign off on. I’m not even sure that’s on my list of goals, honestly.

I’ve already apologized to Dale for telling him everything there is to know about owls, over the next few months. Once I’m more of an expert, I plan to call my father-in-law and tell him all about owls, too. He is curious about everything and always has good questions, so I think that will be good practice, before the presentation to Bird TLC folks.

This whole process is more involved than I had expected, when I signed up, but upon reflection I think it’s all pretty reasonable. Wild birds are unpredictable, so a lot of preparation is required, and it’s very important that all of the presenters be very knowledgeable and able to do a good job of representing the Bird Treatment and Learning Center and upholding the requirements of their permits. (Permitting on wild birds? Pretty intense.) I feel pretty good about it, over all, and I’m definitely excited! You should have seen me when my first owl book came in, this morning. :)

Published inbirdsscience


  1. Ellen Thomas

    I live vicariously through you. I’m so excited for you going through this adventure. You know how I feel about birds and to see you get involved to this extent fills me with extreme pride. I miss you but when you left the nest, you soared, and as I watch you fly, I’m in awe.
    Give Fang the equivalent of an owl hug for me.

  2. I think the equivalent of an owl hug is probably a mouse. ;) So I’ll happily give him a mouse, from you, as soon as I get to know him.

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