The Tale of Super Chicken

Most interactions we have with wildlife can be described as one-sided. We see an animal, they see us and then they flee. Rarely do we ever have a more substantive encounter. Despite hyped incidents in the media, real aggression directed at people by wildlife is rare and when it does happen it usually comes in the form of a bluff. Whether it’s a White-tailed Deer stomping its foot or a Garter Snake acting as if it’s going to strike, these bluffs are intended to make us back off. Almost invariably, after making their bluff the animal takes its leave. While sifting through reports for an article I was writing, I came upon a couple of accounts of Wild Turkeys acting aggressively toward people. One incident involved a belligerent turkey that pursued a mailman and even chased him back to his truck. Perhaps that turkey only wanted his mail, but it’s probably more likely he was mistaking the letter carrier for a rival turkey. I’m not sure if the mailman should be flattered or insulted by that. Another similar case involved a couple whose car was being hazed by a group of young male turkeys. The couple had seen the young Toms (AKA,“Jakes”) interacting with each other alongside a busy highway. When they pulled over to the side of the road to get a better look, the turkeys came in close and began circling the car. The occupants of the car were hesitant to drive away for fear of pushing the turkeys into traffic or running one over. For them, stepping out of the car was unthinkable. However, I wish they had tried it. I am curious to know how the turkeys would have reacted. Would they have treated the people like rival turkeys or would they have run off? I suspect the latter. In that case I think it was the car that the turkeys were picking a fight with. Of course these are isolated incidents and are not representative of how turkeys normally act.

In a previous article, I recounted an experience I had with a particularly aggressive Ruffed Grouse. Here I will tell the complete story of my experiences with the grouse I called “Super Chicken”. Prior to Super Chicken, my encounters with grouse had been numerous even though our native Ruffed Grouse is not an especially common bird. In fact their population has been in decline for the last half century. Regardless, they remain a game bird in New York State and are subject to a rather lengthy hunting season.  Although grouse are not often seen, the distinctive sound the male produces in spring is familiar to most outdoors people. The low pitched drumming sound is produced when the perched bird beats the air with his wings. The percussive beating sound starts out slow, gains speed and then abruptly tapers off. The grouse is also recognized by the sound their wings make when they startle and flush up from the ground. The rapid beating of wings lifts them off like a rocket and propels them 100 yards or more into the woods or brambles. When making a quick escape they go for distance rather than height. The Ruffed Grouse’s flights and landings appear controlled especially when compared to those of the Wild Turkey, which are haphazard at best. Indeed, when flying through tightknit forest situations, grouse twist and weave and are quite maneuverable.

I have found a few grouse nests over the years. They are simple scrapes on the ground but tend to be well hidden in brush or in a forest understory. The female takes full charge of incubation and chick rearing. During incubation she will occasionally leave the nest to feed. When she does she covers the eggs with leaves or other material. A female grouse is very protective of her young and will risk her own life to lure away a predator. When the chicks are threatened, she may perform a distraction display. This entails feigning a broken wing and/or dragging herself piteously on the ground, all while producing shrill wailing calls. This performance is intended to lure a predator into pursuing her and not her chicks. While the mother is creating her diversion, her cryptically plumaged chicks lay frozen on the ground. Becoming invisible is their main defense. After the danger passes, the mother grouse returns to collect her family. As for male grouse, they don’t need to bother with raising young or performing distraction displays. Their business is to defend territory, drum, and attract mates.

Only rarely will you come across a grouse that is aggressive to the point of chasing people or other animals. A couple of years ago there was one like this not far from the Utica Marsh. One person actually thought it was a Red-tailed Hawk coming at them from the ground. At the nature preserve we had a prolonged experience with a hyper-territorial grouse. I first met him in the fall of 2005 and we proceeded to have an odd relationship that spanned half a decade.

At the Spring Farm CARES Nature Sanctuary we’ve always kept a close eye on our borders. We do this to make sure our animal residents, human visitors, and workers are safe year-round and especially during the big-game hunting seasons. Although nowadays our property monitoring has become somewhat more high tech, for many years we did it only by physically patrolling our borders. Back then I would typically strike out on foot or sometimes on an ATV and cover the entire property perimeter over the course of a couple of hours. On one particularly frosty morning in mid-November, I walked up the trail through our largest field. Reaching the tree border at the top of the hill, I followed the trail south and alongside a westward facing line of trees. The tree line roughly marked the border between the sanctuary property and the neighbor’s land. I always paid close attention in that area since it tended to be where trespassing hunters came from. As I walked, I would scan beneath the trees and along an old collapsed stone wall. I was looking for any camouflage-clad person that may be poised to breech our line. That day, instead of seeing a man, I spied the stout form of a ground bird. It was a grouse and it was standing motionless on a large stone. As I passed, the bird hopped off his mossy perch and began trotting on a course parallel to my own. When I stopped, he stopped, and when I resumed, he resumed, and all the while his attention was laser focused on me. I walked another twenty feet and then turned back to see if he was still shadowing me; he wasn’t. He had melted back into the thicket. When I came back through the same area a few days later, what I took to be the same bird was there again. Initially he did almost exactly the same thing as before, but this time he didn’t disappear. Instead, he jumped out onto the access road and confronted me. Was this a holdup? Did he want my valuables? The unlikely assailant stood before me with his gaze fixed on my feet. He was making a rapid and high pitched “purt, purt, purt, purt…” call and seemed to be trying to pick a fight with my left boot. My boot’s lack of response to his challenge had the effect of increasing the bird’s anxiety and his calling became louder. When I resumed walking, the grouse lunged at my left boot – striking it in the side with his feet and chest.  I certainly didn’t expect that to happen.

That was my only experience with that particular grouse that season, but then, fully one year later, in the fall of 2006, he returned. It was deer season again and I had just discovered footprints in the snow of two presumed hunters that crossed onto the nature preserve’s land. While examining the prints, I was unexpectedly joined by that same manic grouse. He strutted out from the tree border where I saw him the year before. The brazen bird walked right in front of me and began vocalizing: “purt, purt, purt, purt…”. “You’re not quite normal, are you buddy?” I asked, not really expecting an answer, but at that point I really had no idea what this extraordinary woodland chicken was capable of. I continued following the footprints of the trespassers. Meanwhile the grouse seemed to be more interested in myfootprints and in my boots. However, at that point he didn’t seem keen to stray far from his border trees. He hung back as I proceeded down the trail. And then, without warning, he made a frantic dash over to me. This began a series of bold charges in which he repeatedly rammed his body into my boot. I wondered how far he would go. I offered him my arm, which he happily laid into. He grabbed it with his feet and while flapping his wings wildly, he pecked at it with his bill. Yes, I was being assaulted by a wild chicken! But this wasn’t just an ordinary wild chicken. This was some kind of super chicken! Following that encounter, I would refer to him as “Super Chicken”.

Why was this grouse behaving in this way? It couldn’t be a good survival strategy, to recklessly attack things that can easily make a dinner out of you! To top it off, the area he had chosen to ply his eccentricities was rife with predators of both human and animal variety. Needless to say, I didn’t expect him to last long. I recall that on December 5th, it was cold and snowing. I was driving the sanctuary’s ATV over the crest of the hill and then down the trail that runs along the tree border where Super Chicken keeps his vigil. Half way down the other side of the hill I saw a large bird rising from the road ahead of me, but it wasn’t Super Chicken. It had the long, broad wings of a raptor. It was an adult female Red-tailed Hawk and she had just finished a meal. In the place where she flew from I could see the scant remains of a kill. I stopped the vehicle and rushed over to the spot and was dismayed to find some blood and a few downy feathers in the snow. Did this represent the untimely end of Super Chicken?

In a somber mood, I made my way back to the vehicle. I started it up and resumed my patrol, but before I could get 50 feet down the trail, an improbable feathered missile launched itself from the hedgerow. It was Super Chicken! His goose hadn’t been cooked after all! He flew over the ATV and landed in the center of the trail directly in front of me. My relief at seeing him alive was instantly obliterated by the horror of nearly running him over.  Thankfully I was able to stop just short of where he landed. What was that crazy bird doing? I got out of the vehicle and walked over to talk to him. “Super Chicken, I’m glad you’re alive, but you’re unlikely to stay that way if you keep pulling stunts like this. What would happen if you did this to someone else? They would simply run you down.  Or maybe they’d shoot you and fricassee your hide.” It was clear that he could care less about what I was saying. He looked at me sideways and then began giving his familiar vocalization: “purt, purt, purt, purt…” He was again contemplating my boot and it seemed like he was ramping up to an attack. I didn’t know it at the time, but that day marked the start of a new ritual to be repeated many times through the balance of that season. It entailed me driving through Super Chicken’s territory; him landing in my path; me coaxing him far off the trail; me running back to the vehicle and trying to leave; him getting in front of the vehicle again; and the whole thing repeats. I can only imagine what some unseen hunter hiding in the brush would have made of that bizarre pantomime.

It was around this time that I began to realize that Super Chicken and I had similar missions. Both of us were acting as patrols. Our jobs were to keep interlopers off the property. The problem was, he was a defenseless grouse. For me this was problematic for several reasons, not least of which was the fact that I would have to spend more time and energy patrolling his area in an effort to see that he didn’t come to harm. I thought about measuring him for a Kevlar vest, or some kind of chicken-sized body armor. Although I was certain it would look great on him, it probably would not be very practical. Perhaps I had been going about it the wrong way and maybe I should have brought in a psychiatrist. One that specialized in delusional poultry may have been able to get him to act more like a mild mannered grouse and less like a minuteman.

The incomparable and somewhat incomprehensible Super Chicken was again on duty in 2007. I initially renewed my acquaintance with him during the spring turkey hunting season. He was at his usual post near the gate at the access road that went between the neighbor’s land and the nature preserve. I couldn’t help but notice he was not nearly as aggressive as he had been during the prior deer season. Indeed, my boots went unmolested as I crossed into his area. Perhaps since the grouse is more akin to a turkey than a deer, this particular hunting season cut a little too close to home for our hero.  After all, if he confronted the boot of an especially nearsighted turkey hunter, he might have been mistaken for a gobbler.

In the fall of that year, Super Chicken was back to being his old combative self and I was being regularly taken to task as I passed through his territory. There were a few occasions when I spotted hunters on the neighbor’s property and I had to believe that Super Chicken confronted them, right? It just wasn’t possible that I was the only person he ever scolded. Could he be a figment of my imagination? Some people see imaginary seven-foot tall purple rabbits (or so I hear). Perhaps my delusion manifests itself as a pint-sized forest chicken. Maybe it was me that needed the psychiatrist. No, Super Chicken was real and his corporeal form was verified by one of my shadowing students who, upon seeing the improbable bird blast out of the bushes and crash down in front of us, pointed and exclaimed, “What is that thing and what is it doing?” With that, I realized that I wasn’t crazy, but somebody nearby most probably was.

In the fall of 2008, I didn’t see Super Chicken for the first five days of the deer hunting season and I was beginning to think he was gone. Maybe he had fallen victim to a predator; possibly a Fisher or a Coyote, or maybe that Red-tailed Hawk finally nabbed him. She had been seen in Super Chicken’s territory a lot that season. But then, one morning I was driving by his outpost and scanning the tree line for hunters, when I saw him. He was low in the bushes, about ten feet over on our side of the border and standing completely still. In fact he looked more like a marble statue of himself rather than a living, breathing bird. I thought it was strange that he wasn’t coming over to check my credentials or do his usual inspection of my boots. Was there something wrong with Super Chicken (that is, other than his usual psychological problems)? I approached him with some trepidation. Perhaps he was sick and would need to be taken to a rehabilitator. As I got closer I began to hear an unusual high pitched whining sound but it wasn’t at all familiar.  However, as I looked for its source, Super Chicken surprised me again. This was yet another one of his vocalizations.

“Hmmmmmmmmmm!” he uttered while staring at me intently. His stance was odd, in that his legs were crossed. That’s not a posture we often see with birds. Still, he was perched bolt-upright with his neck out-stretched and eyes wide. It was clear that he was in full alarm mode. “What’s wrong, Super Chicken?” I asked, not expecting an answer. His whining intensified and he ratcheted it up to a higher pitch: “Hmmmmmmmmmm!” This seemed to be a real crisis, but what was the nature of the emergency? I could see no hunters around. There were no signs of any predators – nothing. I had seen a Coyote in the vicinity on the morning before, but the snow held no fresh tracks of anything larger than a rabbit. I decided to back off about 20 feet and just observe the little guy for a while in order to determine if he needed to see a wildlife rehabber, or chicken psychologist, or witch doctor, or someone! He continued with his alarm calls for another five minutes after which he seemed to just snap out of it. And then, as if nothing had happened, he nonchalantly trotted up to me and tried to pick a fight with my odious left boot.

So it seemed that Super Chicken was OK, the border area was secure and everything was fine. My next pass through the area was fully two hours later. That time as I passed the border gate, I could see a hunter in an orange cap crouching about 50 yards down the access road on the neighbor’s land. I stopped the vehicle ten yards beyond the old access road gate and walked back toward it to check for Super Chicken. I was walking slowly past the gate, keeping the hunter in view when you-know-who dramatically burst out from the trees. “Ah-ha….. I’ve captured you at last!” he seemed to say as he confronted my feet. Meanwhile the hunter stood up from his crouched position and craned his neck as if he was trying to get a better look at the guy having a powwow with a grouse. With Super Chicken trotting alongside me, I went back to where I left the vehicle. He walked in a slow circle around the vehicle. It was as if he was trying to satisfy himself that all six tires were properly inflated. After that I found myself trying to explain to him the inherent problem of a game-bird acting as a patrol during a hunting season. “It’s kind of like a cow being a meat inspector at a slaughterhouse.” I said, although now that I think about it, it’s really more like a chicken acting as the meat inspector.

For a while I seriously considered relocating Super Chicken to a safer place within the nature preserve. His safety became a great concern to me, but how would he react to new surroundings and perhaps to a host of unfamiliar threats. Once moved, would he even stay in the new place? The life expectancy of a Ruffed Grouse in the wild is only two years. Well, by 2008, Super Chicken was about twice that age. One thing was abundantly clear: That bird really wanted the territory he had been defending and regardless of my good intentions, did I really have the right to deprive him of it? The answer to that was no, and so the reckless bird would be permitted to live his crazy life just the way he wanted to.

A few days after Super Chicken surprised me with his emergency siren routine, I again feared that he had become someone’s dinner. One morning as I drove by his outpost I saw some red splashes in the snow and some tawny colored down feathers. I got out of the vehicle and examined the area, but found little in the way of additional clues. How did my feathered friend meet his demise? Was it the Red-tailed Hawk that hunts the field by day? Was it the Great Horned Owl that hunts it by night? Or was it a Coyote? Possibly it was a human hunter who took advantage of an easy target. Who or whatever was the culprit, I was convinced I would never set eyes on that odd creature again. And then as his impromptu eulogy was still unraveling in my head, the little bugger sprinted out from the tree border to confront me. “Ah-ha! Do you have a license for that vehicle yet?” he seemed to say to his nemesis, otherwise known as my boot. I was of course overjoyed to see my confrontational friend again and since there were no less than three hunters active on the neighbor’s side of the border, I decided to stay for a while and act as his personal body guard. He took my extended visit with him as an opportunity to give the vehicle an unusually thorough examination. He checked underneath the machine several times; he looked at all six of the tires; he examined the undercarriage, which he deemed to be very dirty. And then the tireless bird, having provided me with no shortage of surprises that day, went where no chicken has gone before. After two failed attempts he scrambled up on the hood of the ATV and proceeded to peer over the steering wheel and directly into my face! From there he made a short flight onto the vehicle’s roll bars where he found a suitable perch. Now he was able to quite literally look down on me and at the same time check to see if the roll bars were up to specifications. From there he jumped into the cargo bay and checked out the loose tools that were banging around back there. “…And this stuff should be properly stowed. A chicken could get hurt.”

In 2009, during the May turkey hunting season, Super Chicken remained very much on the job and eager to confront me whenever I came through. I didn’t think he would be in much jeopardy during that season, seeing as though few local hunters seemed to participate in it. However, one day I did see a turkey hunter standing on the neighbor’s land, close to our southern border. His turkey call lure was fairly convincing and as I approached I wasn’t sure if it was being produced by a real turkey or not. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a person making the sound. When I told the man that the land was off limits to hunting, he pretty much took it in stride and left without complaint.  I had to believe that Super Chicken had seen this guy come through, but I didn’t see any signs of a confrontation. Perhaps Super Chicken, not being a great fan of turkeys, doesn’t concern himself with turkey hunters. After all, turkeys would present him with serious competition for the choicest seeds and berries.

When October rolled around and the beginning of a new round of big game hunting seasons were upon us, I began regularly driving through Super Chicken’s territory again. Despite actively looking for him on several occasions, I wasn’t seeing him and quite frankly, I feared the worst. One day as I was closing in on his area, I saw a vulture flying low and directly over his territory. Although I had no reason to believe the buzzard had been scavenging on my longtime comrade, I couldn’t help but look upon it as an ill omen. And then a few days later, just as I entered his usual zone of influence, I heard Coyotes howling away from somewhere just beyond the hedgerow, and I was again struck with that “ill omen” feeling. What had become of Super Chicken?

On a crisp day in late October, I was very relieved when I finally encountered my little friend. “Super Chicken ….finally! Where have you been?” I asked. “purt, purt, purt, purt…”, called the great bird as he adroitly navigated through the remains of the stone border fence. He pecked at the ground as he approached me, systematically flipping over leaves and occasionally tossing one over his shoulder. He was feeding on the Bittersweet berries that dropped from the vines above us. I was struck at how reluctant he was to confront me in his old inimitable style. It was almost as if I hadn’t broken any of his innumerable laws, and I knew that was impossible. As he got closer to me I was able to get a good view of him. Indeed, he was starting to show signs of age. Some of his primary feathers were looking worn and even his body’s contour feathers were looking less than impeccable. Then it struck me: Super Chicken was telling me that he’s retiring. He was getting too old for this kind of work. After all, he has to be at least five years old now. He was no longer concerning himself with trespassing hunters and their confounded noise machines. He was going to leave it to the next generation to risk their lives defending territory. As for him, from that point forward he was just going to hang around and eat berries and seeds all day. As if to confirm his newly declared retired status he blatantly abstained from reciprocating when another grouse began drumming away in the nearby woods. “No one at the sanctuary has earned retirement more than you.” I said to my aged chicken friend, and I spoke the truth. I thought briefly about having a retirement party for him, but that notion was quickly dispelled when I remembered that he doesn’t really like anyone – particularly me! “I don’t know how I’m going to manage without you, Super Chicken.”, I said to him as earnestly as I could make it sound. Actually, I was relieved that during the upcoming hunting season I wouldn’t have to check on him every few hours to make sure that he wasn’t getting himself fricasseed. “I’m sure I’ll be seeing you around – perhaps while roosting on one of your favorite mossy logs.” I said while he was pecking off in another direction, and giving me a decreasing amount of attention. “purt, purt, purt, purt…”, said my former colleague and that was that.

About a week later, I was putting up some posted signs as a favor to the neighbor on our southern border, when I was startled by what looked to be an eagle swooping out of a nearby tree and dramatically crash-landing in the forest understory. OK, it didn’t look like an eagle, but it could’ve been a nearsighted owl or even a less than completely coordinated cormorant. It was of course, Super Chicken, literally swooping out of his very brief retirement. Super Chicken is good for about five surprises a year and I reckoned that was his latest one. As far as I knew, the place where we stood was not part of his traditional territory. Actually I thought the area I was working in was several hundred yards away from his outpost and yet that’s where he came to read me the riot act.  With his bill held high and slightly at an angle he examined the hefty amount of signage I had with me, and then proceeded to strut back and forth before me, all the while emitting disapproving clucks. I don’t think he appreciated the gaudy orange color of the posted signs. It was if he was telling me, “Birds can see in color, you know!” And there I had been actively defacing dozens of his trees without so much of a thought for the forest animals’ sense of ascetics. I was just thinking of the animals’ safety. Of course, to Super Chicken, this would constitute a double insult – since he was perfectly capable of looking out for the safety of the forest animals. Convinced I was doing what was best for everyone, including the reinvigorated grouse, I continued putting up my signs and Super Chicken followed me. He crashed through the underbrush behind me and made the most outraged chicken noises that one could imagine.

About half way through the regular deer season, a hunter wounded a deer on the neighbor’s land and proceeded to track the unfortunate animal right over to the border area where Super Chicken is active. There the hunter, who was obviously acquainted with my rounds, waited on the border for me to come by in order to ask for permission to track. When I came through I immediately saw the man waiting there and I also perceived the unmistakable figure of Super Chicken, who was standing in plain view and quite close to the man. I could just hear my semi-retired friend say “Well, I caught one! You can take him away now.” When I was getting the hunter’s name and information, the triumphant bird was strutting about and probably saying something like “Aren’t you going to put handcuffs on him?” I thought it best to be as amiable as possible to the hunter, hoping that a little good will might be returned in the direction of our vulnerable chicken friend, especially at some future time when I’m not around. Super Chicken alternated his gaze between the hunter and me as if trying to determine which one of us presented the greater threat. Fortunately, he settled on me and began contemplating a run at my boot. “He’s an interesting case this one”, I said, referring to the feisty chicken. Stretching the truth a bit I said: “He’s a rehabilitated Grouse and I’m afraid that he’s a bit too friendly for his own good.” I continued to pour it on “He’s getting pretty old. He’s probably about 5 or 6 and that’s around 98 in chicken years. Just look at those worn out feathers. And as you can see he’s really quite thin.” I of course, was attempting to make him sound like a wholly unworthy meal. At that point Super Chicken was likely beginning to take offense and it was clear to me that he thought I was not handling this situation with the appropriate seriousness.

Since the Hunter provided all his information and the deer was initially shot at a fair distance from our border, I agreed to lead the man into the preserve in an attempt to find the animal. I don’t believe that Super Chicken ever agreed with our tracking policy and he appeared to look upon my actions as nothing short of collusion with the enemy. After mounting a brief assault on the ATV, he disappeared back into the hedgerow – no doubt thoroughly disgusted.  The hunter and I searched the field in vein as freshly falling snow covered up all indications of the wounded deer’s path through the field. During my journey with “Melvin” (If Super Chicken had to catch a villainous hunter, wouldn’t you guess that his name would be Melvin), I divined his attitude toward bird hunting and learned that he had no interest in it. He raised chickens at home and according to him wild grouse were scrawny things. Luckily Super Chicken was out of earshot for that remark. Melvin told me that he’d had several previous run-ins with Super Chicken and so had his son. He said that the “crazy” bird had recently escorted his son for several hundred feet as he traveled through the nearby brush.

As it happens, that was to be my last encounter with Super Chicken – the day he got his man. Beyond that day I don’t know if he actually did retire or if he became prey. Since then I’ve gone through his territory more than a thousand times and on no occasion did a grouse or any other animal scold me or take issue with my boots. If Super Chicken left progeny behind, they did not inherit his heightened sense of territoriality. Like virtually all of their kind, they would seem to have become mild mannered grouse and were not “super” in any sense. In the seven years that have elapsed since our final meeting, I have heard grouse drumming many times and I’ve even seen a few of the secretive creatures. When they see me they launch themselves like feathered cannonballs in the opposite direction. What I wouldn’t give to have one launch itself at me once more.

The Golden-winged Warbler – Gone but not Forgotten

One of our foot trails at the nature sanctuary will forever be associated with a particular bird, a beautiful member of the warbler family called the Golden-winged Warbler. Twenty years ago, the species was not easy to come by in Central New York, but now they are virtually impossible to find – especially during the breeding season. Our nature sanctuary hosted one of the Golden-wing’s last known breeding territories in the region, but it has now been a decade since the last representative of the species relinquished its hold on the land. Sadly, we have no expectation that the species will return. It’s a strange thing when a species become regionally extinct and yet life for everyone and everything else seems to go on as normal. Then again, it’s hard to blame people for not caring about something they never saw, and quite probably never even heard of. Does it really make any difference if there is one less voice in the morning songbird chorus? I’d have to say yes, but I recognize that I’m probably in the minority.

Golden-winged Warbler singing

Twenty-four years ago, I made my first visit to the land that would become Spring Farm CARES’ Nature Sanctuary. At that time, I had dedicated myself to making a complete list of all bird species found on the property. In pursuit of that goal I spent many early mornings walking through the various habitats – mostly listening for which birds were present and jotting them down in a notebook. On one June morning, on a south facing slope of an old bushy pasture, I was treated to the song of a Golden-winged Warbler. Honestly, it’s not what most people would consider a proper bird song, at least not one befitting such a dazzling species. Shouldn’t all beautifully plumaged birds be equipped with appropriately melodious songs? I personally think that it’s good enough if they have interesting songs. The Golden-winged Warbler’s song is a series of buzzy notes that some liken to the toneless trills of insects. Exemplary music or not, the Golden-wing’s song is distinctive. It consists of a long buzzy note followed by 4 shorter notes that are lower in pitch and just as buzzy.

It’s amazing to think of just how many birds that nest in grasslands and overgrown pastures have non-musical, low-pitched, trilled songs. Included in this “buzzing” crowd is the Grasshopper Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, Blue-winged Warbler and Prairie Warbler. A bird called the Clay-colored Sparrow, which sometimes shares the same habitat with the Golden-winged Warbler, produces a similar buzzy song. The sparrow’s song consists of 3 to 5 buzzy notes, but these notes are typically all of equal length and all on the same pitch. Still, mistaking a Clay-colored Sparrow’s song for that of a Golden-winged Warbler has been known to happen. Birds that produce low trilled vocalizations most likely do so to increase the range of their broadcast. They prefer their territorial proclamations to be heard over long distances, and low frequencies carry farther than high ones. This is especially important in open areas where wind noise can substantially limit the distance sounds can travel. However, for a bird like a warbler (that weighs 8 to 11 grams), producing a low tone is not that easy. The small songbird’s solution to this problem is to trill or “buzz” out their low notes, and it seems to work. That’s probably why so many species do it.

Golden-winged Warbler

It’s typical when conducting a bird censes to make visual contact with only a small proportion of the birds tallied. In most instances, identifications can be confidently made by sound alone. However, in this case, seeing the bird I was hearing was a must, since the Golden-winged Warbler often interbreeds with another closely related species called the Blue-winged Warbler and their hybrid offspring may sing the song of either parent. This means that in order to positively identify this species, it must be seen. I had no trouble convincing myself of this necessity; after all this was a cool bird – definitely eye candy. Fortunately, unlike the vast majority of the warbler clan, which never seem to cease flitting about in tree tops, Golden-winged Warblers will typically stay perched on an open branch when they sing. I say that, but on that day, I had a hard time getting a good look at the bird I was hearing. He had become highly agitated soon after I entered his territory. He started giving sharp warning notes and alternated them with loud chattering calls. It wasn’t me he had a problem with though. It turned out that he was actively defending his nest area from an intruder. When I finally saw the Golden-winged, he was in hot pursuit of a male Blue-winged Warbler. They darted through the bushes and undergrowth at great speed – both occasionally flashing their near-identical white tail spots (another sign of the two species’ close lineage). They flew back and forth in front of me several times, which indicated to me that I was standing at the center of a territory much coveted by both birds. Since it was the Golden-winged that was the more aggressive one, I figured that he already secured a mate and she was most likely on a nest somewhere close by. The fact that this was his nesting site gave him all the incentive in the world to be belligerent, and that he was in spades.

I was curious about this Golden-winged Warbler’s mate; was it a Blue-winged Warbler? Was it one of the named hybrids types (Lawrence’s Warbler or

Brewster’s Warbler hybrid

Brewster’s Warbler)? In the case of both the Golden-winged Warbler and the Blue-winged Warbler, the females alone are responsible for incubating the eggs, so if this bird did in fact have a mate, she was most probably staying tight on her nest and I was unlikely to get a look at her. During that same time period, I had better luck in another area not far from New Hartford’s Sherrill Brook Park. There in an overgrown farm field, I came upon a most interesting family of birds. The male was a Golden-winged Warbler and his mate was a female Blue-winged Warbler. When I found them, they were busily feeding a clutch of young in a well concealed ground nest. I couldn’t actually see the nest, but I could clearly hear the begging calls of nestlings emanating from it. The young ones sounded loud and boisterous. They were probably over a week old and quite possibly close to leaving the nest. Both parents were frantically collecting food, which was comprised of protein-rich insect prey. While I was watching them make repeated trips to the nest, I noticed something peculiar. There was a 3rdadult visiting the nest and often moving in close association with one or the other parent. It was an adult Brewster Warbler, the more common of the two hybrid forms. I thought at first that the hybrid was also feeding the young in the nest, but that wasn’t the case. Instead it was actually trying to get the adults to feed it too! In other words, it was begging. This was highly unusual behavior. It was too early in the season for this adult plumaged Brewster’s Warbler to be an offspring from a prior brood of these same parents, and it seemed out-of-the-question that this family would’ve reunited a year later on this territory. Warblers (and most songbirds for that matter) don’t tend to retain their family ties after the breeding season ends. In fact, when the next breeding season comes along, the adults typically choose different mates and the young they once doted on become strangers – or at least that’s what we’ve come to believe. Certainly, I’d never seen this kind of thing occur with any warblers before or since.

These guys made for one interesting family – a true variety pack. Each member had their own distinct plumage. The male Golden-winged Warbler somewhat resembles a Black-capped Chickadee with his black throat patch, gray wings and gray back, but his golden cap and wing patch gave him a more regal look as if he might be the chickadees’ king. The female Blue-winged Warbler’s plumage is mostly yellow, but with blue-gray wings and thin white wing bars. A thin black eye line extends from her bill to her cheek. Her attire is a somewhat muted version of a male Blue-winged Warbler’s plumage. The Brewster’s hybrid more resembled the Golden-winged Warbler, but lacked any trace of the black throat patch. Instead of the patch on its wings there were 2 thin yellow wing bars. Also, its whitish chest had a light yellowish patch on it. This plumage was typical of what occurs when a pure Golden-winged Warbler and a pure Blue-winged Warbler produce offspring.

I’m used to songbirds like these warblers disappearing from an area due to habitat loss or due to one of the plethora of conservation challenges that migratory songbirds face, but the Golden-winged Warbler’s problems are compounded by this habit of breeding with another species. The Blue-winged shares virtually the same habitat requirements as the Golden-winged and since their breeding range overlaps, they are destined to interact; only when they do, the Golden-winged Warbler loses. For years, what I witnessed repeatedly throughout our region is that when Blue-winged Warblers arrive on Golden-wing territory, in a few years there are no Golden-wings left to be found. They are not killed or driven out though, instead they are genetically overwhelmed.

Blue winged Warbler

The two species are very closely related. Their appearance, vocalizations and behavior all make that abundantly clear. The fact that they produce offspring that are viable breeders is yet another indication of their genetic compatibility. Geological isolation in the not-so-distant past (perhaps only a million years ago) caused the two species to diverge from a common ancestor. Being brought back together is serving to reverse the process and merge the two species into one. One could argue that the loss of the Golden-winged Warbler by this kind of “genetic swamping” is not as bleak a thing as true extinction, since as long as the more dominate Blue-winged Warbler survives there is the chance that in some future epoch, isolation of a portion of the Blue-winged population may again lead to the inception of another “winged-warbler” variation – perhaps one not unlike the Golden-wing.

Our last Golden-winged Warbler at the nature sanctuary became something of a celebrity. Birders of the area regularly came to try and get a look at him and he was usually quite accommodating. Although his plumage was typical for a male Golden-wing, his song was not, so identifying him visually was the only way to confirm his presence. Regarding his song, it was indistinguishable from that of a Blue-winged Warbler. It was a double buzz, with the second note as long as the first, but on a lower pitch. Why did he sing the wrong song? That is a great question. Most likely, when he was not long out of the nest and learning to sing, he was heavily influenced by the songs of his Blue-winged Warbler neighbors. I’ve seen this phenomenon before in other songbirds including some that are not closely related to each other. I recall once finding a Field Sparrow that sang exactly like a Prairie Warbler. Again, in that case we were dealing with two species that had similar habitat requirements. It’s highly likely that the impressionable young sparrow had ample opportunities to be influenced by his vocal Prairie Warbler neighbor.

What was quite probably the last Golden-winged Warbler of Kirkland spent five breeding seasons with us. In that time he was never able to find a female of his own species with which to breed. Twice he bred with Brewster’s hybrids and twice with what were apparently pure Blue-winged Warblers. The fact is that there were simply no more Golden-winged Warblers of either sex, coming through the area anymore. The species’ demise, as far as this area was concerned, was at hand. Finally, in the year 2010, he failed to return and no other member of his species has ever again tried to hold that territory. Over the course of the last 50 years, Golden-winged Warblers are said to have experienced one of the sharpest population declines of any songbird. In the Northeast they are declining by an estimated 20% annually. The decline has been especially dramatic in areas where the Golden-wing and the Blue-winged Warblers’ ranges overlap. The stronghold for the species is now in the northern section of the Midwest including Minnesota where, so far, they seem to be rallying. However, nowhere should they be considered safe.

According to historical records, neither the Golden-winged Warbler nor the Blue-winged were present in New York State before the mid 20thCentury. In relatively close succession (only 2 decades apart) both species, first the Golden-winged and then the Blue-winged, expanded their ranges northward. They were coming in to take advantage of habitat that appeared when a significant amount of farmland was left fallow and allowed to grow in. Overgrown, bushy fields are necessary for both species’ nesting. The Golden-winged Warbler also requires the presence of mature woodlands adjacent to its breeding grounds – a detail that makes the species harder to satisfy than the Blue-wing. After the young leave the nest, parent Golden-wings need to be able to move their fledglings to the forest where they will continue to be fed until they become independent. It’s hard to overstate how important overgrown meadows are to certain wildlife species. Of course, habitat of this type is in the process of transitioning into young forest, and as it continues to mature it ultimately becomes unusable for the “winged” warblers. The Golden-winged Warblers are not the only bird species suffering population declines in the

Golden-winged Warbler

Northeast due to the loss of this type of habitat. Other notables include the Brown Thrasher, Rufous-sided Towhee and Field Sparrow. Happily, these songbirds are currently doing well at our nature preserve and show no signs of going the way of the Golden-winged Warbler. The Blue-winged Warbler also continues to persevere. Their numbers are not as strong as they were ten years ago, but they are in no imminent danger.

To this day when I walk down the valley trail and see the American Elm tree where the Golden-winged Warbler once liked to perch, I feel a sense of emptiness. It’s similar to the feeling of loss one experiences when a family member dies. But aside from sentimentality, extinction (regional or world-wide), has consequences. Our native birds are not merely pretty feathered packages. They all have roles to play in the economy of nature and we ignore their plights at our own peril. Hearing the Blue-winged Warbler’s song emanating from a nearby tangle of Buckthorn Trees gives me some solace. Seeing one perched high on an open branch like a small yellow beacon; head tilted back as he unleashes his song with full gusto, I come to the realization that the Golden-winged Warbler is not quite gone without a trace. Part of it is right there in that yellow bird. Undoubtedly most, if not all Blue-winged Warblers in these parts carry with them at least some DNA of Golden-wings. That means that the Golden-winged Warbler is more tangible than the average ghost. There is some comfort in that.

Raptors Get A Second Chance in Spring Farm CARES Nature Sanctuary

Wild Raptors Get Another Chance

Reintroducing rehabilitated wildlife back into the wild can be tricky because sometimes a rehabber can’t be sure the animal is completely up to speed before it is released. In a few releases I’ve participated in recently, we were prepared to recapture the animal if we felt it wasn’t as ready to be on its own as we hoped. Of course, in cases involving birds, they may turn out not to be ready but are, nonetheless, able to fly just well enough to elude any attempts at re-capture. When the release goes well, everyone is satisfied, especially the animal that gets to resume its wild existence. In conjunction with Falcon Heart Rescue in Herkimer, we conducted a number of releases at our nature sanctuary in 2017. All but one involved raptors, and most went off without a hitch. Only one case involved an individual that needed to be re-captured and brought back to the rehabilitator.

When possible, it’s best to release an animal in the vicinity of where it was originally found. If it’s during the breeding season, the individual may have a nest, a mate, a brood, and a territory that it needs to return to. Territories are often not easy to obtain and once one is lost it may be lost for good. In the releases that took place this year at the nature preserve, these were not important factors, since they involved birds that were already migrating or they involved immature birds that had yet to gain their own territories. Those birds needed only to be released in a safe environment and preferably one that offers the appropriate habitat for that species.

The most recent release we participated in involved an immature Merlin. A Merlin is a species of falcon that is intermediate in size between the crow-sized Peregrine and the Robin-sized American Kestrel. In truth, the Merlin is closer in size to the Kestrel than the Peregrine. An adult male Merlin possesses a blue back while adult females and immature birds typically have brown backs. Like the Peregrine, the Merlin shows a black “malar” or mustache mark below the eye. However, on the Merlin the marking is not so distinct. Merlins have dark tails which show three or four bold whitish stripes. Formerly the species was called the Pigeon Hawk, although given their small size, a Pigeon could be considered outside their class as a prey item. This Merlin was originally found in North Utica. He was injured and unable to fly and was turned over to Deb Saltis at her Falcon Heart Rescue (wildlife rehabilitation facility) in Herkimer. Upon examination it was determined the bird’s left wing was broken. After being evaluated by a Veterinarian, the falcon was treated; the wing was splinted and wing-wrapped for seven days. After about a month of convalescence in the aviary at Falcon Heart Rescue, the bird was tested in a large flight cage. This is done to gage the competence of a raptor’s flight in a relatively large space. During the test, the falcon became disoriented by the enclosure and made some unconventional landings, one which left him hanging upside down by his talons, but overall his flying was good. In other words, he passed the test and this meant that he was bound for release.

Since the Merlin was in the process of migrating when he was injured, it wasn’t necessary to release him in the same location where he was found.  It was decided to release him at Spring Farm CARES’ Nature Sanctuary, where we could monitor him post-release. So on a Monday morning in late October, we carried him out to a place close to one of our beaver ponds. I chose this location because of the great amount of potential prey available in the form of large insects, small mammals, and birds. There are plenty of dead snags to perch on and a large open area where a raptor can watch for prey as well as any predators that might pose a threat. Because of these attributes this location has proved to be a favorite stop-over spot for migrating raptors, including Merlins. Prior to the release, I went down to the site to check on the activity levels. When I got there I found the ponds to be loaded with Wood Ducks and Mallards. There were also a couple of Beavers swimming around. That of course, would be no problem. The Merlin would be no threat to any of them and visa-versa. My colleague, Tim Johnston, was about a half an hour behind me. He was charged with bringing the raptor. I had already given him the OK to come down to the pond, but then right before he arrived, I saw another raptor fly in. This was an immature female Sharp-shinned Hawk (AKA a “Sharpie”). This raptor could perhaps present a threat to our rehab bird. I’ve seen the two species spar in the past, and normally they are evenly matched. They may engage, but the consequences are not usually lethal. However, if our rehab bird wasn’t up to snuff, he could become injured. As it turned out, this wouldn’t be an issue. The Sharpie left as quickly as she came and disappeared in the west. This meant that we were all clear for the release. When Tim came over with the cage it seemed he was bringing a container full of fury. The bird was thrashing around and was highly agitated. This wasn’t good. Raptors can damage their wing and tail feathers by repeatedly ramming them through the barred doors of pet carriers. We put the container down and covered it completely with a sheet. The bird calmed down immediately. After a half-hour, I removed the sheet and opened the cage door. The Merlin flew straight out of the carrier in a low direct flight to the beaver dam about 50 feet away. He zoomed over the dam, rising only about ten feet and put down on the branch of a dead buckthorn tree. There he instantly gave a very loud, almost trill-like cackle: “kikikikikikikikikikikikikikikikikikikiki”. It was clear that he was in full emergency mode. He didn’t know where he was or what situation he was being injected into and his response was to dramatically inform the neighborhood that there was a falcon on the scene and he was a force to contend with. Surprisingly, his dramatic entry into the placid pond setting didn’t elicit much of a reaction from the ducks. They all continued casually swimming around in the water below and even engaged in some preseason courtship behavior. Conversely, the songbirds in the area were not pleased and began emitting high-pitched alarm calls of their own.

We were very happy that his first flight looked unlabored and steady and his left-wing was not hindering him, at least not in any obvious way. We did notice while he was perched that his injured wing was slightly stiff and not completely folded flush against his body as his right wing was. I was told this would be the case with him. After about ten minutes the little falcon launched again; this time landing on a nearby snag at the base of the beaver dam. There he issued two volleys of loud alarm calls. The raptor then showed off his agility by hopping from branch to branch not unlike a squirrel. I’ve seen Cooper’s Hawks and Sharp-shinned Hawks maneuver this way when hunting game in low brambles, but I’ve never seen a falcon do it. Despite having proportionately shorter legs than most other raptor species, he seemed just as proficient at hopping. He ended up on a high branch over what we refer to as the beavers’ Jacuzzi. It’s a tiny pond situated beneath the dam at Morton’s Pond and right at the edge of Sarah’s Pond. It’s more of a cove now since the water level at Sarah’s Pond has reached parity with it and there is a significant gap in its dam. Suddenly the Merlin dove straight down into a grassy area next to the Jacuzzi. It looked to me like a dive for prey, but we lost sight of him for a few minutes so we weren’t sure. Soon enough, he was back up. We think he dove for an insect; a behavior common with Kestrels but not so common with this species. However, this is an immature male falcon (small) and he may in fact behave more like a Kestrel when hunting. Deb Saltis told me that when he was in an outside aviary during the last stage of his recuperation, he was eating the insects that ventured into the cage.

After some more hopping around in the branches and giving more warning calls, he flew to a large dead willow tree that stood at the center of Morton’s Pond. There he made a solid landing on a thick branch. But soon after, he scrambled up the bark and assumed another perch on a branch on the opposite side of the trunk. After about ten minutes of being hidden from our view he made his most impressive flight of the morning. He flew from the willow at Morton’s pond all the way over to a large Eastern Hemlock tree above Sarah’s pond. In that flight he covered a distance of at least 150 feet. After perching for a minute or two he scampered up the tree. When he did, I noticed his wings were not flush against his body, but flopped around somewhat as he moved. It was almost as though they were hanging on loose hinges. From there he made a quick dash-like flight to a dead Buckthorn tree. Up to that point, the Merlin’s antics had escaped the notice of a small flock of Blue Jays that came through the area and stopped at the feeding station near Morton’s Pond.

Blue Jays have an interesting and rather complex relationship with raptors. Basically it’s adversarial since raptors sometimes take them as prey. However, when it comes to the smaller raptors such as the Sharp-shinned Hawk and Cooper’s Hawk, and the small falcons like the Kestrel and Merlin, Jays often try to provoke them into taking part in sparring matches or chases. It’s a brand of rough play that tests the speed and agility of all participants, including the raptors. It can also be a hazardous game for the jays, and if they make a miscalculation they risk getting injured by sharp talons. Evidently, for the jays it’s worth the risk because this type of interspecies sparring is a common and widespread behavior. For the raptors, sparring with jays is more of a mixed bag. It does enable them to sharpen their own skill set and make them better, more agile predators, but taking part in such visible antics also serves to alert the local songbird community (including potential prey) to their presence. This could deprive the raptor of the element of surprise and lessen their chances of obtaining a meal.

Typically, the jays’ mode of operation is to take turns diving at the raptor; each veering off and dashing for cover when the hawk turns on them. When a raptor gets too close or makes physical contact, the jay gives a harsh guttural call note. You tend to hear a lot of those distinctive call notes when jays are provoking Sharpies. In the case of the Merlin, I watched as two Blue Jays tested him. They flew in close and, while exercising a degree of caution, one of them landed on the same branch as the raptor. It got as close as two feet away before quickly darting off to a more remote branch. The jay’s companion then took a turn. In both confrontations, the Merlin inflated his throat while facing the instigators in what I took to be a threatening gesture, but he wasn’t acting overly provoked and he resisted the urge to engage them. After a couple of hazing dives, the jays seemed to make the determination that this raptor wasn’t going to provide much fun and they departed, presumably to cause havoc somewhere else. Actually they didn’t go very far away. For the most part, they kept within visual range of the Merlin. No doubt they were waiting to see if the raptor’s disposition was going to change. For the Merlin’s part, he seemed to take the jays’ taunting with a grain of salt. No doubt, prior to his injury he had experiences with jays. Regardless, the blue marauders were gone now and the Merlin went back to preening. He was acting rather nonchalant, even though he was perched only about half as high as we typically see the species when they use the pond side trees.

American Kestrel

Finally the Merlin flew again; this time landing on a dead hemlock tree that hung over Secret Pond. He didn’t linger there long and made a dashing flight into a low bush above the dam at May Pond. From there he dove into a grassy little meadow at the headwaters of Secret Pond. He most likely was going after insects again – probably grasshoppers. Soon enough he was back up in a low bush again. I could just make out his light chest which was heavily streaked with brown spots. His plumage was a good match for the color of the surrounding October foliage.  It struck me as I watched him that, had I not observed him fly into that spot I would never have picked him out in a thousand years. He was so well camouflaged that it made me realize how many raptors I’ve probably missed over the years when scanning habitats like this. Soon the Merlin was up again, but landed only about ten feet away on an open branch over the water and near the dam at May Pond. There he took some time to preen and generally inspect his plumage. He worked to straighten out and repair the tail feathers that he crumpled earlier when he crammed them through the barred door of the carrier. Being low and well camouflaged allowed the Merlin to disappear in the environment and soon songbirds began to reappear in the trees surrounding the ponds. I heard the short quavering whistles of Eastern Bluebirds and then a flock of ten landed in the branches of a maple tree that rose high over the pond. They were soon joined by a single Chipping Sparrow. Most Chipping Sparrows had migrated out of the area already, so I was surprised to see one. These songbirds seemed oblivious to the presence of the Merlin. As for the Merlin, he was still actively preening and not in hunting mode, so they had little to worry about at least for the time being. A flock of Pine Siskins came through giving their characteristic raspy, ascending zipper-like calls, and some of them landed among the bluebirds. The little striped finches had only arrived in the region the week before and were seen making common cause with their goldfinch cousins and feeding on birch seeds. That day, however, they seemed to prefer the company of bluebirds, and together with their blue flock mates, they took off and flew a circle around the habitat. All eventually landed back in the same tree. Still, the Merlin paid them no mind.

Beaver dams serve as natural bridges for wildlife and this fact is not lost on predators, including raptors. They know that if they wait next to a dam long enough they will see mice, voles, shrews, and chipmunks attempting a crossing. That morning it was a Red Squirrel standing ready to cross the dam. Before getting more than a quarter of the way across the dam, the squirrel spotted the Merlin and began issuing sputtering complaint calls and stomping her feet. Nervously, she hopped forward a few meters and then quickly dashed back. She repeated this agitated behavior several times. Like the jays, she seemed to be testing the threat potential of the intruder. Time after time, the squirrel would push forward and then just as quickly, double back and resume chattering. The Merlin, for his part, side stepped on the branch a few times in a slightly ominous manner, but didn’t seem to be all that interested. The squirrel began climbing around in the bushes just below the falcon and then, in a brazen manner, she hopped up onto the same branch that held the Merlin. She got within six feet of the raptor before hastily retreating back down the tree. Finally, she seemed satisfied that the raptor wasn’t a pressing concern and she proceeded across the dam. Meanwhile, the jays hadn’t forgotten about the Merlin. From a distance they had monitored his interaction with the squirrel. Both jays swept by in succession in order to reassess the raptor’s keenness for a game. The Merlin was more animated in his reactions this time but still restrained from launching out after the pranksters. Like the time before, the jays quickly lost interest and departed. No doubt they’d be back.

At that point I had to leave as well. I wasn’t too worried about the falcon. I’d seen him fly at least a dozen times and his landings seemed more than competent. He still wasn’t exactly perching on treetops, which is something that falcons most often do, but then again this one seemed to have a penchant for hunting insects, so maybe low perching was normal for him. His left wing will never be perfect, but will it be good enough? Will he be able to hunt? Will he be able to migrate? The main reason we released him at the nature preserve was so he could be monitored and if necessary recaptured. If he didn’t resume his migration right away, we knew there was an ample supply of prey to suit his needs. When I returned in the afternoon, I searched the pond system for the Merlin, but I couldn’t find him. I listened closely for the characteristic harsh calls that jays give when they harass raptors, but I didn’t hear that either. I was beginning to think the bird had left the area and perhaps resumed migrating. However, right before leaving I went down to Secret Pond once more and scanned the trees around the pond. Sure enough, there in a leafy Buckthorn tree, on a branch above the water, was a small raptor. He was facing me and I could see his heavily streaked underside, which so accurately mimicked the brown foliage around him. He seemed fine. He was preening and very alert. I looked away to make some notes and when I turned back he was gone. That was the last I saw him. I looked around for him a few times in the following days but couldn’t find him. I had assumed he moved out of the area and then, fully six days later, when returning to the main beaver pond after a long excursion around the property, I saw a Merlin perched at the apex of a dead American Elm tree. The sun was low in the west and the bird was backlit against the sky, so I had a hard time seeing plumage details. I had a camera with me, but only had a short lens and so I couldn’t get detailed pictures. I suspected this was our small male juvenile Merlin, but I couldn’t be sure. I could not detect the droop in the bird’s left wing, but the end of its tail feathers did look a little ragged like those of our rehab bird. Another thing that led me to believe this was the same bird was the fact that he wasn’t flying away. Typically, most raptors that haven’t been habituated to people will fly when their hunting area is disturbed. This one didn’t seem to mind my presence. Lack of skittishness notwithstanding, this bird was on a very high perch and acting more like a Merlin is supposed to. If this was indeed our bird than he would appear to have come a long way and his reintroduction into the wild was working.

We carried out three releases of Eastern Screech Owls this summer. The first one was a medium-sized female that came to Falcon Heart Rescue after being struck by a car. She had a head injury and a damaged wing. The wing was set and following a period of convalescence the owl appeared to have made a recovery. Inside an aviary the bird was observed flying from her perch to pick up food on the ground, and so there was no reason she couldn’t be released back into the wild. We chose Spring Farm’s Nature Sanctuary as the release site. We brought her to a place where there were plenty of roosting cavities and lots of prey. I had planned on observing the bird throughout the morning to make sure she was ready for prime time. When we opened the door of the carrier, the little owl did not jump right out, which is typical. In most cases the bird being released will take some time to leave the relative safety of the carrier and venture out into an uncertain situation. We backed off about 100 feet up the trail in order to give the owl lots of space. An hour passed and by then we had become distracted by some other aspect of the nature in those woods and we did not see the owl leave the carrier. When I looked back I saw what I believed to be a squirrel run behind a log just adjacent to the carrier. At the time I thought the owl was still in there and feared some kind of confrontation might be in the offing. I got a bit closer to see if I could make out the owl through the ventilation holes in the carrier. Suddenly, what I thought was the squirrel jumped up from behind a log and ran to the base of a hemlock tree. It began scrambling up the trunk. I had never seen a squirrel like this, and there was a good reason for that. It wasn’t a squirrel; it was the owl. She was running and climbing instead of flying. I didn’t even know Screech Owls could do this, but she was able to scale the sheer side of the tree while flapping her wings for stability. Using this unlikely method, she actually made it ten feet up the trunk and onto a side branch where she found a perch. Honestly, if I hadn’t seen her do it I would have thought she had flown up to the perch. Obviously this wouldn’t do. There was no choice, we had to recapture this bird and bring her back to the rehabilitation facility. This was going to be tricky. Even though the bird couldn’t fly, it had proven how adept it was at climbing. We quickly went and retrieved a ladder; brought it back to the release site and very gently moved it in place next to the tree. Fortunately, I had Becca with me that day. She has had over ten years’ experience working with wildlife rehabilitators and in that time has done a lot of work with raptors including owls. The Screech Owl was not happy about our fussing around under him and her response was to scale up the tree another few feet. Becca put some thick gloves on and ascended the ladder. While standing on the “this is not a step” platform at the top of the ladder, she was just able to reach the owl. In one move she adroitly grasped the bird by the legs and talons and then carried her back down the ladder. It was as if she did this kind of thing every day. We put the owl back in the carrier and prepared to bring her back to the rehabilitator.

Some raptors that are unable to be released back into the wild become educational birds. Birds like the Screech Owl can be kept and cared for by people who have a federal license to keep raptors. These birds become emissaries for their kind and for raptors in general. An educator showing one of these un-releasable birds can inform the public about the habits and physiology of raptors and describe their crucial role in a healthy ecosystem.  The little Screech Owl written about here now lives at the Utica Zoo where she is used in their raptor education program. It’s a shame the owl is unable to live in the wild and have a chance to raise a family and do all the other things that owls do so well, but at least she will have a role in helping people understand birds of prey. With that understanding perhaps more of us will work to protect owl habitat and at the very least, learn to appreciate how incredible raptors are and how lucky we are to have so many species in our region.