November 23, 2014
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Raptors descend on Central Library
Jen Cowart
DOING THE NICHE SWITCH: The Screech Owl is the counterpart to the American Kestrel. This one is blind in one eye because it was hit by a car.

Thanks to the Friends of Cranston Public Libraries, Born to Be Wild Wildlife Rehabilitation Nature Center visited the patrons at the Central Library last week as part of February vacation week activities.

John and Vivian Maxson, owners and operators of the center, brought with them four different raptors who reside at their facility in Bradford: a Barn Owl, an American Kestrel, a Screech Owl and a Red Tailed Hawk.

Before bringing the raptors out for the children and their families to see, they educated the audience about their rehabilitation center, using a digital slide show.

"We started Born to Be Wild 13 years ago, and we took care of every kind of wildlife that people brought us," said Vivian Maxson. "But then we realized, nobody rehabs birds of prey, so we started just doing birds of prey."

Most of the wildlife that they get into their center has been injured, and most times it's a result of "man's impact on wildlife" that's done the damage.

The Maxsons gave the group a head-to-toe overview of the visual aspects of raptors, explaining some of the indicators to look for when sighting birds of prey.

"Birds of prey are very visual. Two-thirds of their head are their eyes. They have binocular vision so they can see eight times the visual acuity of man," Vivian said. "Their beaks are curved carnivore beaks, used for tearing meat off of bones."

Vivian stated that all birds of prey have powerful feet, and gave the example of a hawk's talons, which are sharp and have strong, crushing power in them.

"A hawk can pop a leather basketball like a balloon. Their talons are not just sharp, but they have a deadly grip," she said. She noted that the only exception to that is the vulture, whose prey is usually already dead, and therefore does not need such sharp talons.

Although birds of prey have strong eyesight and strong beaks and talons, their sense of smell is not very strong.

"It's an old wives' tale when they say that you cannot put a baby bird back into the nest because the mother bird will smell the human scent and reject it," Vivian said. "We've put baby birds back into nests for years and the mothers don't even know."

She said that most birds of prey, with the exception of owls, who like to locate their prey from within the trees, are very good fliers and specifically pointed out the peregrine falcon as being the fastest bird on the planet, clocked at over 200 miles per hour.

"There's no living equivalent for speed," she said.

She taught the group about the term "Niche Switch," which refers to the fact that for every type of owl, there is either a hawk or a falcon that serves as its counterpart.

"For each owl, there is a hawk or falcon that is the same size, uses the same type of nest and hunts the same type of prey. But, they are never in competition with each other because one is a day bird and one has night activity," she said. "Nature has balanced it out so that when the hawk is done during the day, the owl takes over."

She gave several Rhode Island examples.

"The Red Tailed Hawk's counterpart is the Great Horned Owl. They use the same sort of stick nest and they eat the same prey: squirrels, mice, skunks," she said. She noted that if only the hawk hunted mice, for example, the world would be too overrun with mice because they reproduce in such large numbers.

Another native example of the Niche Switch is the Barred Owl and its counterpart, the Red Shouldered Hawk. Two birds that defy the rules of the Niche Switch, both nesting on the ground during the daytime, are the Short Eared Owl and the Northern Harrier Hawk, both of which nest around salt marshes.

"This is the time of year for you to go out looking for raptor nests," Vivian said. "They're nesting now, they sit on their eggs for 28 days and then for the first week or so after they hatch, the mother will stay with them to keep them warm. They're usually found 50 to 60 feet up in the crook of a tree."

Following the slideshow presentation, the Maxsons took out the birds of prey, one at a time, and walked them around the room so that the audience could get a close-up, personal look at them. Each was being rehabilitated at their nature center in Bradford, some to be released back into the wild if possible, and others to be integrated into their educational programs if release into the wild was not possible.

For more information on the center, visit Born To Be Wild Nature Center on Facebook or email the Maxsons at btbw-nature-center@excite.com.


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