©Bert Gildart: For almost a week we’ve been visiting the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum on a daily basis. Programs are many but one we’ve consistently attended is the Raptor Free Flight demonstration. It’s always exciting, but think of us waiting as we did yesterday for the return of a Red Tail Hawk. Apparently it had been diverted by its sighting of real prey rather than by the morsels of food handlers have been placing atop pads of cacti. Would it return? That was the concern of its handlers.
“Occasionally,” said Carol Hemmingway, the museum docent conducting the morning program, “one of our birds takes off. And it may not come back for an hour, a day or even several days. We have no real control over them. Just the other day our Red Tail Hawk found a bull snake, and because she’s not a skilled hunter, it was too much for her. She let it go, but then she returned.”
Beauty and power of flight, partially expressed by extended primaries. Harris's Hawk.
Because of action and potential for suspense, the Raptor Free Flight exhibition is one of the museum’s most popular program. Naturalists began the program in 1996, and did so using several captive birds that they had worked hard to condition. Time has shown that’s really the only way it will work. “We can’t even use rescued birds,” said another docent, “for eventually they want to take off and resume their wild ways. We need birds we’ve conditioned. Some may come from wild nests where adults have been killed. Those birds need our help.”
Currently, bird species used for the program include the Chihuahuan Raven, Harris’s Hawk, a Barn Owl, Great Horned Owl, Gray Hawk, Ferruginous Hawk, Peregrine Falcon, and the Prairie Falcon, but before the program begins the narrator explains the concept of “space.” Most importantly, your space.
“Birds know their space,” says the docent. “You probably don’t. Your space is from the top of your head to the soles of your shoes.” Just a few minutes into the program that precaution was dramatized.
L to R: Morsels of food and hand moves serve to direct the flight of birds, which can attract hundreds of spectators. Again, morsels of food control where a bird, the Gray Hawk, will perch.
Over one-hundred of us are now lined up along a 12-foot wide path delineated on each side by two 100-yard-long cabled fences. Though our Red Tail has apparently forgotten its lessons, museum birds have been conditioned by trainers to land at specific spots lured in each time by a morsel of food. Food might be a recently frozen (dead of course) mouse which managers purchase commercially. And now the action begins.
Several trainers place food items onto the branch of a saguaro cactus and we all watch as a Barn Owl swoops to snatch the morsel – and then gulp it down. On the other side of the fence another trainer waves his hand and secures yet another morsel of food. The bird fixes its attention on the food, flaps its wings vigorously and zooms to the other side of the path. And this is what is so exciting, for as the bird powers toward the food it is just inches above our heads.
“See!” exclaims Carol. “That’s why we don’t want you placing small children on your shoulders?” The remark draws a hearty but nervous laugh.
Other species are also used to include a prairie falcon and its speed and maneuverability draws more gasps. “Prairie falcons,” says Carol Hemmingway, “can dive at 200 miles per hour, making them one of the fastest of all birds. Only the Peregrine Falcon may be faster.”
Grace of the Great horned owl in flight
Though already listening closely, my ears really perk when Carol says that although there are 30 potential prairie falcon nesting sites in Arizona, only one remains. “Critical habitat is being lost to human expansion,” she emphasizes. And that, without her saying, is another reason the educational efforts of the museum are so important.
But what’s happened to our Red Tail Hawk?
The program lasted over half an hour, and just moments after our group began to disband, the Red Tail returned. “You can see that we don’t really control the birds,” says Carol. “But the birds are pretty smart and know from conditioning that this is where they want to stay.”
Another wonderful day at the Sonoran Desert Museum.
AIRSTREAM TRAVELS THIS TIME LAST YEAR
4th ed. Autographed by the Authors
Hiking Shenandoah National Park
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$16.95 + Autographed Copy
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$16.95 + Autographed Copy