Saturday, June 8, 2013

Sky Hunters; raptor rehabilitation and education

I have a love for birds of prey, especially owls. My fascination with barn owls, in particular, boarders on obsession.  During my divorce last year, owls started showing up everywhere for me and they have stayed in my life ever since. I feel they are my totem, if there is such a thing. 
Native American medicine says owl teaches us to see through deception. She gives us the ability to understand people's true motives and the courage to move fearlessly and silently through the dark.
Knowing my affinity for owls and other raptors, Josh set up a tour at Sky Hunters in Alpine which is a raptor rehabilitation and education center.
You can check them out here:

After getting slightly lost, we arrived at Sky Hunters. The house is incredibly beautiful and is also a historic site in the city of Alpine.
We rang the bell and were greeted by a young girl who was a volunteer. 
She invited us in and took us to a small sun room that had several cages of owls and one with a kestrel which is one of the smallest species of falcon. 
The first cage had several burrowing owls. They are only about 4 inches tall. 
One of them was very precocious and stood up straight as we approached as if to say 
"Hey, who are you?!' 
(get it! whoooo are you...ok, I'll show myself out...)


We saw a screech owl who was very beautiful.

 These guys are permanent residents of Sky Hunters as they are not fit to be released.

Ah, my favorite. The barn owl. This owl has a wing that is damaged. She was very standoffish and did a defensive dance where she swayed back and forth slowly and low to the ground.

This guy is a long eared owl. His whole body was long! The tufts are feathers, not ears but you can see how he got his name. I learned that owls have ears that are off set, one higher than the other to give a full 360 of sound. They use their ears more than their eyes for hunting. I also learned that their eyes are fixed in their skull which is why the rotate their heads so far around when surveying the area.

 The owls were about to be fed so we moved our way to the back. We were greeted with "hello's" from a row of parrots next to the door and then the honks of these geese. The geese make a convincing argument for the 'dinosaurs turned into birds' theory, as the nobs on their nose look and sound prehistoric.

 We rounded the corner by the geese and met a crow whose favorite word was WOW! There were two ravens in the cage as well and we learned how to tell apart a raven from a crow. Crows have rounded tails which you can remember from the roundness of the letter 'C' in their name. Ravens have a 'V' shaped tail resembling the 'V' in their name. 
Crows vs. raVens. Good to know! 

 We looked at a bald eagle and a golden eagle that were sharing a cage. They were at one time in separate cages but continued to tear apart the fence in attempt to be together. The volunteers finally granted them their request and they have been buddies ever since. I learned that there is a mating pair of Bald Eagles in the Ramona grass lands as well as at Lake Hemet in Riverside County. Keep your eyes peeled!

There was also a few red tailed hawks in various sizes and color patterns. I learned that hawks can see UV light and will often sit on high perches surveying the ground below, looking for urine trails left by rodents in transit. That's like something straight out of CSI!

We learned about the ferruginous hawk, which is currently billed as the largest of all hawks. Apparently, there is scientific interest in moving him into the eagle family, making him the smallest of all eagles. I suppose, at any end of the spectrum, he is a cool bird.

There was also a great horned owl who called out his tell tale WHOOOO WHOOOOO as we approached. 

We spotted turkey vultures grooming themselves in a corner cage and I learned that since they live in dry, warm climates and cannot sweat, they will urinate on themselves to keep cool. Their urine is also highly acidic, which kills any parasites or bacteria. I also learned that there is a method behind the evolution of their bald heads as it won't let bacteria or parasites attach when it is head deep in an carcass.
Despite the reputation of a dirty bird whom subsists solely on carrion, they are actually constantly grooming and are very clean. When I see them in flight while on the trail I always think of Icarus who flew too close to the sun. They are huge birds with strong, defined wings.

We saw a peregrine falcon who can fly upwards of 200 mph and reach g-forces that would kill any other animal. Inside the Peregrine's nose is a cone shape that regulates the amount of air flow that is internalized while engaging in such high speed dives. This cone shape is the inspiration for the configuration of airplanes noses in order to achieve the same effect. Engineering inspired by nature. Gotta love that!

The fences and cages interfered with my photo taking, hence the lack of pictures of the above mentioned birds. I really should have taken notes. There was so much to learn and take in, my brain did not leave with all the info in tact. Below is a link to their website photography of said birds.

Finally, we came to a very large cage with several barn owls inside. Two of the owls are permanent residents of the facility and are foster parents to any owlets that come to be rehabilitated. We learned that in the case of most birds, the female is generally larger than the male. In the case of barn owls the females also have much darker markings around the eyes that resembles running mascara. All this time I thought I was drawing and painting female barn owls and they were in fact male. 
I learned that the number one killer for these beautiful birds is pesticides. The birds eat rodents who have eaten pesticides and then get sick themselves. It seems the human solution to the pests is killing off natures solution to the pests. A barn owl can eat up to 40 rodents per night. Don't call the exterminator, build an owl box in your nearest tree!

 As we came back into the house at the end of our tour we stopped by the kitchen where they were processing mice for dinner time. I wish I could have seen the birds eat but it would have been too much stress on them. Alas, I'll look for them in the wild.

The tour was awesome, the staff was super informative and the property was amazing. There is great work going on here. I highly recommend you take an hour or so to go check it out! They are by appointment only and a non-profit so donations are welcome. I have linked their website at the top and again here. Give them a call!! 

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