Nerding Out on Nature:

Because Earth is cooler than screens


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Why Do We Need Raptor Centers?

On October 29th–from 1 -2 PM at Writers & Books in Rochester, New York–I’ll be upstaged by an owl.

Happens all the time.9781634501477_p0_v2_s192x300

I love to do events for young readers around my new middle-grade novel, Avenging the Owl, in partnership with the area’s local raptor rehabilitation center. Staff bring live birds on the glove and introduce audiences to each, telling a little about the natural and personal history of the raptors in their care.

I talk about what inspired me to write the book (volunteering at my own rehabilitation center with injured birds of prey while courting another volunteer who would eventually become my husband). I also talk about why we need raptor centers in the first place.

Raptors occupy the lofty top of the food chain. They’re an indicator species, which means we can study changes in the environment, including our climate, by looking at them. For example, thin-shelled eggs and babies not hatching? When scientists noticed this, they traced the issue back to pesticide use, and environmental activists worked to ban certain crop poisons which rodents would ingest and pass on to birds.

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This Western screech owl lost her eye in a battle with a cat.

Do you like rats and mice? Me, too. But I don’t want to wade through a sea of them on my way to the mailbox. Raptors keep our rodent population down to healthy levels. A single barn owl can eat 1,300 rats a year. Burrowing owls chow down mass quantities of insects and beetles; again, I’m fond of these, too, but a few of them go a long, long way.

The issue that threatens raptors (owls, eagles, hawks, falcons, osprey, vultures, and kites) is . . . well, to put it bluntly, us. We like to drive fast, and we end up colliding with birds that swoop across the highway in search of mice. We put up barbed wire fences, and owls get horrifically tangled in them. We put out rat poison, and rats ingest it, but then raptors eat them and become ill. We cut down trees with nests in them, and parents fly off, leaving owls orphaned.

Barn Owl Damaged Wing.JPG

Photo by Jonathan B. Smith

Fortunately, raptor centers exist across the world to help preserve threatened birds of prey. Staff and volunteers dedicate their lives to providing them with medication, food, water, and clean and enriching home environments. Want to support your local raptor center? Here’s a list of rehabilitation centers by state. Many invite visitors to walk around and meet the birds. In some, you can even hold a birthday party or, in my case, a wedding.

 

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Me, releasing a rehabilitated hawk on my wedding day. No white dress here!

On Saturday, I’ll be doing a presentation with staff and birds from Wild Wings, Inc. in upstate New York. They’re wonderful people devoted to caring for raptors and teaching us about the value and beauty of these birds of prey. Yes, their resident owl is sure to upstage me.

It’s totally worth it.

For more information on the Rochester, NY event, click here.  I’ll also appear at Barnes & Noble in Eugene, Oregon on November 11th, 11 AM.

–Melissa

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Owl Pellets and Owl Pellet Cookies: Don’t get them mixed up!

I offer you an important lesson today, my friends, one that could very likely save you from walking around with mouse bones stuck in your teeth.

This is an owl pellet:

owl-pellets

And these are owl pellet cookies:

Owl Pellet Cookies.jpg

Why should you care? Because owl pellets are a hoot and a half to dissect.

Here’s the deal. Whenever possible, owls swallow their prey whole. But they can’t digest the entire mouse or rat or songbird or snake. So about once a day, the owl’s stomach makes a pellet with fur and feathers on the outside, and sharp bones of the prey on the inside.

Let me dispel a major misconception right now: a pellet comes out of the beak-end of the bird, people, not the butt! You can find them on the ground under trees when you’re hiking, or order them online, and then pull them apart with tweezers to see what the owl had for a meal.

Here’s a group of kids examining owl pellets after my latest Raptors Rule! slideshow and reading from my novel, Avenging the Owl at the lovely Third Place Books Ravenna, Seattle.

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Dissecting owl pellets is fun, and for a really good time, combine this activity with owl pellet cookies.

Hey, wouldn’t this make for a most excellent birthday party?!

Here’s a deliciously-weird recipe from Jane Hammerslough’s super-fun, super-sciency book, Owl Puke.

owlpuke

Owl pellet cookies

Servings: 36 to 45 cookies

6 cups crispy rice cereal

2 cups semisweet or milk chocolate chips

1 cup sugar

1 cup corn syrup

1 cup peanut butter

2 white chocolate candy bar, chopped into bonelike bits

Foil for wrapping pellets

1. Mix cereal and chocolate chips in a large bowl. Set aside.

2. Mix sugar and corn syrup in a small pan and heat until bubbling.

3. Remove sugar-syrup mixture from heat and stir in peanut butter.

4. Stir peanut butter mixture into cereal and chocolate chips and mix together well. The chocolate chips will melt. When the cereal is coated, allow the mixture to cool.

5. Put 2 tablespoons of the mixture into your hand. Sprinkle 4 to 5 white chocolate bone and skull pieces on top.

6. Squeeze mixture in your fist until it looks like an owl pellet. Wrap, if you’d like, in a small square of foil.

Mmm. So tasty. What’s your favorite owl-related activity? Feel free to comment here!


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Bart King, Author and Bird Lover

You probably know Portland author Bart King from his books, The Big Book of Boy Stuff and the Big Book of Girl Stuff. He’s also written numerous other nonfiction books, and now, he’s got a novel!

Titled The Drake Equation, it’s the story of birdwatcher Noah Grow, a boy who starts out on a quest to find a wood duck and ends up on an intergalactic adventure.

drake equation

On Wednesday May 4th at 7 PM, Bart King and I will host a family-friendly literary event at Powell’s Books at Cedar Hills Crossing . We’ll talk about his book, and about my new novel Avenging the Owl, then debate which bird is cooler–black swifts or great horned owls.

Learn about birds with our slide show presentation and Avian Trivia game, and stay for our reading and book signing. This event is ideal for anyone who loves wildlife and wit.

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Author Bart King

I caught up with Bart King earlier this week to ask him about his new novel. Here’s what he had to say:

Melissa Hart: What is it about black swifts that intrigues you, and why did you want to include this particular bird in The Drake Equation? Have you seen these birds in person, and if so, where? 

Bart King: First off, I’ve never seen a black swift personally. Almost nobody has! They’re very rare, canny, and private.

About two years ago, I read a short book about black swifts, and was amazed to discover this mysterious, rare little bird that nests behind waterfalls. So I imagined a young birdwatcher named Noah who thinks he *might* have seen a black swift.

But if Noah was secretly watching the black swifts, was it possible that someone (or something) else was watching Noah? (The story took off from there!)

Melissa Hart: Tell me about your relationship to wood ducks.

Aix sponsa (Wood Duck - Brautente)

Aix sponsa (Wood Duck – Brautente)

Bart King: In 1971, I was living in a small town in California called Sebastopol. It has wetlands on its east border (now known as the Laguna Wetlands Preserve), and wood ducks lived there. As a community project, I helped build and install nesting boxes for the birds. (Wood ducks are unusual in that they perch and nest in trees). Anyone who’s ever seen a wood duck knows how absolutely beautiful they are—and I’ve remained impressed ever since!

Melissa Hart: Let’s say you have a whole weekend free to travel to your favorite spot in the Pacific Northwest. Where will we find you?

Bart King: You’re going to think I’m a freak—but I might just stay home and work. (To explain that a bit, I’ll just add that given what we know about climate change, the idea of driving a car somewhere for fun has become completely “alien” to me.)

Melissa Hart: Are you working on another book now, and if so, can you tell us a bit about it?

Bart King: The Drake Equation was conceived with a large story arc with a natural halfway point. That point is where the novel ends. If the story attracts enough readers, then I’ll get a chance to finish the tale I envisioned. (Oh please oh please)

I’ve also just finished a funny novel called Three Weeks to Live (Give or Take). Among other things, it’s a “SickLit” satire about a teen girl named Jackie who nearly gets hit by a meteorite in her PE class. (Her tennis partner is not so lucky.) Jackie finds herself becoming a reluctant celebrity—but she may not be around long enough to enjoy her new status.

For more about author Bart King, visit his website at http://www.bartking.net/. And see him in person with me at Powell’s Books, Cedar Crossing, 7 PM Wednesday May 4th.

BartMelissaBooks

Awestruck Over Birds of Prey at California Raptor Center

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“Mom!  There’s an owl in the bookstore!”

From where I stood, I could see the little boy round the corner of a shelf and skid to a halt with his mouth open.  I felt his awe.  In front of 50 or so people on folding chairs at the Avid Reader in Davis, California perched three raptors–a burrowing owl, a  Western screech owl, and a great horned owl.  Staff and volunteers from the California Raptor Center spoke about the birds and their work as raptor rehabilitators in conjunction with a reading from my new memoir, Wild Within: How Rescuing Owls Inspired a Familya book about how I learned to train owls for educational presentations such as this one while waiting 2 1/2 years to adopt my daughter.

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Volunteers from California Raptor Center wax poetic about birds of prey. (Photo from California Raptor Center.)

A week later, she and my husband and I visited the California Raptor Center.  On a sunny September morning, we parked under oak trees and met another volunteer who led us around the wood-and-wire mews.  (Raptor folks call their big bird cages mews.)  Such centers exist around the world; often, they’re open to the public on specific days of the week or during annual open house celebrations.  Staff and volunteers perform a multitude of duties–they treat injured birds of prey who may have collided with a car or ingested rat poison or tangled with a cat; they hand-feed orphaned baby birds with the goal of releasing them into the wild; they feed resident birds and clean their mews daily; they do educational presentations for the public on the natural history of the birds and on the importance of raptor conservation.

Mews at the California Raptor Center

Mews at the California Raptor Center

Resident raptors live at such centers because they have permanent injuries.  A bird of prey with one eye or a bum wing or an unhealthy preoccupation with humans (usually because it’s been illegally raised from an egg) can’t hunt in the wild.  These birds can live over 20 years in captivity, thanks to staff and volunteers who dedicate their life to serving them. Mikey, a red shouldered hawk at the California Raptor Center, arrived in 1996 as a chick.  Staff discovered a lesion in one eye; the eye eventually disappeared.  He’s an education bird, which means he’s calm around people when sitting on a glove or perch for an educational program.

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Mikey, the red shouldered hawk

I take my University of Oregon journalism students to Eugene’s Cascades Raptor Center whenever possible.  It’s especially gratifying to watch people who’ve confessed to a fear of birds as they learn–over an hour of wandering the grounds–how very cool raptors can be.  Peregrine falcons, for instance, fly straight down in pursuit of prey and achieve 200 mph speeds.  Owls can rotate their head 270 degrees either way; lopsided ear placement gives them a powerful range of hearing, and silent flight allows them to sail down on smaller birds and rodents and scoop up a midnight snack in the dark.  And there’s this:

Rodents!

After we looked at the birds on display at the raptor center, we stepped into a wonderful little museum.  Here, adults and children alike can spend hours learning about raptors.  We looked at the taxidermy birds (much easier to examine than their live counterparts behind wire) and dissected owl pellets.  Owls swallow their prey whole, but can’t digest bones and beaks and other sharp parts.  They cough up a pellet which volunteers dry and then set out for visitors to pull apart in search of rodent skulls and other fascinating tidbits.

Interested in visiting a raptor center in your area?  Partial List of Raptor Centers in the U.S. If you can’t find one close to you, do a search online and prepare to be awestruck!

Owl Pellets

Visitors can explore the California Raptor Center Monday through Friday from 9 AM to 4 PM, and Saturdays from 9 AM to noon.  Admission is free; donations are gratefully appreciated.  CRC is located at 1340 Equine Lane, Davis,California. 530-752-9994 http://www.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/calraptor