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Those of you who are more interested in the stories than in some chatty author stuff should just skip this part, since it will be mostly about the things people used to ask us about at science fiction conventions.

For those of you who have never heard of SF conventions (or "cons" as they are usually called), these are gatherings of people who are quite fanatical about their interest in one or more of the various fantasy and science fiction media. There are talks and panel discussions on such wildly disparate topics as costuming, prop-making, themes in SF/F literature, Star Wars, Star Trek, Babylon 5, X-Files, SF/F art, medieval fighting, horse-training, dancing, and the world of fans in general. There are workshops on writing and performance arts. Guests featured in panels and question and answer sessions are often featured performers from television and movies along with various authors and the occasional professional propmaker. Larry and I no longer attend conventions for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that we have a great many responsibilities that require us to be home.

Some of those responsibilities are that we are volunteers for our local fire department. Larry is a driver and outside man; I am learning to do dispatch, and hopefully will be able to take over the night shift, since we are awake long after most of the rest of the county has gone to sleep. Our local department is strictly volunteer and works on a very tight budget. Our equipment is old and needs frequent repair, we get what we can afford, and what we can afford is generally third or fourth-hand, having passed through a large metropolitan department or the military to a small municipal department to the Forestry Service and finally to us. In summer I am a water-carrier at grass-fires, meaning that I bring drinking-water to the overheated firefighters so they don't collapse in the 100 plus degree heat.

Another duty is with the EOC (formerly called the Civil Defense Office). When we are under severe weather conditions, the firefighters are called in to wait at the station in case of emergency, so Larry is there. I go in to the EOC office to read weather-radar for the storm-watchers in the field. Eventually I hope to get my radio license so I can also join the ranks of the storm-watchers. We don't "chase" as such, although there are so few of the storm-watchers that they may move to active areas rather than staying put. Doppler radar can only give an indication of where there is rotation in the clouds; rotation may not produce a tornado. You have to have people on the ground in the area to know if there is a funnel or a tornado (technically, it isn't a tornado until it touches the ground; until then it is a funnel-cloud). Our area of Oklahoma is not quite as active as the area of the Panhandle or around Oklahoma City and Norman (which is why the National Severe Storms Laboratory is located there) but we get plenty of severe, tornado-producing storms.

In addition, we have our raptor rehabilitation duties.

Larry and I are raptor rehabilitators; this means that we are licensed by both the state and the federal government to collect, care for, and release birds of prey that are injured or ill. Occasionally we are asked to bring one of our "patients" for a talk to a group of adults or children, often under the auspices of our local game wardens.

I'm sure this sounds very exciting and glamorous, and it certainly impresses the heck out of people when we bring in a big hawk riding on a gloved hand, but there are times when I wonder how we managed to get ourselves into this.

We have three main "seasons"—baby season, stupid fledgling season, and inexpert hunter season.

Now, injuries—and victims of idiots with guns—can come at any time. We haven't had too many shooting victims in our area, thank heavens, in part because the cattle-farmers around our area know that shooting a raptor only adds field rats and mice to their property. But another rehabber gave up entirely a few years ago, completely burned out, because she got the same redtail hawk back three times, shot out of the sky. Injuries that we see in our area are most often the case of collision—literally—with man's environmental changes. Birds hit windows that seem to them to be sky, Great Blue Herons collide with power-lines, raptors get electrocuted by those same lines. But most often, we get birds hit by cars. Owls will chase prey across the road, oblivious to the fact that something is approaching, and get hit. Raptors are creatures of opportunity and will quite readily come down to feed on roadkill and get hit. Great Horned Owls, often called the "tigers of the sky," are top predators, known to chase even eagles off nests to claim the nest for themselves—if a Great Horned is eating roadkill and sees a car approaching, it will stand its ground, certain that it will get the better of anything daring to try to snatch its dinner! After all, they have been developing and evolving for millions of years, and swiftly moving vehicles have only been around for about seventy-five years; they haven't had nearly enough time to adapt to the situation as a species. Individuals do learn, though, often to take advantage of the situation. Kestrels and redtails are known to hang around fields being harvested to snatch the field-rats running from the machinery, or suddenly exposed after the harvesters have passed. Redtails are also known to hang about railway right-of-ways, waiting for trains to spook out rabbits!

Our current education bird, a big female redtail we call Cinnamon, is one such victim; struck in the head by a CB whip-antenna, she has only one working eye and just enough brain damage to render her partially paralyzed on one side and make her accepting and calm in our presence. This makes her a great education-bird, as nothing alarms her and children can safely touch her, giving them a new connection with wild things that they had never experienced before.

But back to the three "seasons" of a raptor rehabber, and the different kinds of work they involve.

First is "baby season," which actually extends from late February through to July, beginning with Great Horned Owl babies and ending when the second round of American Kestrels (sparrowhawks, or "spawks" as falconers affectionately call them) begins to push their siblings out of nests. The first rule of baby season is—try to get the baby back into the nest, or something like the nest. Mother birds are infinitely better at taking care of their youngsters than any human, so when wind or weather send babies (eyases, is the correct term) tumbling, that is our first priority. This almost always involves climbing, which means that poor Larry puts on his climbing gear and dangles from trees. When nest and all have come down, we supply a substitute, in as close to the same place as possible; raptor mothers are far more fixated on the kids than the house, and a box filled with branches will do nicely, thank you.

Sometimes, though, it's not possible to put the eyases back. Youngsters are found with no nest in sight, or the nest is literally unreachable (a Barn Owl roost in the roof of an institution for the criminally insane, for instance), or worst of all, the parents are known to be dead.

Young raptors eat a lot. Kestrels need feeding every hour or so, bigger birds every two to three, and that's from dawn to dusk. We've taken eyases with us to doctor's appointments, on vacation, on shopping expeditions, and even to racing school! And we're not talking Gerber's here; "mom" (us) gets to take the mousie, dissect the mousie, and feed the mousie parts to baby. By hand. Yummy! Barred Owl eyases are the easiest of the lot; they'll take minnows, which are of a size to slip down their little throats easily, but not the rest. There's no use thinking you can get by with a little chicken, either—growing babies need a lot of calcium for those wonderful hollow bones that they're growing so fast, so they need the whole animal.

Fortunately, babies do grow up, and eventually they'll feed themselves. Then it's just a matter of helping them learn to fly (which involves a little game we call "Hawk Tossing") and teaching them to hunt. The instincts are there; they just need to connect instinct with practice. But this is not for the squeamish or the tender-hearted; for the youngsters to grow up and have the skills to make them successful, they have to learn to kill.

The second season can stretch from late April to August, and we call it "silly fledgling season." That's when the eyases, having learned to fly at last, get lost. Raptor mothers—with the exception of Barn Owls—continue to feed the youngsters and teach them to hunt after they've fledged, but sometimes wind and weather again carry the kids off beyond finding their way back to mom. Being inexperienced flyers and not hunters at all yet, they usually end up helpless on the ground, which is where we come in.

These guys are actually the easiest and most rewarding; they know the basics of flying and hunting, and all we have to do is put some meat back on their bones and give them a bit more experience. We usually have anywhere from six to two dozen kestrels at this stage every year, which is when we get a fair amount of exercise, catching grasshoppers for them to hunt.

Then comes the "inexpert hunter" season, and I'm not referring to the ones with guns. Some raptors are the victims of a bad winter, or the fact that they concentrated on those easy-to-kill grasshoppers while their siblings had graduated to more difficult prey. Along about December, we start to get the ones that nothing much is wrong with except starvation. Sometimes starvation has gone too far for them to make it; frustrating and disappointing for us.

We've gotten all sorts of birds over the years; our wonderful vet, Dr. Paul Welch (on whom may blessings be heaped!) treats wildlife for free, and knows that we're always suckers for a challenge, so he has gotten some of the odder things to us. We've had two Great Blue Herons, for instance. One was an adult that had collided with a powerline. It had a dreadful fracture, and we weren't certain if it would be able to fly again (it did) but since we have a pond, we figured we could support a land-bound heron. In our ignorance, we had no idea that Great Blues are terrible challenges to keep alive because they are so shy; we just waded right in, force-feeding it minnows when it refused to eat, and stuffing the minnows right back down when it tossed them up. This may not sound so difficult, but remember that a Great Blue has a two-foot sword on the end of its head, a spring-loaded neck to put some force behind the stab, and the beak-eye coordination to impale a minnow in a foot of water. It has no trouble targeting your eye.

We fed it wearing welding-masks.

We believe very strongly in force-feeding; our experience has been that if you force-feed a bird for two to three days, it gives up trying to die of starvation and begins eating on its own. Once again, mind you, this is not always an easy proposition; we're usually dealing with fully adult birds who want nothing whatsoever to do with us, and have the equipment to enforce their preferences. We very seldom get a bird that is so injured that it gives us no resistance. Great Horned Owls can exert pressure of 400 ft/lbs per talon, which can easily penetrate a Kevlar-lined welding glove, as I know personally and painfully.

That is yet another aspect of rehabbing that most people don't think about—injury. Yours, not the bird's. We've been "footed" (stabbed with talons), bitten, pooped on (okay, so that's not an injury, but it's not pleasant), gouged, and beak-slashed. And we have to stand there and continue doing whatever it was that earned us those injuries, because it certainly isn't the bird's fault that he doesn't recognize the fact that you're trying to help him.

We also have to know when we're out of our depth, or when the injury is so bad that the bird isn't releasable, and do the kind and responsible thing. Unless a bird is so endangered that it can go into a captive breeding project, or is the rare, calm, quiet case like Cinnamon who will be a perfect education bird, there is no point in keeping one that can't fly or hunt again. You learn how to let go and move on very quickly, and just put your energy into the next one.

On the other hand, we have personal experience that raptors are a great deal tougher than it might appear. We've successfully released one-eyed hawks, who learn to compensate for their lack of binocular vision very well. Birds with one "bad" leg learn to strike only with the good one. One-eyed owls are routine for us now; owls mostly hunt by sound anyway and don't actually need both eyes. But the most amazing is that another rehabber in our area has routinely gotten successful releases with owls that are minus a wingtip; evidently owls are such strong fliers that they don't need their entire wingspan to prosper, and that is quite amazing and heartening.

We've learned other things, too; one of the oddest is that owls by-and-large don't show gradual recovery from head-injuries. They will go on, day after day, with nothing changing—then, suddenly, one morning you have an owl fighting to get out of the box you've put him in to keep him quiet and contained! We've learned that once birds learn to hunt, they prefer fresh-caught dinner to the frozen stuff we offer; we haven't had a single freeloader keep coming back long after he should be independent. We've learned that "our" birds learn quickly not to generalize about humans feeding them—once they are free-flying (but still supplementing their hunting with handouts) they don't bother begging for food from anyone but those who give them the proper "come'n'get it" signal, and even then they are unlikely to get close to anyone they don't actually recognize.

We already knew that eyases in the "downy" stage, when their juvenile plumage hasn't come in and they look like little white puffballs, will imprint very easily, so we quickly turn potentially dangerous babies (like Great Horned Owls) over to rehabbers who have "foster moms"—non-releasable birds of the right species who will at least provide the right role-model for the youngsters. Tempting as the little things are, so fuzzy and big-eyed, none of us wants an imprinted Great Horned coming back in four or five years when sexual maturity hits, looking for love in all the wrong places! Remember those talons?

For us, though, all the work is worth the moment of release, when we take the bird that couldn't fly, or the now-grown-up and self-sufficient baby, and turn him loose. For some, we just open the cage door and step back; for others, there's a slow process called "hacking out," where the adolescent comes back for food until he's hunting completely on his own. In either case, we've performed a little surgery on the fragile ecosystem, and it's a good feeling to see the patient thriving.

Those who have caught the raptor-bug seem like family; we associate with both rehabber and falconers. If you are interested in falconry—and bear in mind, it is an extremely labor-intensive hobby—contact your local Fish and Wildlife department for a list of local falconers, and see if you can find one willing to take you as an apprentice. If you want to get into rehab, contact Fish and Wildlife for other rehabbers who are generally quite happy to help you get started.

Here are some basic facts about birds of prey. Faloners call the young in the nest an eyas; rehabbers and falconers call the very small ones, covered only in fluff, "downies." In the downy stage, they are very susceptible to imprinting; if we have to see babies we would rather they were at least in the second stage, when the body-feathers start to come in. That is the only time that the feathers are not molted; the down feathers are actually attached to the juvenile feathers, and have to be picked off, either by the parent or the youngster. Body-feathers come in first, and when they are about half-grown, the adults can stop brooding the babies, for they can retain their body-heat on their own, and more importantly, the juvenile feathers have a limited ability to shed water, which the down will not do. If a rainstorm starts, for instance, the downies will be wet through quickly before a parent can return to the nest to cover them, they'll be hypothermic in seconds and might die; babies in juvenile plumage are safe until a parent gets back to cover them.

When eyases never fight in the nest over food this means both that their environmeent provides a wealth of prey and that their parents are excellent hunters. If they are hungry, the youngest of the eyases often dies or is pushed out of the nest to die.

Redtails can have up to four offspring; two is usual. Although it is rare, they have been known to double-clutch if a summer is exceptionally long and warm. They may also double-clutch if the first batch is infertile.

Redtails in captivity can live up to twenty-five years; half that is usual in the wild. They can breed at four years old, though they have been known to breed as young as two. In their first year they do not have red tails and their body-plumage is more mottled than in older birds; this is called "juvenile plumage" and is a signal to older birds that these youngsters are no threat to them. Kestrels do not have juvenile plumage, nor do most owls, and eagles hold their juvenile plumage for four years. Kestrels live about five years in the wild, up to fifteen in captivity, eagles live fifty years in captivity and up to twenty-five in the wild.

Should you find an injured bird of prey, you need three things for a rescue: a heavy blanket or jacket, cohesive bandage (the kind of athletic wrap that sticks to itself), and a heavy, dark-colored sock. Throw the blanket over the victim, locate and free the head and pull the sock over it. Locate the feet, and wrap the feet together with the bandage; keep hold of the feet, remove the blanket, get the wings folded in the "resting" position and wrap the body in cohesive bandage to hold the wings in place. Make a ring of a towel in the bottom of a cardboard box just big enough to hold the bird, and put the bird in the box as if it was sitting in a nest. Take the sock off and quickly close up the box and get the victim to a rehabber, a local game warden or Fish and Wildlife official, or a vet that treats injured wildlife. Diurnal raptors are very dependent on their sight; take it away and they "shut down"—which is the reason behind the traditional falcon-hood. By putting the sock over the head, you take away the chief source of stress, the sight of enormous two-legged predators bearing down on it.


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