What the Birds Taught Me

Red-tailed Hawk

It’s true that the best lessons come in the most unexpected places.  I spent a year working as a raptor handler and environmental educator at the Vermont Institute of Natural Science, a non-profit organization that cares for Vermont’s injured avian wildlife and gives a home to non-releasable birds that have sustained permanent injuries.  Going into it, I had no idea that several feathered carnivores would teach me the most important lessons I’ve learned in recent years.

The first thing the birds taught me was to be confident.  I learned this from the Harris’s Hawk, who became my best pal after I spent a winter cutting up his dinner of mice into small pieces, which I used to train him to fly between a perch and my glove.  Harris’s Hawks, unlike most raptors, are social creatures.  They live and hunt in family groups, and because they are used to working cooperatively, they are very trainable and commonly used in falconry.  However, their social nature means that one must be inducted into a Harris’s Hawk’s family flock before the bird is willing to do what you ask.  And until you’re accepted, they can be very aggressive.

Our Harris’s Hawk was no exception.  He would growl, he would lunge, he would adopt an intimidating stance, he would throw a sharply-taloned foot at me.  At first, whenever I put him in his crate to prepare for a program, he would slam his body, feet first, into the door of the crate as I closed it.  He would see me flinch.  Because he saw me flinch, he knew that he was in control, and he continued to slam around.  I knew that I had to stop flinching.  For fear of getting a few talons punched into my skin, I learned to be confident.

The second thing the birds taught me was to be happy.  My supervisor told me early on that the birds pick up on moods and body language and respond accordingly.  I learned this the hard way.  I went into work feeling sad one day, and the birds recognized this and let me know.  First, the one-winged Barred Owl refused to step up onto my glove.  My failure to get her on my glove only frustrated me, further adding to the negative vibe I was giving off.  The Turkey Vulture, a very sweet old lady who has been in captivity for more than 32 years, would not stop lunging at me and biting my hands with her sharp beak as I attempted to take off her leather jesses and anklets.  The Red-tailed Hawk flew into a tree instead of returning to my glove during the program.  And to top it all off, my dear friend the Harris’s Hawk turned away from me on a colleague’s glove, lifted his tail, and let an enormous projectile poop fly at me, hitting me straight in the chest and sliding down the entire length of my body, right before I went out on stage.  He has never pooped so much, before or since.  It was a terrible day at work, but I decided to never go to work upset or angry again.  I learned to be happy.

The birds never reacted so negatively to me again.  I still got plenty of poop on me every now and then, but they say it’s good luck if a bird poops on you, right?  If so, I have enough good luck to last me a lifetime.

It’s easy to consider the value of animals like raptors.  As top predators, they control rodent and other small animal populations.  They certainly provide an aesthetic value, enough to make one of them our national symbol.  But it is the moments that we share privately with wildlife that make us so grateful they share the Earth with us.  Seeing a Peregrine Falcon dive to catch its prey, watching the Turkey Vulture’s dark wings lift it up rising thermals of air, noticing a Red-tailed Hawk perched silently and stoically on the branch of a tree—these are the moments given to us to admire and appreciate nature’s beauty and ferocity.  I was lucky enough to get to know a few individuals.  And just like the other animals we get to know and love, these birds are much more like us than we think.

2 thoughts on “What the Birds Taught Me

  1. Jenna-

    I couldn’t help but giggle at this a little bit. I’ve done a good bit of operant conditioning too, with alpacas, lots of birds, turtles, bears, and primates. Every single animal has taught me more about myself than I ever “trained” them to do. I suppose that’s the top reason I love animals so much. No B.S., no passive-aggressiveness. It may be in their language- what they’re communicating, but they are not mincing words. The trick is being open to it. And you’re right. It is a compliment when they give us prompts to self-correct because they wouldn’t waste their time if you weren’t important enough.

    Harris’ Hawks are my favorite raptor too. What I wouldn’t give to see them in the wild, standing on one another’s shoulders to hunt. Birds are bad asses. Little dinosaurs, every one.

    I love your post!


  2. Sounds like you had a great experience Jenna. I began to pay more attention to raptors a few years ago more than just noticing them in flight. I’ve been followed and lead down paths and trails by Red-tailed hawks. I’ve watched a dozen turkey vultures surf the air and occasionally “chat”. I didn’t know about the Harris’ Hawks and their teamwork of hunting. Thank you for sharing this information, your thoughts, experiences and humorous incidents. The picture is absolutely incredible! – Greg

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