A Love Letter to Merlin
In case you haven’t run into me at a coffee shop or brewery in McCall yet, my name is Sierra and I’m the new facility manager at Snowdon. Previous to this job, I was a condor biologist based near the Grand Canyon. It took five years of moving every six months from internship to wildlife technician job to gain enough experience that I could convince The Peregrine Fund to offer me that permanent position. I loved every minute of chasing condors through the desert, but I knew after a year and a half, it was time for me to continue with my career and find an opportunity that would provide me with a fresh set of challenges. Coming into this experience, I wasn’t sure what to expect from such a daunting managerial position. As the only full-time, year-round employee at the organization, you have to be prepared for long hours, constant phone calls, crazy animal rescues, and a surprising amount of computer work. On top of the responsibilities of running a non-profit wildlife rehabilitation and outreach center, you also have the added complications that come with functioning 100% off the grid. With all of this in mind, I knew I was about to learn how to tackle more than a few new obstacles. Mary, our previous manager who worked here for four years, left some big shoes to fill when she headed off to Alaska.
Though I have worked with raptors (hawks, eagles, vultures, owls…) for over three years now, this is my first time caring for individuals that permanently live in captivity. These animals are called “ambassadors” and help wildlife outreach centers teach the public about nature and, hopefully, improve the way that society interacts with it. Ambassadors are generally animals that have been deemed non-releasable and have a calm enough disposition that they can be trained to be around people. Having a live animal at an event is a great way to get people’s attention and will generally drive home your message about conservation better than a pelt or skull ever could. Take it from a person that has worked for nonprofits for five years, this is a wildly effective way to get the public interested in your cause.
Here at Snowdon, we have two ambassador birds; Indy the peregrine falcon and Merlin the great horned owl. When I first arrived here in February, both birds had only been to a handful of presentations since the beginning of the pandemic, so I knew I had my work cut out for me. Not only did I need to learn how to care for and handle captive raptors, but I also needed to accomplish this task with two birds that had grown used to their reclusive lifestyles. I started this journey by shadowing a friend of mine at The Peregrine Fund’s World Center for Birds of Prey. Kelsey is a raptor specialist at the center and has done incredible things for their training program. I am so grateful that I met her when she came down and visited our condor crew in Arizona because she is an absolute wealth of knowledge. Thanks to her, I learned the basics of how to get a bird on my glove and the more complicated aspects of keeping a wild animal happy and healthy in a captive setting. She sent me home with a stack of journal articles and some helpful advice on how to win a bird over.
Before meeting up with Kelsey in Boise, I tried to get Merlin on the glove once on my own. I have seen people give presentations with raptors and figured it should be easy enough. I could not have been more wrong. Merlin is a stoic and incredibly confident gentleman. He makes it clear when he wants you out of his space and is not one to be submissive. This makes him a great ambassador because he is not in the least bit afraid of people. He knows that he’s the boss and that he can leave any situation whenever he pleases. With that being said, these traits don’t make him the most trainable bird for a beginner. Armed with the knowledge that Kelsey was nice enough to pass along to me, and a bit of new confidence after handling one of their birds, I decided that I needed a new approach to our cranky old man. Based on what I had read, a bird is unlikely to work with you if they are 1) overweight or 2) unhealthy. I called our wildlife vet to come out and give our birds their annual check-up. Thankfully, Merlin was in great health except for the fact that he was 0.5 kg overweight! Like many of us during quarantine, he had gained a few inches around the waistline without anyone noticing. I finally found the first step in his new training regime, put that boy on a diet.
Step two proved to be a test of patience. Merlin tends to hiss and strike at you when you try to get close to him. I hoped that if I showed him I was not a threat to his safety he might learn to be calmer around me. I started hanging out in the corner of his enclosure for ten-minute increments throughout the day and would only leave when he was completely calm. You train most animals using positive reinforcement by providing food when they display your target behavior. I couldn’t get within 5 ft of Merlin so I realized I could use my exit as his positive reinforcer when he stopped displaying aggressive behaviors. Slowly but surely I was able to move closer to his perch without him striking or hissing. It took weeks of hanging out with him to attempt touching his jesses (leather straps that hang from his ankles) without active aggression on his part. I would reach out and hold his jesses and let him strike at my glove for as long as he liked, but would only move away once he calmed down. He began to learn that biting was not going to get him where he wanted to go and displayed calm behaviors quicker and quicker.
Though progress was slow, he and I continued to move in the right direction. I was grateful that I seemed to be earning Merlin’s trust through my own brut stubbornness and determination. After about a month of this style of training, I decided to ask him to step onto the glove again. As always, he initially protested with a few hisses and snaps, but after a few seconds, he calmed down enough that I could grab his jesses and put my gloved hand behind his deadly sharp talons. Sure enough, he stepped right up. I was floored. There was no way that my training worked! I looked at him a foot from my face and he locked eyes with me, letting out a small hiss. In my excitement, I had forgotten that ambush predators don’t appreciate eye contact. I quickly looked down and tried to decide what I should do next. To be honest, I hadn’t come up with the next step in case this worked. I decided to take him on a short walk around the property and see how he reacted. He stayed incredibly calm and took in his surroundings. This was his first time out of his enclosure in months. Merlin watched the songbirds flitting between the trees, the turkey vulture soaring in the thermals above us, and the ground squirrels skittering between the bushes alongside the driveway. He seemed… happy? I decided I shouldn’t push my luck and made a loop back to his enclosure. Not only was I worried that I’d ruin a great training session, but also 4 lbs at the end of your arm are heavier than you might think and my bicep was starting to tremble. I walked back through the double door entry to his enclosure and stooped down to let him onto his training perch. He hopped right off and turned around to face me as I took my glove off. I thanked him for his time, leaving him to nap until dusk descended.
Ever since that day, Merlin and I have strolled the property at least once a week, often taking a pit stop on the scale to check on his weight loss progress. I am happy to report that he is already halfway to his target weight and our working relationship continues to get better and better. He and I have already given 14 presentations in my four short months working for Snowdon. Our first appearance together was at Roots Forest School in Ponderosa State Park. The preschool students were so infatuated with him that I stood and answered questions for almost an hour. If you know anything about 4-year-olds, you realize how incredible it is that they were willing to sit still for that long. Education and outreach quickly became my favorite part of being the facility manager. Watching kids interact with Merlin and teaching people about the animals that I have dedicated my career to protecting, is more fulfilling than I could have ever imagined. The questions that three to five-year-olds come up with are beyond anything that I could have thought to research ahead of time. I love igniting a passion and respect for wildlife in the next generation at such a formative age. Wildlife rehab is important because we are working to mitigate the negative effect that humans have on animals, but education can help change the way we interact with wildlife and decrease the number of animals that need rehab.
So this is my love letter to Merlin, the great-horned owl. I had no idea what I was getting into when I accepted this position and certainly didn’t think I’d spend hours a day waiting for an owl to stop biting me. At a recent presentation that Merlin and I gave, a woman asked me if Merlin “likes to receive affection?” Though I am certain Merlin could live the rest of his life happily without ever being pet, cuddled, or spoken to in a baby voice, I like to think that Merlin appreciates the kindness and respect that I treat him with. He and I will never be best friends per se, but we make one heck of a team. Thank you for all you do buddy.