Indi & I
by Allison Burr, September 2, 2022
My name is Allison and I am the second intern here at Snowdon Wildlife Sanctuary. I’ve always loved working with animals but quickly found that I wanted my focus to be on wildlife. The ecological, genetic, and physiological differences in species fascinate me and I’m always spouting out biological facts to anyone that will listen. Because of this, I originally pursued a career in wildlife veterinary science and started my undergraduate at Montana State University majoring in animal science and organismal biology. As I got closer to graduation, the amount of schooling and money required in this field made wildlife veterinary medicine an increasingly less appealing career choice. I began frantically searching for other wildlife fields that might interest me. Veterinary clinics, agricultural studies, and conservation work, all had their pros and cons, but none of them felt right. This summer, I decided to look into wildlife rehabilitation. Snowdon Wildlife Sanctuary was at the top of the list with relative proximity to home and an expansive range of species treated, cared for, and released.
I was fairly confident in my prior experience coming into this internship. Two years ago I spent a summer in Southern California, interning at the California Wolf Conservation Center. They were raising Mexican Grey Wolves for release into the southern US to boost wild population numbers, which were slowly recovering from near extinction. On the property, they had 5 packs of Mexican Grey Wolves and 2 packs of North American Grey Wolves. I loved working there and it developed a solid foundation for entering my internship here at Snowdon. One of the things it didn’t prepare me for was working with birds. Before I arrived at Snowdon 2 1/2 months ago, I had never even held a bird, let alone cared for an injured one. I was very excited to have the opportunity to learn about and gain experience with birds. Now, just a few short months later, I have a new appreciation for birds, from the smallest passerine to a great Bald Eagle.
If you’ve ever peeked into the fascinating world of raptors, you have most likely heard about the peregrine falcon. They’re relatively average in size, nowhere near the size of a condor or a vulture, but much larger than little Kestrels or smaller Owls. You wouldn’t expect this little creature, about the size of a Chihuahua, to be the fastest animal on earth. When peregrine falcons locate their prey, they angle their body towards the ground and go into a dive, known in bird nerd circles as a “stoop.” They can reach 200 mph during a stoop, and the fastest on record is 242 mph. To come out of this, their little bodies need to withstand up to 25 Gs of force, much higher than what you or I could handle before passing out. This free-fall dive begins around a kilometer up in the air and to keep the fast-moving air from flooding their nostrils mid-dive, they have a specialized bone structure in their nostril called a baffle. It acts as a levee to keep shockwaves of high-speed air from causing damage to their lungs. Engineers were inspired by this baffle, adding them to jet turbines to prevent the engine from “choking” on waves of air resistance. Peregrine falcons also have a particularly long keel; a bone ridge that protrudes off the sternum of all flighted birds. This length allows for additional muscle attachment and more powerful wingbeats, helping them pull out of that nose dive. Because of this, they can beat their wings up to 4 times per second. These amazing raptors are perfectly adapted for catching birds mid-flight.
Indy the peregrine falcon came to Snowdon after a nasty tangle with barbed wire in her first year of flight. She had broken her wing in a way that meant she’d never fly again. After surgery to amputate the end of her wing, she made a home for herself at Snowdon. She was trained as an ambassador and helped educate Valley county about all of the amazing wildlife we have here in Idaho. She picked up on training quickly, as many juvenile birds do when introduced to ambassador work. The older an animal is, the less likely they are to adapt to life in captivity. Indy served as one of Snowdon’s favorite ambassadors for many incredible years; going out to amphitheaters and classrooms to show off her killer adaptations. Once the pandemic started, Indy couldn’t go out to events, and like many of her human companions, she got very comfortable in her home. Indy didn’t see more than a handful of people while we were all quarantining. During this time she became thoroughly bonded to her few handlers and crowds became a source of anxiety. This year, with the echoes of Covid starting to die out, we began rebuilding our education and outreach program. With Indy’s newfound anxiety, we quickly realized that even though the world was ready to get back to normal, she would need some time before she was ready as well.
When I arrived at Snowdon, our only animals were the two resident birds, four bears, and a baby squirrel. Very quickly, we were flooded with all kinds of babies. From squirrels to raccoons to deer to skunks, we were running around all day trying to keep everyone fed and warm. As the baby season started to slow down and we had a minute to take a breath, I began spending more time with Indy in her enclosure. We were attempting to get her more comfortable with us in her space by feeding her by hand. Initially, we would have to wait patiently while she worked up the courage to grab a piece of quail and fully consume it while we were present. As she began to acclimate to eating with us in the enclosure, we decided to use food to encourage her to get on and off a scale. This limited the stress of handling during a check-up and allowed us to keep a close eye on her weight while we tried this new training regime. She began growing accustomed to hopping on the scale to get her reward and seemed to learn that working with us meant food. Another source of anxiety for Indy was her hood. She had associated the hood with leaving her safe space, which caused her to have an aversion to the hood altogether. Our solution was to place the hood on a hook in her enclosure where she could always see it. This way, it was no longer associated with any additional activities. One day, while I was feeding Indy on her scale, I decided to pick her hood up off the hook and set it on the platform next to her. Over time, I moved it closer and closer, until it was so close she accidentally picked up the hood instead of her food! With each day, Indy became more accustomed to the hood being near her, held close to her, and moved around her enclosure. As she and I spent more time together during training sessions, Indy became accustomed to me as well. As of two weeks ago, she is much more willing to take food from my hand rather than wait until I place it on the ground. As someone who has never worked with a bird before, I was fascinated by watching the gears turn in her head. I never thought I would learn to read a raptor’s body language, but here I was, predicting her behaviors before she acted on them. After desensitizing her to the hood, I moved back to focusing on her scale. I needed an end goal, and getting her ready for the public again was a long way off. I decided getting her comfortable leaving her enclosure was a solid milestone. To do that, she would need to stand still in a specific spot so we could put her hood on. The scale would work perfectly for this. Indy was confused at first about why I refused to give her food, no matter how close to me or to the hood she got. She tried everything, and no matter how much I tapped the scale, she failed to understand what I was asking. Finally, she landed on the scale in a wild attempt to get to the quail I had in a Tupperware container. She knew the scale was where she usually got food, but this was our first time combining the scale cue and the hood. As soon as her feet touched the carpet, I held her treat through the hood and she grabbed it without hesitation. It didn’t take many more attempts until she had it down. She quickly learned what she needed to accomplish to get positive reinforcement. I had no idea that training a wild-born raptor would closely mirror training a domestic pet.
During my last two weeks at Snowdon, I hope to get Indy comfortable standing on the scale while I place the hood on her. I know this is a high goal, but with the progress she’s made recently, I have high hopes. As my internship comes to an end and the next season arrives, I hope that Indy continues to advance in her training. Maybe one day she’ll be confident enough to give the newest residents of Valley county a chance to meet her and learn why she is my favorite ambassador.