by Sierra Pederson, February 2023
Before coming to Snowdon, I had yet to have the pleasure of working with ambassador raptors. Early in my tenure, the Board of Directors tasked me with the seemingly impossible job of retraining Merlin, the great horned owl. Our 14-year-old education bird had grown fond of his enclosure after an extended event hiatus during the sad times. Though Merlin was a challenge to win over (the topic of our first website blog), it only took about a month for us to start touring Valley County on a 30-presentation-long circuit. I continue to work with Merlin almost daily, and he has proven to be a very tolerant and stoic education bird once again.
There is a steep and challenging learning curve to animal training. The key to working with any animal, or person for that matter, is patience and consistency. I had the pleasure of building on these skills with a local falconer, Isaac Pottenger, while training a non-releasable fledgling red-tailed hawk we received over the summer. This 3-month-old youngster flew into a truck near Council soon after leaving the nest. The altercation left him with two compound fractures in his right wing, which usually results in the need for euthanasia. Instead of immediately putting this bird down, the Board and I agreed to see if he had a curious and food-motivated disposition. Though life in captivity is a challenging transition for most adult wild animals, juveniles can often adapt to this new set of stimuli. Isaac told me the number one way to earn a bird’s trust was exposure, so I moved some pillows and my laptop into the loft of our raptor enclosure. A week after doing all my computer work in my new nook, I could feed this wild fledge by hand.
Because we can’t tell our feathered friends we are only trying to help, we rely on our body language to communicate and earn their trust. If you are consistently calm during training sessions, they will associate you with the positive parts of their day. Once I started feeding the red-tail by hand, I began introducing him to the glove. Getting a bird to “step up” means you are asking them to perch on your arm, which is often unsteady, and to voluntarily exist within your space. It might seem like a small request, but it is a massive ask for a wild animal. The hawk was understandably hesitant at first. He was getting used to my company in his enclosure and took the time to shred the mice and quail bits I handed him. He no longer displayed stressed behaviors when I entered the enclosure. In fact, he started preening while I typed and would choose to perch as close to me as possible. It took me another week before he decided to hop onto my glove to take the food I was offering. I was shocked. I sat stock-still while he ripped the head off the mouse I had in my hand. I was 100% certain he would hop off the second the food was gone, but he chose to sit there and stare at me with no intention of moving away. I gave him another piece of food every few minutes to encourage this behavior. I eventually ran out of mice and chicken, but he still chose to stay on my glove. I hung out until his 1300 g grew heavy. Then, I turned my wrist and moved him toward one of his perches, gesturing for him to step off. He did what I asked of him but quickly moved closer to me, watching me curiously to see if I happened to have any food left. That was when I knew this hawk would make one heck of an ambassador.
I sent Isaac a picture of my new buddy on the glove and asked if he could come out to the sanctuary to help me put jesses on him. The following week, we went through Snowdon’s falconry equipment and picked out anklets that would comfortably fit his legs and jesses that would be the proper length for a raptor his size. Thankfully, Isaac had a hood we could borrow that would cover the hawk’s eyes while we handled him. Isaac put the new bling (anklets and jesses) on our hawk while I held him against my chest. Though the red-tail wasn’t entirely sure of what we attached to his legs, he didn’t bother pulling at his jesses or picking at the anklets. For the next few weeks, he and I worked together every day. I always looked forward to training him because of our rapid progress. One week after stepping up, he started jumping down to me from the rafters. Soon he was jumping to the scale to weigh himself and allowing me to touch his feet and chest while on the glove. He won me over in the first week, but I was starting to think he was coming around to me as well.
When I started working with this fledgling, I wasn’t sure if we would be keeping him. For this reason, I thought of him as a rehabilitation animal and wasn’t ready to give him a name. However, I started brainstorming once Isaac and I put jesses on him. I let Snowdon’s Board of Directors know I wanted to apply for a new education permit. Erin, the wife of Board member Jeff, immediately offered the name Qáya for our new ambassador. Qáya is the name for red-tailed hawk in Nimipuut’imt, The People’s Language (Nez Perce). The Nez Perce Tribe had hosted a feast for the entire town of McCall a few years back, giving the entire fund-raising proceeds to Snowdon Wildlife Sanctuary. In addition, Snowdon’s founder built an enclosure over 20 years ago to house a pack of gray wolves that needed sanctuary in collaboration with the Nez Perce Tribe’s work to re-establish native wolves in Idaho. Snowdon wanted to recognize this partnership by naming our newest ambassador Qáya! Our crew fell in love with the name and decided we would give him the nickname Kai for short. Now that he had a name and I was working on his fifteen-page permit, I knew we were keeping him for good.
We said very little to the public about Kai while we waited for federal approval. It was difficult for me, Macy, Alex, and Allison to keep him on the down low because we have had so much fun working with him. We are all excited to announce his addition to our ambassador team this month! Macy helped me train Kai throughout the fall and early winter. He spent most days in the house with us while we developed education programs, researched best animal care practices, and wrote new content for Snowdon’s website. We loved watching his overly elaborate preening rituals and unique behaviors. Over the summer, he continued to make rapid progress as we challenged him to learn novel behaviors. Soon he was jumping 4 feet up to the glove from the ground, running across the room to his “spot,” and returning to his perch, all with exclusively verbal commands. We were so proud of our favorite little murder bird!
Anytime people would come out to the sanctuary to volunteer, drop off donations, or transport animals; I made sure they had the opportunity to meet Kai. I was so enamored with this bird that I needed other people to get to know him too. This also helped socialize him while I waited for permission to take him out for education programs. I finally scheduled Kai’s first-ever presentation for mid-February at McCall-Donnelly High School, and I couldn’t wait. I worked with Kai for seven months, hoping to take him to an event someday. I was ecstatic when his permit finally came through! As I expected, Kai performed wonderfully in the science classes at our local high school. He puffed out his feathers, preened, and tilted his head while checking out the students in the room. My heart soared while I answered the kids’ inquisitive and thoughtful questions. It took longer than I thought it would, but I finally got to present with Kai!
The average red-tailed hawk will live 20+ years in captivity. Because Kai is not even a year old yet, he will give hundreds of presentations for Snowdon in his lifetime. Training this wild little guy into a curious and lovable ambassador was an absolute pleasure. Watching people light up when they see him is even better. I can only hope Kai’s story will inspire the people who meet him to be a little kinder to our wild neighbors. The human population in Valley County is multiplying, which has impacted Snowdon via an equally rapid increase in rehabilitation animal intakes. Unfortunately, more people in a predominantly rural area often leads to more human-wildlife conflict. Increasing our education efforts during this time of growth can mitigate many of these unintentional issues. I genuinely believe the best rehabilitation strategy is preventing animals from needing our intervention. As Snowdon continues to expand as an organization, I look forward to seeing the impact it can have on environmental stewardship in this area. We can all learn something about how to be better members of this beautiful Valley County ecosystem.