Shaftsbury Elementary School students get up close and personal with some birds of prey on Friday afternoon during an afterschool program./ Holly
Shaftsbury Elementary School students get up close and personal with some birds of prey on Friday afternoon during an afterschool program./ Holly Pelczynski/Bennington Banner/photos.benningtonbanner.com
SHAFTSBURY -- Students in Shaftsbury Elementary School's after-school program were treated to a few special guests on Friday, three feathered and one human, from the Vermont Institute of Natural Science.

Sara Sloan of VINS presented to the assembled audience, which included about 60 children in the after-school program, as well as some members of the community. The event was free and open to the public. "Today," said Sloan, "I want to talk about raptors, which are a very special kind of bird." Joining Sloan were a red-tailed hawk, an American kestrel, and a great horned owl.

VINS treats around 400 injured and orphaned birds from throughout Vermont and New Hampshire each year as part of their Avian Rehabilitation Program, according to their website. The three birds involved in the program on Friday were all birds that were, for one reason or another, unable to be introduced back into the wild. "What we want to do," said Sloan, "is get the birds all better and get them back into the wild." However, that isn't always possible.

The red-tailed hawk had come to VINS 18 years ago, when, as a juvenile, it collided with power lines. While 18 years is about how long red-tailed hawks are expected to survive in the wild, said Sloan, in captivity they often live about twice as long. Sloan asked students to guess how heavy the hawk on her arm was. Guesses ranged anywhere from one pound to one hundred, until one intrepid student guessed that the hawk weighed million pounds.


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While Sloan was flattered at how strong that student thought she was, the answer, she said, was only three pounds.

The second raptor Sloan showed the group was an American kestrel, the smallest falcon in the United States. The children let out a collective "aww" and "ooh, a baby" when they saw the bird, which weighs only four ounces, but Sloan informed them that this kestrel was in fact a fully grown male. Humans had rescued it at a young age, said Sloan, and as a human imprint it couldn't be released into the wild, as it wouldn't be able to survive on its own.

At one point, Sloan demonstrated the kestrel's ability to hold its head in place while moving by bobbing her hand up and down, which led the children to repeatedly ask her to, "Make it do the dance again!" and if it knew any other tricks. Sloan reiterated that the birds are not trained pets, they are wild animals, and that what she had shown them wasn't a trick, but a natural reaction. To further the point, she told the children that none of the birds VINS keeps are named. "They're still wild, they're not our pets," said Sloan.

The final bird that Sloan presented was a great horned owl, one of the largest owl species that can be found in North America. The children had been excited to see the owl from the beginning, as it had been hooting from its travelling case throughout the entire presentation. Sloan explained the differences in an owl's feathers, as compared to a hawk, which allow the owl to move almost completely silently. Hawks rely more on vision when hunting, while owls rely primarily on hearing, so making a lot of noise would drastically affect the owl's ability to catch food, explained Sloan.

During a question and answer session at the end of the presentation, one child asked Sloan, "Do owls pee?" which was followed by about 15 seconds of uncontrollable giggles from the assembled students. When they had regained control of themselves, Sloan explained that owls, and other birds, produce "a combination of number one and number two," which is called mute.

VINS typically charges $300 for the program, or $275 for non-profit organizations, plus $1 per mile travelled from their Nature Center in Quechee, although they note on their website that discounts are available.

On their website, VINS gives several helpful tips for what to do if you encounter a bird in distress. First, they stress that birds should only be rescued if the birds' parents are known to be dead and the bird is too young to survive on its own, the bird has been injured, the bird is in immediate or obvious danger, or the bird is found with a cat.

If the bird becomes reliant on humans for food, it will be unable to return to the wild, which is VINS' primary goal. If you do rescue a bird, do not attempt to feed it, provide water only. Place it in a dark box or paper bag, and avoid handling or looking at the bird as much as possible, as stress can kill them.

Transport the bird to the nearest licensed rehabilitation facility as quickly as possible. When travelling, speak quietly, and do not play music in the car.

Derek Carson can be reached for comment at dcarson@benningtonbanner.com. Follow him on Twitter @DerekCarsonBB.