“Lois can hear my heartbeat,” said Anna Staeheli, a Raptor Center volunteer, as she held up a foot-and-a-half-tall great horned owl perched on her gloved hand. She asked her audience at the January 7 Northeast Winter Market if anyone would be uncomfortable if she moved closer. Everyone looked eagerly at the bird as Staeheli stepped a few feet forward. “And now,” she said, “He can hear the heartbeats of everyone in the first row.” “Wow,” whispered one boy who was crouched on the floor in the front row, eyes wide.
Staeheli explained that she used the pronoun “he” for Lois because, just that day, the Raptor Center learned the results of a DNA test that determined that the 22-year-old owl, who’s been with the Center since a fledgling, is male. It’s impossible to tell if a great horned owl is male or female by sight, although in a pair, the female will be larger than the male, as is the case with most raptors, Staeheli said. That might be an advantage in sitting on and guarding the nest and in putting out the energy involved in laying eggs.
She pointed out the circle of feathers around Lois’s face. The facial disc channels the sound toward an owl’s ears, which are not the tufts of feathers on top of its head, but instead openings under its feathers, behind its eyes. One ear is higher than the other, which allows them to better pinpoint the source of a sound, which they can do even if their rodent prey is scampering underneath several feet of snow.
Lois came to the Center after someone “with the best of intentions” found him on the ground and “rescued” him. The owl imprinted on humans, depending on them for food, and could not be released to the wild. Staeheli said that when people find young birds out of the nest, they should call the Raptor Center or the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Roseville for advice on what to do, so that a healthy bird is not taken from its parents, which might be nearby.
The smallest bird that Staeheli brought out in the Quincy Hall foyer stood only about 10 inches high. Four-year-old Malar is an American kestrel, a type of falcon, a family of raptors so efficient at flying that humans use them as models for aerodynamic engineering. Falcons can dive as fast as 80 mph, although kestrels, the most diminutive of the group, top out around 60 mph, Staeheli said. The name Malar comes from the bird’s malar feathers, the cheek feathers, which in kestrels have a sideburn-like black stripe.
On the other end of the size spectrum was Luta, an 8-year-old red-tailed hawk, who is at the raptor center because she is congenitally blind in one eye, making depth perception — and thus hunting — impossible. Red-tailed hawks are the largest and most common hawk in the metro area. They’re the ones you’ll often see on light posts on the highway, scanning for squirrels, rabbits, and other small critters.
Luta spread and flapped her wings a lot, pulling on the tether held by Staeheli. As with the other two birds, Staeheli kept her focused by feeding her scraps of rodents with forceps. Some of those scraps included mouse and rat tails that hung out of the birds’ mouths as they ate, as audience reactions ranged from “cool” to “ewww.”