Finding Myself Among the Birds

By Cheryl Faust, Education Volunteer
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

I started volunteering at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in August 2013 after some life changing events. Being able to handle and present programs with the education birds at the Mountain has helped me reinvent myself and start a second chapter in my life. Looking back at the past five and a half years, I’ve had some real ‘stand out’ memories and lessons I’ve learned from the education birds. 

I can distinctly remember the first time my mentor, Rachel Taras (Senior Educator), and I went down to the enclosures, so I could learn how to retrieve the gray morph eastern screech owl (EASO). She was at Hawk Mountain for a year and already knew her job really well. Rachel explained everything to me in detail: how we would enter the enclosure, what we were going to be doing, and what to expect. I watched Rachel ask the EASO to get on the glove, paying attention to her timing, posture, and position.

September 2014. The first time Cheryl retrieved the gray eastern screech owl.

September 2014. The first time Cheryl retrieved the gray eastern screech owl.

The first time I asked the gray EASO to step onto the glove, she hopped on and then hopped off right away. When she hopped off, she went down to the ground and my heart sank! Rachel explained to me she was ok and we would wait until the bird was back on a perch.  I realized then that I had a lot of work to do. My efforts paid off, and after a few weeks the EASO was hopping onto my glove first approach. Working with the owl, I learned how to read those tiny raptor movements we call body language.

The next education bird I started working with was the senior red-tailed hawk (RTHA). She was already having some arthritis issues in her talons, so the decision was made that I would handle her for programs and return the bird to her enclosure, but I would not retrieve her from her enclosure. The senior RTHA was a pro and taught me several things during our short time together. One of the first things I needed to master was paying close attention to both the bird on my arm and my audience. I was good at multitasking, but this required me to broaden my awareness of everyone and everything in my surroundings. Because this bird knew her job so well, I was able to relax, which helped boost my confidence in front of a large crowd. She also kept me on my toes, helping me refine my overall animal handling skills.

Cheryl and the “junior” red-tailed hawk at the 2018 Benefit for the Birds gala.

Cheryl and the “junior” red-tailed hawk at the 2018 Benefit for the Birds gala.

When the decision was made that the senior RTHA would be semi-retired, the Sanctuary acquired a second RTHA who we referred to as “junior RTHA.” The bird was thought to be young and had a wing injury. This bird has been my biggest challenge so far, but also my most rewarding. For months I worked on a weekly basis, entering her enclosure, slowly approaching, watching her body language, and either leaving when the bird moved away or slowly approaching if she remained calm. I can still remember the feeling of exhilaration when she first stepped up on my glove; if I could have done a cart-wheel I would have! Receiving this hawk’s “stamp of approval” was well worth the time, effort, and work.

Cheryl showing the female American kestrel to a visitor at the Silhouette Trail grand opening in 2015.

Cheryl showing the female American kestrel to a visitor at the Silhouette Trail grand opening in 2015.

When I heard that Hawk Mountain was acquiring a female American kestrel (AMKE), I was thrilled!  This would expose me to some new raptor behavior because this bird was an imprint. Her disability was mental, and she was able to fly extremely well.  I was very lucky that I established a trust account quickly with the AMKE, and I was honored to handle her at the opening for the new Silhouette Trail to South Lookout. Honestly, even though I was warned many times not to, I became attached to the AMKE. When we lost her suddenly, I realized my error and learned that while it’s important to have strong trust accounts with the education birds, it’s imperative not to become attached.

These are just a few of the stand out moments and lessons I have had with the education birds. I’ve lost count of all of the amazing memories I’ve created with my fellow volunteers, staff members, family, friends, and visitors.  Volunteering for the education department has been an incredible experience; I have found myself again, reinvented who I was, and became healed by the Mountain.