raptor education

Across the Pond with Raptor Care Rock Star

By Rachel Spagnola Taras, Senior Educator
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Nearly a decade ago, Jemima Parry-Jones (JPJ), Director of the International Centre for Birds of Prey (ICBP) located in Newent, Gloucestershire, United Kingdom, answered an e-mail I sent to her hoping to gain insight on captive raptor management. Not only did JPJ promptly and thoroughly respond to my questions, she insisted that I visit her facility. With the generous support of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary friends Brian and Sandra Moroney, I completed my educational journey across the pond earlier this season to benefit our feathered educators and the volunteers and staff who work together to maintain best practices in raptor care management at Hawk Mountain. Education raptors help to connect learners of all ages to conservation with an up-close look at species that serve a vital role in our ecosytems worldwide. 

Jemima Parry-Jones and a barn owl welcom school children to ICBP.

Jemima Parry-Jones and a barn owl welcom school children to ICBP.

Located in the quaint English countryside, ICBP oversees nearly 300 birds of prey, including a diverse workforce of owls, eagles, vultures, kites, hawks, falcons, and harriers. During my stay, I was treated to a grand tour of the entire facility. Open to the public 7 days per week, 10 months of the year, visitors have the opportunity to see raptors on display in a zoo-like static setting and during multiple free-flighted training sessions throughout the day. During these flying demonstrations, ICBP trainers connect visitors of all ages to a fast-paced, exciting look at natural history in action.

One highlight of my visit was participating in training several  yellow-billed kites by cuing birds to fly over the field in front of visitors and signaling them to return, tossing meat straight up in the air to emulate their natural behavior of grasping prey in flight. Although I do not consider myself athletic, there’s nothing like being watched by countless visitors who are glued to your every move while one of the most famous falconers in the world is narrating and evaluating your meat throwing abilities. With the supportive direction of JPJ, I felt like an Olympian.  

An ICBP staff member monitors the weight of a white-tailed sea eagle.

An ICBP staff member monitors the weight of a white-tailed sea eagle.

In addition to shadowing the husbandry and training of some of the world’s largest and endangered raptors, I learned new techniques and skills to improve communication through body language and clear cues when working with animal colleagues. While working with a massive white-tailed sea eagle, I honed my ability to remain perch-like to provide a stable and trustworthy roost. If you see me lifting weights, you’ll understand why I want to build and maintain a strong  and stable resting place for a bird who weighs over ten pounds.

 Sadly, when visiting the on-site rehabilitation hospital building, I learned more about real-time conservation challenges like the direct persecution of raptors in the community. Unlike North America, migratory birds are not legally protected and are perceived as competition for resources such as small game.  I had the opportunity to meet with law officials who were inspired by Hawk Mountain Sanctuary’s rich history thanks to pioneer conservationists like Richard Pough and our own founder, Mrs. Rosalie Edge.  

On this side of our shared Atlantic Ocean, I remain proud to represent the world’s very first refuge for birds of prey and to help advance our mission by sharing our story and the need for continued research and education worldwide.

Help support our raptor care and public raptor education efforts by donating or becoming a member today.

Informally Influential

By Zoey Greenberg, Science Outreach Coordinator
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Zoey presenting during the PAMLE 2018 Conference

Zoey presenting during the PAMLE 2018 Conference

This October, HMS Director of Education Erin Brown and I presented at the 2nd annual conference for PAMLE, the Pennsylvania Association for Middle Level Education. The keynote speaker, Dave F. Brown, co-author of the book What Every Middle-School Teacher Should Know, started the day off with a potent analysis of how the average preteen views the world. Incorporating neuroscience, he made a compelling case for increased compassion towards adolescents and the importance of cultivating supportive learning environments in middle school classrooms.

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Dr. Brown also highlighted the importance of identity development, reminding us that middle school students are discovering who they want to be and what they value. This point stuck with me for the remainder of the day. I tried to remember what it felt like to be a seventh grader and found myself in agreement: the first memories that resurfaced were of social belonging, and attempts to carve space for myself in an ocean of others.

Towards the end of my own presentation at the conference, I received a comment from a teacher that drove my contemplations deeper. He told me he has many female science students who begin with enthusiasm but almost always fade away from science because they claim it’s associated with boys and technology. This got me thinking about ways in which informal education has a role in the presentation of science, not just as a career, but as an exploration of identity.

Many of us would agree that science is largely defined by the scientific process, which includes inquisition and curiosity. Some, including myself, would say that passion is often an important catalyst for scientific discovery. Schools work hard to prepare students for their future, as they should. However, teachers face a plethora of challenges and deadlines that can sometimes limit their creative methodology when introducing an entire field of study. Science and technology have quickly become buzz words of the future; however, I would argue that the definition of science in this context is related heavily to human progress and less to other important avenues such as environmental protection or the classically termed “dying breeds” of natural history and zoology.

Zoey working with students from the Swain School in Allentown, PA on the newly developed HMS Black Vulture curriculum.

Zoey working with students from the Swain School in Allentown, PA on the newly developed HMS Black Vulture curriculum.

It is within this gap that I feel that Hawk Mountain plays a huge role. We create educational materials for the classroom that give teachers options for how to design their own framework of science. We align these lesson plans with standards, include the most up-to-date raptor science, and offer training to teachers whenever possible. In this way, I believe that we are paving a beautiful path towards an inclusive definition of the word “science” that can be offered to young students who may simply identify as lovers of wildlife but aren’t sure how to weave this piece of themselves into their academics.     

If Hawk Mountain staff had come into my 7th grade classroom and told me that there were real live adults that studied birds of prey for a living, my jaw would have hit the floor. Part of the reason I feel such pride in this organization is because we expose the young and the old to a breathtaking dimension of the natural world, and we put effort into reaching those that cannot make it to our site. I regretfully shied away from science in middle school, and I want to acknowledge the role that informal education can have in welcoming adolescents to a rewarding and impactful field. Raptors provide an intriguing route into the realm of science and Hawk Mountain is well equipped to assist teachers on the road to creative instruction. 

A vulture roost in Reading, PA, that Zoey observed during her time as an HMS conservation science trainee.

A vulture roost in Reading, PA, that Zoey observed during her time as an HMS conservation science trainee.

Erin and I were the only non-formal presenters at this conference, and I was heartened to see that our presence was valued. I have immense respect for the consideration that attendees at this year’s PAMLE conference showed for their student’s well being, by assessing ways to enhance how we, as a community invested in youth, can encourage student growth. Our world is brimming with amazing teachers, and I feel optimistic that through partnership between informal and formal educators, innovative education has no limits. Trust me, even a turkey vulture roost can become a world of discovery with the right attitude and freedom to set the stage.

Home Among the Hills

By Karissa Elser, Education Intern
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Karissa at South Lookout as a child.

Karissa at South Lookout as a child.

Hiking up to North Lookout on my first day, as a summer education intern, wasn’t the first time I made that journey. It probably wasn’t even the 10th time. I have been able to make the journey countless times because I am lucky enough to call Hawk Mountain Sanctuary my backyard. Since I live in the small town of New Ringgold that you can see from North Lookout, Hawk Mountain is no stranger to me.

Yet, this summer, I got to make the drive up Hawk Mountain Road everyday to experience this place from a whole new perspective. Being the “local” intern this summer, I was already aware of the River of Rocks bolder fields and the incredible views from the lookouts. However, I wasn’t aware of the world-class research that goes on at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary. From the Farmland Raptor Project to working globally with other scientists to butterfly migration to educating kids, this special place that I have grown up going to my whole life is the leader in all the techniques and practices I have been studying while at West Virginia University.

Karissa holding a recently tagged American kestrel chick.

Karissa holding a recently tagged American kestrel chick.

Even though I was technically an education intern, I was always being invited to help tag black vultures or band American kestrels with the conservation scientist and trainees. There are some things that can’t be taught in a classroom, and getting to work along biologists at Hawk Mountain, such as J.F. Therrien, Laurie Goodrich, and David Barber, were some of those experiences. Since all the biologists and researchers at the Sanctuary have expertise in different fields of study, I felt lucky to have been able to have conversations with each of them about what they are accomplishing.

Karissa assisting a young visitor during a Wee One’s program.

Karissa assisting a young visitor during a Wee One’s program.

As an education intern, I spent most of my time working on the top of the mountain, leading excursions with groups of all ages and from all different backgrounds. Being able to share your knowledge and passion for conservation with children and adults, who may live in cities or might not know about the power of preservation of raptors, other wildlife, and ecosystems found in the Appalachian area, is the greatest feeling. You can learn a lot from mistakes you make. Watching the way that educators Erin Brown, Rachel Taras, Andrea Ambrose, and Jamie Dawson work with kids and through kids taught me about how I aspire to be as an educator.

Hawk Mountain has taught me how to work with a community of scientists and educators from various backgrounds. This notable place has provided me with an immense amount of hands-on research and fieldwork, and it reminds me every day why I study and strive to be a better scientist and educator. I have been so fortunate to work at a place that my 10-year-old self would visit on those fall days to watch the migrating birds with my school group. I never would have anticipated that I would have a chance to work at a place that I have always considered my home among the hills.

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Preserving Diversity in Education

By Rachel Spagnola, Senior Educator
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

The world’s very first refuge for birds of prey attracts diverse individuals, and we welcome nature lovers, hikers, hawk watchers, native plant enthusiasts, autumn leaf peepers, and conservationists alike. Traditional school students explore our "school in the clouds" and eat lunch at North Lookout while eavesdropping on the hawk counters during the spring and autumn migration seasons. As a staff member, I’ve witnessed visitors become hypnotized by the magic of raptor migration, old friends reunite over trail mix, and first-time visitors fall in love with the landscape and our global mission. Every visitor encounter reminds me that Hawk Mountain Sanctuary is a very special place and how important it is to preserve special places.

Recently, several groups with special needs investigated the Mountain through an array of multisensory experiences. Students ranging in age from elementary to young adults from Saint Joseph’s Center for Special Learning located in Pottsville, Schuylkill County, and students with visual impairment from the Vision Resource Center of Berks County visited the Sanctuary. As a licensed elementary and special education teacher, my understanding of multiple intelligences, learning styles, and differentiated instruction allows me to offer accommodations that meet the needs of diverse learners.

The Wings of Wonder downstairs gallery provided space to spread our own wings and flap like a falcon, soar like a buteo, and glide effortlessly like a turkey vulture A.K.A Bloodhound of the Sky.

The Wings of Wonder downstairs gallery provided space to spread our own wings and flap like a falcon, soar like a buteo, and glide effortlessly like a turkey vulture A.K.A Bloodhound of the Sky.

The love of teaching and learning, enthusiasm and encouragement allows educators to provide special experiences. Hawk Mountain's programming is inspired to connect ALL visitors with Appalachian forest ecology, highlighting raptors as important bio-indicators of healthy ecosystems. To do this, students were offered an array of sensory experiences including touching feathers, snake skin, turtle shells, and mammal fur. We listened to recordings of the most commonly seen raptor in North America, the red-tailed hawk. Students listened while I waved wings of diurnal hawks in comparison to silent owl wings. Touching the feathered foot of a great-horned owl and carefully examining the scaly toes of a hawk allowed everyone to feel sharp and pointy talons and learn how they serve as tools for catching, gripping and killing prey. It amazed me how engaged everyone was for the entire presentation.

A stroll through the Native Garden offered sounds of green frogs, buzzing pollinators, and songbirds, before heading across the road for more outdoor exploration. Leaving the garden, we enjoyed the aroma of native swamp rose and the faint scent of sunscreen and insect repellant wafting by our group. Channeling our inner turkey vulture, we engaged our olfactory senses and, without hesitation, students shared their thoughts on smelling cigarette smoke and approval of smelling fresh baked bread. Several kids decided to give the turkey vulture a nickname: Bloodhound of the Sky. I approved.

Edwardo helps to illustrate raptor adaptations for his classmates. Since he has family in Mexico, Edwardo was thrilled to learn about our sister site in Veracruz, also known as the River of Raptors!

Edwardo helps to illustrate raptor adaptations for his classmates. Since he has family in Mexico, Edwardo was thrilled to learn about our sister site in Veracruz, also known as the River of Raptors!

Finally, we entered the accessible Silhouette Trail, connecting the trailhead to Laurelwood Niche and South Lookout, allowing all students to explore the ridgetop with ease. As a team, many navigated the trail with the help of wheelchairs and therapeutic personal assistants, others relied on canes or following the voice and arm leading them forward. Instead of ignoring the various tiny bumps and lumps under our feet and wheels, we examined tiny acorn caps, oak tree galls, and snail shells. These extraordinary students reminded me of the importance of appreciating the small things like looking out my window and seeing the lush, green leaves wave at me in the breeze. As we sat in peaceful silence at South Lookout, we felt the warmth of the sun peeking through the forest canopy and enjoyed breathing fresh, unpolluted mountaintop air. No one wanted to leave.

The students said that Hawk Mountain was their favorite place on earth, and I agreed. Every visit makes a difference, and we thank you for your continued support.

Sharing Experiences in Conservation

By Christine Whitehair, Autumn 2017 Conservation Science Trainee
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Christine and a fellow trainee identify passing raptors for visitors at South Lookout

Christine and a fellow trainee identify passing raptors for visitors at South Lookout

Audible gasps could be heard from the hardy group of hawk watchers, both seasoned and beginners, as the third golden eagle of the day passed in front of a vibrant rainbow on its way south. It was a windy and cloudy day in late October at the Sanctuary, with northwest winds creating perfect conditions for a memorable eagle flight. 

This day was the best kind of day for me at North Lookout, with a steady stream of birds and people; hardly a minute went by without someone calling out a passing raptor or migrating shorebird. In that moment, I remembered describing Hawk Mountain to people before I left Massachusetts, gushing about how excited I was to see the raptors streaming down the ridge (some even at eye-level!), quoting migration statistics from the website and describing the different species I would see. It turned out to be everything I hoped it would be and more, because the knowledge I had gained during my time as a Conservation Science Trainee had forever changed the way I perceived raptors and the world around me. 

Even before I arrived at Hawk Mountain, I had been learning about raptors and conservation science, but it all intensified as soon as I arrived on the Mountain. Rather than spending my senior year of high school taking the only three classes remaining after my 60+ credit junior year, I had decided to follow my passion for conservation to a place where I could actually learn how to contribute to it.

As soon as we arrived, that goal was met. The next four months were filled with books, papers, seminars about different research techniques and statistical analysis software, and a lecture series with speakers from all around the world. 

At first, I was intimidated by all I had to learn, but then I figured out one of the biggest advantages to the interpretation aspect of the traineeship: being asked to answer questions about any and every facet of what I was learning. This allowed me to think critically about all of the information I was learning and ultimately to understand it better. I had heard before that the best way to learn something was to teach it, but this experience really made that lesson take on a life of its own for me. Guests would ask me questions that were more in depth than I had considered, and this often made me think about things from a different perspective. I would end my days on the Lookout by rushing down the Mountain to immediately look up some fact that I had not considered before. 

I could not have hoped for a more comprehensive learning experience, or an experience that would truly show me the importance of education in conservation. 

Due to the lessons I learned at Hawk Mountain, I now know from first-hand experience how crucial it is not only to get local people involved in your conservation effort, but to get them invested. If people do not care about what you are doing or why, they will not continue to help you. Being able to education people on the importance of raptors and help them to see what people who spent their lives trying to conserve them were seeing, was an experience I feel very grateful to have had. 

Christine looks out over the ridge from her post at North Lookout

Christine looks out over the ridge from her post at North Lookout

On the Vulture Chronicles: Vulture Detectives Pt 1

Female black vulture named Donald over a quarry during September of 2016 near Palmyra, PA.

Female black vulture named Donald over a quarry during September of 2016 near Palmyra, PA.

By Zoey Greenberg, former Conservation Science Trainee
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

he tires crunched on gravel, and I shut the engine off. We had entered vulture country. With scope, data sheets, and binoculars in hand my project partner, trainee Adehl Shwaderer and I walked carefully up the gravel road as we scanned the tree tops for hunched silhouettes or soaring shadows. This was our first foray into the Kempton Valley, east of Hawk Mountain, in search of black vultures (Coragyps atratus). Our expectations were not high. However, we had innovation on our side: we were testing a method called “groundtruthing” to better understand the movement ecology of several vultures that had been tagged with satellite transmitters by Hawk Mountain scientists. After investigating their movements in Google Earth, we had discovered interesting patterns including an individual who spent time near quarries, and another that seemed to prefer cities. The problem was, we didn’t know why.

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Click here to continue reading this blog on The Vulture Chronicles

Adventures and Advancements in Captive Raptor Management

By Rachel Spagnola, Senior Educator
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Rachel and TRC’s Education Program Manager Gail Buhl work through passing off and handling a bald eagle.

Rachel and TRC’s Education Program Manager Gail Buhl work through passing off and handling a bald eagle.

Earlier this season, I had the incredible opportunity to attend The University of Minnesota’s 2017 Care and Management of Captive Raptors four-day comprehensive workshop from October 13-20, funded by a Philadelphia Foundation grant. With over 20 years of “talons-on” experience working with raptors in captivity, I have returned to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary from The Raptor Center (TRC) with a renewed sense of empowerment and motivation to propel our captive management practices to a world class status.

Prior to handling and training birds at the TRC, I successfully completed hands-on medical exams and necropsy under the direction of expert clinic staff. Although far from being Dr. Dolittle, after learning the best practices in diets, nutrition, equipment, and raptor housing, I am eager to implement modifications to provide the highest quality of life for my feathered coworkers.

Rachel assists Hawk Mountain's veterinarian, Dr. Pello, during a routine check up of our red-morph eastern screech owl. 

Rachel assists Hawk Mountain's veterinarian, Dr. Pello, during a routine check up of our red-morph eastern screech owl. 

Hawk Mountain Sanctuary’s Education Department is responsible for a collection of birds that require care and maintenance 365 days a year. In my role as senior educator and lead raptor care manager, I schedule, train, and supervise volunteers ensuring best practices and the safety of volunteers and birds. With the support of my education teammates Erin Brown and Adam Carter, I created a vetting process for volunteers to ensure consistency and high standards of care. Unable to send a text message or call staff when they are ill, we are responsible for feeding, cleaning, conducting routine health checks for the birds year-round. We take this responsibility seriously 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, monitoring bird welfare through polar vortex temperatures, mosquito-breeding season, and beyond. Attending the TRC workshop fostered my deeper appreciation for the role of avian educators as ambassadors for raptor conservation.

We also manage on-going training and enrichment for both the birds and volunteers throughout their tenure, aiming to provide a stress-free environment for our avian educators throughout their lifespan. Although young at heart, several members of our avian education team are entering their “golden years” and have geriatric needs. The HMS avian educators have individual special needs in addition to the natural history requirements of each species.  

Rachel hones her raptor training skills with TRC’s resident red-tailed hawk.

Rachel hones her raptor training skills with TRC’s resident red-tailed hawk.

In recent years, I developed a Raptor Care Advisory Committee consisting of an avian veterinarian, raptor rehabilitator, and professional bird trainer who share their unique knowledge, specialized skills, and experience to meet the needs of our captive raptor management plan. With the guidance of the International Association of Avian Trainers and Educators (IAATE), I’ve created a collection plan, training and enrichment plans, and a retirement position statement to ensure consistency and adherence to our mission of serving as a model facility.

Although the Pennsylvania Game Commission and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service require annual audits of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary’s collection of captive birds, we also undergo a yearly voluntary audit by an outside source. Most recently, my ultimate raptor conservation hero, (after Rosalie Edge, Maurice and Irma Broun, of course), Director of the International Centre for Birds of Prey, Jemima Parry-Jones conducted a thorough exam of all birds and an audit of our enclosures and indoor raptor care facilities.  

I owe a debt of gratitude to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary’s team of volunteers, advisors, staff, and mentors who continue to support me.  When you visit the Sanctuary and enjoy a live raptor program, ‘Raptors Up Close’ or meet one of our ambassadors at a festival or large event, please know that your support makes a positive impact!

Best Laid Plans

By Andrea Ambrose, Education Intern
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Andrea scans the sky for migrants from North Lookout.

Andrea scans the sky for migrants from North Lookout.

I thought that I had it all figured out when I got my first taste of being a field biologist. I was in the last semester of attending my local community college, and I always knew that I wanted to work with wildlife in some capacity, but I just couldn't quite figure out what direction to take. A professor at my school was offering a three-week field ecology course on campus with local field trips. We learned identification of local birds to monitor species on campus, (incidentally this is how my passion for birding began, leading to a pursuit for many jobs focused on avian conservation), went for a weekend to a marine science consortium in Virginia to learn about marine research and marsh and wetland ecology, and visited a local arboretum to see work being done on invasive plant removal.

I was immediately hooked on the idea of wanting to learn more about what I could do to help monitor and protect our native wildlife, and the thought of working outdoors as a job while getting to study local species was exceedingly appealing. This was it! I'd found what I wanted to pursue as a career. Field biology seemed to be my perfect fit.

Fast forward 6 years to getting my bachelors degree in Biology with a focus in Ecology and Conservation. I got accepted to work at several summer internships with various organizations including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and an avian rehabilitation center, where I learned the ins and outs of conducting field research in various states. After graduating, I got my first field technician position in Missouri, working with a bird observatory doing grassland bird studies. Here is where things started to change for me, although it took me another year to figure it all out.

Andrea holds a female red-winged blackbird while working for the Missouri River Bird Observatory.

Andrea holds a female red-winged blackbird while working for the Missouri River Bird Observatory.

At the Missouri River Bird Observatory, there was a strong focus on educating the public by attending local events, where we would mist net and band birds and share with the visitors the importance of protecting local species. I was delighted by the reaction of not only the children, but the adults as well, when they got to see a bird in hand, up close and in person. The interest that these events sparked in people to learn about the natural world around them seemed to have great importance and value, and I was intrigued by the notion of conservation education as a possible career path.

I still loved most aspects of field research after 5 years of experience, but began to have doubts as to whether or not it was for me. I put this new interest on the back burner for another year as I worked a fairly intense field research job in South Texas. Upon returning home, I decided to see what I could do to possibly change my path yet again. Enter Hawk Mountain Sanctuary.

Andrea holds one of Hawk Mountain's education birds, a gray-morph eastern screech owl. 

Andrea holds one of Hawk Mountain's education birds, a gray-morph eastern screech owl. 

Living half an hour away from this world-renowned sanctuary was going to be the start of something amazing for me. I began as a raptor care volunteer and within a few months was accepted as an education intern, when I expressed my newly found interest in conservation education. I will never look back.

Andrea hosts a public Raptors Up Close program. 

Andrea hosts a public Raptors Up Close program. 

I've been fully integrated into my new passion in every way imaginable- from learning to work hands on with our education raptors, to presenting live raptor programs, to leading guided school groups up the mountain trails while providing interpretation about our local flora and fauna. I've presented Wee Ones programs to 3-5 year olds and learned how to channel my inner child again in order to teach this age group.  I've had several months’ worth of meeting some of the most amazing people I've ever met in my career, and although I will always be grateful for the experiences gained while working as a field biologist, and I can still use the knowledge that I gained in my future jobs, I know now that this is what my path is meant to be. I look forward to what the future holds and to teaching many more people, be it children or the general public, about the importance of conservation.

 

Going the Distance, Pt 2

By Adam Carter, Educator
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Read part 1 here. 

The view outside the Pro Natura raptor banding station.

The view outside the Pro Natura raptor banding station.

My trip to Veracruz, Mexico to collaborate with Pro Natura, developing Distance Education materials, is one I will not forget. 

Ever since 2012 when I was a Hawk Mountain Conservation Science Trainee I heard so much about Veracruz and its amazing migration.  Finally getting to go in-person as a Hawk Mountain staff member and witness first-hand was like a dream come true. 

Adam posing with students outside the Chichicaxtle Bird Observatory.

Adam posing with students outside the Chichicaxtle Bird Observatory.

A significant portion of my visit was spent at the Chichicaxtle Bird Observatory located just outside of Cardel, Mexico.  Surrounded largely by sugar cane fields, this is one of the locations where the passage of migrating raptors and other species like anhingas, wood storks, and other water birds can number in the tens of thousands in a single day.  During heavy flights there can be easily more than 100,000 migrants in a single day. 

At the observatory is where the Pro Natura staff and I had multiple discussions sharing our successes and challenges in conservation education.  One of the specific topics we discussed was about a Distance Education trunk and its materials to stay in Mexico for use at the observatory and in surrounding classrooms.  I was able to visit one of the local schools where such materials would be used.  The students lit up when the Pro Natura staff entered their classroom, getting to handle a replica owl and hawk skull to compare and contrast.  Hopefully in the near future, our collaboration can enhance these experiences with additional materials and activities.

Hawkwatching from inside the raptor banding station outside of Chichicaxtle along the Carribean coast.

Hawkwatching from inside the raptor banding station outside of Chichicaxtle along the Carribean coast.

One morning I was able to spend several hours at the Pro Natura raptor banding stations along the coast.  Although we didn’t catch any birds, during the entire period I was there, a torrent of eastern kingbirds, ruby-throated hummingbirds, dickcissels, scissor-tailed flycatchers, and barn swallows poured through in a continuous stream as clusters of broad-winged hawks, mississippi kites, black and turkey vultures passed over head. 

It was here I felt the true enormity of migration and experienced the realization of how critical this corridor is for migrating birds.  For me, it reinforced why we need awareness, education, and conservation of these species undertaking such incredible journeys across the hemispheres.

You can help in supporting Distance Education efforts in Mexico, please donate at gofundme.com/raptor-trunk. Your donation will contribute to our final push to our campaign goal! Thank you so much for your support. 

Culture in Conservation

By Merlyn Nomusa Nkomo, Former Conservation Science Trainee
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Merlyn atop Hawk Mountain's North Lookout

Merlyn atop Hawk Mountain's North Lookout

During my time at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, I realized that conservation was a science and has to be regarded so. Before then, I thought it was a love for the environment, turning off lights around the house or turning the tap off when I brushed my teeth. All these acts are important, and if everyone did them they could make a difference.

However, as raptor biologists and conservationists, Dr. Keith Bildstein taught us that conservation is so much more. Conservation is not just an explosion of emotions, because emotions are personal and no one approach is a panacea.

In Africa today, various ‘cultural’ practices have had a negative impact on raptors, particularly vultures. It seems as though culture is playing a part in the demise and extinction of our vultures. This is odd as culture has always been the driving force to safe guarding and conserving wildlife and forests for centuries. Going into this year’s vulture awareness month, I had the question of how culture has evolved so much in southern Africa into a monster that is wiping out vultures in their hundreds.

In my culture, there is no fairy godmothers or tooth fairies, so when my teeth fell as a child, my mother took me outside and taught me a song. The song is to the Yellow-billed Kite Milvus aegyptius, an Intra-African migrant. What you do as a child, if you want your tooth to grow back is to sing the song that goes Mzwazwa! Mzwazwa! Thathi’zinyo lami ungiphe’lakho elihle! This directly translates to: "Yellow-billed Kite! Yellow-billed Kite! Take my tooth and give me your beautiful one!" This is weird since birds have no teeth, and this bird’s tooth is a yellow, curved, and razor sharp bill, which nobody would like growing on them. After singing the song, you are then supposed to throw the tooth over the roof for the Yellow-billed Kite to collect as it flies over your house. This small tradition in my corner of the world makes the bird so important, because children everywhere want the safety of the bird as it brings their adult teeth, and parents everywhere want that moment my mother shared with me so many years ago, passing along the tradition.

Attendees of the 2017 IVAD seminar

Attendees of the 2017 IVAD seminar

My second annual International Vulture Awareness Day seminar at the Natural History Museum of Zimbabwe for this year was themed Vulture Conservation and Culture in Zimbabwe. My intention was for scientists, the general public, and culture experts to talk about vulture conservation issues and what needs to change in Zimbabwe for their protection. I invited the BirdLife Zimbabwe Conservation officer for Special Species Ms. Fadzai Matsvimbo, Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Authority (ZimParks) senior ecologist Ms. Lovelater Sebele, and renowned author, historian, and culture expert Mr. Pathisa Nyathi. We had a great turn out of people from all over the city that knew close to nothing about vultures but were intrigued and interested in getting to know about them.

The two speakers from BirdLife Zimbabwe and ZimParks illustrated the current status of vultures in Zimbabwe and what conservation efforts are happening on the ground. BirdLife Zimbabwe works closely with ZimParks in Hwange National Park and has reported on various vulture poisonings around Zimbabwe. In Hwange Park, cyanide poisoning on salt leaks in elephant poaching is the main cause of mass deaths of vultures and many other scavenging animals; however, in other parks like Gonarezhou on the boarder of Zimbabwe and Mozambique, Aldicarb a carbamate insecticide is the most common, along with the harvesting of body parts for muti (traditional medicine).

The major problems faced by organizations like these two are the lack of understanding of the value of vultures and inconsistencies in the litigation process. The judiciary system is failing our vultures, delivered sentences are inconsistent, and often vultures are not included as part of the cases. There is a lack of awareness in game rangers working in the parks, where vulture losses are not properly documented. For these and many other reasons, the two organizations have partnered in educating rangers on identification, data collection on poaching crime scenes, and conservation status.

African white-backed vulture photo by Julia Wheeler 

African white-backed vulture photo by Julia Wheeler 

Our historian and culture expert explained the African philosophy on conservation, and he reminded us that African communities were the best conservationists of natural resources whilst being utilitarian at the same time. African conservation is linked to cosmology and African spirituality, the belief that the earth is our mother and provider—that all matter has life in it, and in order for there to be life there has to be death. This spiritual approach to nature and the world, compared to the scientific, modern approach instills in all Africans a reverence to nature that inspires conservationists.

Due to the philosophy that all matter possesses life, all the parts of an animal carry spiritual characteristics of the animal, and for this reason, vulture bones, beaks, feathers, talons, and even meat are used as muti. Originally, because of the ability of vultures to ‘miraculously’ tell where carcasses are, it was only used by traditional healers for divination as part of their wardrobe. The use of vulture body parts for muti has only recently spiraled out of control due to increased possibilities for foretelling with sports betting, gambling,business successes, and investment results among others.

The biggest take home for all that night, especially for the conservation scientists, was that no external policing is more effective than internal conviction. This means that African children today need to be taught about African philosophy and spirituality to regain that awareness of wildlife. Along with western, scientific, material/physical education, African spirituality also needs to be taught to younger generations as it is being lost in current generations. The scientists were also urged to educate the public of the world view and wildlife understanding through indigenous African knowledge systems and to remain respectful of local people’s beliefs; perceptions are real, just as their consequences are.

In the end, I learned the value of my culture in conservation and how to be a holistic and effective advocate for conservation in my country. Most importantly, I realized the value of one day teaching my children the Yellow-billed Kite song and sharing with them the folklore that made me love and respect nature in my life and my career.

Merlyn with African white-backed vulture. Photo by Julia Wheeler.

Merlyn with African white-backed vulture. Photo by Julia Wheeler.