My favorite falcon?

Okay, I may not know enough types of falcons to have a legitimate favorite (and the owl remains my favorite raptor, that less specific bird-of-prey category). But proving the zoo’s thesis that you grow fondest of the species that you meet in person, I developed a keen interest in the American kestrel after a recent Close Encounters session by the turtle tank between Tropics and the Minnesota Trail. The encounter was advertised only as “Meet a Bird of Prey,” scheduled for a time when I did not have a “must-cover” volunteer assignment elsewhere. So I went to see what kind of bird it was.

American kestrel with Mary

Zoo staffer Mary presented kestrel Miici, whose name she described as an Indian word for “eat.” Miici is a former pet, which makes her “imprinted” on humans for food. (The zoo feeds her mouse chunks and mealworms.) The Warner Nature Center, which has a densely informative page on kestrels and other types of raptors, advises against adopting a kestrel as a house pet — which may be tempting, since they’re robin-sized and cute. But even as the smallest falcon, weighing just under 5 ounces (or the weight of a tennis ball), they’re an aggressive hunter, with a raptor’s hooked beak and sharp talons.

American kestrel head turnCamera-shy Miici kept turning her head every time I took her picture — not the full backward-facing 135 degrees that an owl head can turn, but much farther than our own limited range of motion. She also bobbed her head up and down, telescoping her neck, to an amusing extent. Mary described some of her falcon features — the black marks under a kestrel’s eyes serve the same function as the similar but artificial marks on a football player’s face: to absorb sunlight so it doesn’t reflect into the eyes. Kestrels are found throughout North America, especially near open areas where they can spot ground-dwelling prey with their excellent long-distance vision. At the zoo, in a season less bitterly cold than this one, a staff-led encounter with Miici would typically happen outdoors. I look forward to meeting her again on Lakeside Plaza in a gentler season.

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Rocky’s a star

I’d heard fun things about the new moose-training sessions on the Northern Trail — part of the zoo’s new Close Encounters program — and last week a group of us volunteers went to check it out. The new moose on exhibit is Rocky (yes, Rocky, not Bullwinkle), and he did not disappoint.

Minnesota Zoo moose RockyRocky’s a 19-month-old adolescent who arrived several months ago from a Texas facility for eventual breeding with our newly adult 3-year-old moose Kathy, one of his keeper/trainers explained. (Zoo moose used to consist of orphan babies rescued from the wild, but as their populations decline and chronic wasting disease complicates the handling of all deer species, zoos focus more on making their own moose babies in-house.) While many of the zoo’s Close Encounters have keepers on the trails with animals you don’t normally see on exhibit, others — like this one — happen on a regular exhibit. A ringing bell and vocal calls from three female trainers brought Rocky down the hill toward his exhibit’s edge, and then across the exhibit to the opposite edge where the trainers awaited him. He knew food would accompany the training.

Rocky the moose being pettedWhy train a moose, you might ask? For large animals like Rocky, it’s all about easing their routine medical care. Like the dolphins when we had them, he learns to respond to a particular shape (that’s his yellow star on the ground above). Then he gets handfuls of lettuce, carrots and leaf-eater biscuits. As you can see, he gets his nose stroked, too — not just an affectionate act, but preparation for having a veterinarian eventually inspect his eyes and look into his mouth.

Rocky the moose turning

Rocky starThe trainers had Rocky do an “A to B,” or walk from the pair at right to a third trainer. He was already quite attuned to this trainer, swiveling his giant head toward her whenever she spoke. She had another yellow star and a big bunch of romaine lettuce for him.

Rocky the moose eating lettuceThe trainers told us that Rocky isn’t particular about what he eats — unlike Steve, another zoo moose who turns up his nose at anything but romaine.

Rocky the moose is spookedTrainers always want to end a session on a positive note, but this time, something spooked Rocky late in the game: a sound or scent undetectable to his human audience. He assumed a partial crouch and peed on his own hindlegs; when another volunteer asked, tentatively, whether this was “normal,” a trainer replied that it was a classic sign of anxiety. Rocky then retreated up the hill and kept gazing over at the caribou, who also were milling about hyperactively. We couldn’t figure out whether they spooked Rocky or whether a third, unseen animal spooked both species. We volunteers, cold and hungry at noon, left the scene before we saw how the session wrapped up. However it ended, Rocky’s obvious bond with his trainers seems to guarantee another good session next time.

Owl surprise

When I ducked into the Minnesota Trail’s black-bear viewing lodge Thursday morning, I expected to see only humans and bears, assuming the latter weren’t still asleep in their holding area. I did not expect to see a tiny owl, perched right there on the fingers of a Close Encounters team member, over by the lodge fireplace.

screech owl encounter

I knew the Close Encounters program (financed through Minnesota’s Legacy Amendment) was up and running and that zoo staffers would be hands-on with non-exhibit animals along the trails at designated times. But this tiny owl caught me off-guard, and I wanted to know his story. Ask a friendly zoo staffer, and you shall be told: He’s an Eastern screech owl named Rio, adopted first by a Texas facility after he fell far from his nest. He’s full-grown now and weighs only 7 or 8 ounces. Because he probably remembers his owl parents, his new blonde stand-in parent describes him as a “partial imprint” — he “knows he’s an owl” but still puts on an apparent mating display for her, tinged with aggression. You’d never know it to see him here, though; Rio maintained the same aura of motionless poise for the five or 10 minutes I spent admiring him.

Eastern screen owl close-upWe have Eastern screech owls in Minnesota, too, though they’re masters of daytime disguise — even when they’re not blending in against bear-lodge fireplace stone.  The Cornell Lab of Ornithology website cracks me up by describing the species as a “cosmopolitan owl,” meaning that these little guys thrive in suburban areas, which offer tree cover and minimal predators. They’re not endangered or rare, and despite their name, their range also covers the Plains states. Their call, which I’ve never heard in the wild, is described as a descending whinny or trill. At the zoo, Rio eats frozen mice and, for enrichment or extra fun, crickets and mealworms. When he’s had enough exposure to people, which happened sometime after I took my second photo of him, he hops off the hand and into his carrying crate, positioned next to the lodge fireplace for maximum warmth on a winter’s day. I hope he makes a return appearance sometime.