Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Rookie Files: Riley

Each year as May approaches I get more and more excited, knowing that we will soon be headed back to the Milwaukee County Zoo to do another bird show. 

Our crew consists of some old as well as some new faces (both human and animal) and of course a couple of rookies.  Perhaps most exciting for me is the fact that Riley, our American barn owl, will finally be making his first appearance in shows. 

Riley spent the summer last year becoming accustomed to strange new people and places. He was one of our most popular teaser birds, or birds we take to the sidewalks around our theatre to get people excited about the show. People were very excited to see him sitting on the glove or on his perch in the weathering area, and the characteristic barn owl “upside down head” (when curious about something, raptors will turn their heads upside down to see the object better) was always a crowd pleaser.
A 42 day old Barn Owl baby displaying the "upside down head" posture 
Riley was hatched at the World Bird Sanctuary to two of our breeding barn owls, Athena and Sonar. He is a little over a year old and very curious. Like all barn owls he has fantastic hearing, thanks in part to the shape of his face. A barn owl’s face is shaped like a satellite dish, and those hundreds of tiny feathers that make up the disc help to funnel sound directly to the ears. This adaptation allows barn owls to hunt in complete darkness; in fact they can hear a mouse scurrying up to ninety feet away!
 A 63 day old Barn Owl displaying the typical Barn Owl heart shaped facial disc
Barn owls are also excellent hunters because they can easily sneak up on their prey. “How,” you may ask?  Their feathers of course!  Owl feathers have a soft fringe along the leading edge of their outer wing feathers, sort of like the teeth of a comb. They have even smaller fringes on the trailing edges.  This muffles the wind as it passes through the wing, allowing owls to fly silently and sneak up on their prey. That mouse will never know what hit it!

Barn owls are fantastic predators, but they are also a prey that can be a prey species. Great horned owls and barred owls, especially, will eat this species. In order to compensate for this, barn owls have one of the highest reproductive rates for a bird of prey. They can lay up to fourteen eggs in a clutch, or group of eggs, and some years they will double clutch. That’s a lot of little barn owls in a nest!
 A basketful of curious Barn Owl babies
Luckily for Riley, he did not have to worry about sharing a nest with so many siblings. Since we knew he was going to be used for education he was largely raised by humans. In order to acclimate him, we took him home with us at night. He learned how to hide from predators behind my TV, hunt my remote control, and fly by jumping from my dresser to my couch. He was a quick study when it came to sitting on a perch, though he preferred trying to climb up the sides rather than jumping, and loves sitting on the glove (in fact, he prefers it to his perch). Riley loves to explore, to the point of causing his trainers worry when he tries to squeeze out of his pens (he is very squishy) and his first experience with snow resulted in him trying to take a bath in it (he found this did not work out as expected).
 Riley checking out the snow
This summer, Riley will perform in shows, showing off his excellent sense of hearing and hunting skills. So if you’re in Wisconsin, feel free to look us up! And if you’re not in Wisconsin, why not plan a road trip? Everyone should be Milwaukee bound!

Submitted by Leah Tyndall, World Bird Sanctuary Naturalist 

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