Happy birthday to our hawk

Post by Jen Berlinghof

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, a landmark law that protects bird species worldwide. To honor and celebrate this milestone, organizations and citizens have teamed up to designate 2018 the “Year of the Bird.” We at the Lake County Forest Preserves in Lake County, Illinois are celebrating another bird-related milestone this year as our education red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) turns 30 years old.

Our education red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) turned 30 years old this year. Photo © Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark.

Found as an injured, immature bird in 1988 and deemed not releasable to the wild due to a damaged wing, she has spent almost her entire life as an educational ambassador for the Lake County Forest Preserves. During her tenure, she has encountered about 76,000 people through special events and school programs at the forest preserves, teaching them first-hand about Lake County birds of prey. Across three decades, a behind-the-scenes network of more than 70 employees and volunteers has cared for and learned from this majestic raptor. A handful of staff members still at the Lake County Forest Preserves has worked with her from the beginning.

The hawk started serving as an educational ambassador soon after arriving at Ryerson Woods (Riverwoods) in 1989. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

Starting as a volunteer, Environmental Educator II Jill Stites has worked with the hawk for nearly three decades. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

Director of Education Nan Buckardt with the hawk in 1989. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

Lately, we have all been reminiscing, sharing stories of what it’s been like to have the privilege of such intimate access for all these years to the life of the hawk.

There’s a lot to do when you’re caring for a wild hawk. It comes with challenges and rewards. She’s fed her daily rat or quail while perched on our arm atop a thick leather glove. We’ve all learned she can be picky about which parts of her meal she eats (skin and muscle) and which parts (intestines) she flings on your shirt. But watching from inches away as her instincts take over and she uses her razor-like beak to precisely dismantle her prey is a thing of grotesque beauty.

Her hooked beak and dagger-like talons need to be honed so they don’t grow too long, impeding her eating or movement. In the wild, her beak and talons would be naturally filed down as she landed and perched on a variety of surfaces, but due to her limited movement she needs a little help. The hardest part isn’t the trimming itself, but safely wrapping her in a towel and covering her eyes so she remains calm during the process. She knows when it’s trimming time and tends to bate (fly off the glove) and vocalize a ton. Yet, once swaddled securely, she becomes docile. The hum of the Dremel often even lulls her to sleep. Feeling the feathered weight of a sleeping hawk on your lap is an embodiment of the quiet grace often overlooked in this predatory raptor.

Staff trim the hawk's talons and beak safely and regularly. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

In front of an audience, this large bird of prey commands the room, hushing the crowd and demanding respect by her presence alone. Folks are usually surprised when we tell them she only weighs about as much as a half-gallon of milk. It doesn’t sound like much, but it sure feels like it when you’re holding her on an outstretched arm for long periods of time. The pain fades, though, as you see the awestruck faces of the group when the hawk stretches to reveal her full wingspan or coughs up a pellet in front of them.

The hawk has participated in countless school programs throughout her long life. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

Through the seasons, we have heard her scream to the migrating hawks flying overhead in the fall and found remains of wild rodents that sought shelter in her mews over the winter, unaware of their impending fate. We have watched her meticulously build a nest and tiptoe her talons around her eggs with care in the spring. We have felt the spray of water as she bathed and preened in her dish on a hot summer day.

These intimate moments through the years that staff and volunteers have been privy to with our red-tailed hawk help remind us that at the end of the day, she is truly wild.

Visit Ryerson Welcome Center (Riverwoods) to see the hawk in her mews. Photo © Jeff Goldberg.

We invite you to share in the joy of her wildness as we celebrate her 30th birthday with a free drop-in program at Ryerson Welcome Center on Sunday, September 23, 12–3 pm. Meet the hawk and our education eastern screech owl. Learn about raptors with hands-on education activities, then make a birthday card for the hawk. Drop in any time starting at 12 pm. No registration required. All ages.

Bird-eat-bird world

Post by Jen Berlinghof

I remember the first time I saw it happen. It was a frigid Sunday in February, sixteen years ago. I had just started working for the Lake County Forest Preserves. The deep cold, the kind that temporarily freezes your eyelashes together every time you blink, kept potential hikers away from Ryerson Conservation Area that day. I ventured out only to fill the bird feeders, and the chickadees, juncos, cardinals, and woodpeckers quickly gathered around for a feast. I thought they would be my only visitors of the day. Then, a cacophony of bird wings ruptured the quiet. Bird visitors fled from the feeders in all directions. In a low hanging branch of a nearby oak, one bird remained: a Cooper’s hawk. It was devouring a mourning dove that had just been pecking around under the feeders only moments before.

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Hordes of hummingbirds

Post by Jen Berlinghof

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For me, most days on the job consist of time in my “office” outdoors—a woodland, prairie or wetland in the Lake County Forest Preserves—with my “clients”—students, teachers, and families interested in learning more about local nature. On those rare days spent plunking away at a computer indoors, the photo above is my view. Recently, this view is bustling with activity, as hordes of ruby-throated hummingbirds buzz around the feeders, bulking up for a long flight south.

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Bluebirds are back!

Post by Jen Berlinghof

Last week while I was out checking our sap collection buckets at Ryerson Conservation Area, everything in the woods seemed a bleak brown and gray. It didn’t look much like spring was on our doorstep, but it sure sounded like it with the “plink plink” of sap dripping into aluminum buckets on the sugar maple trees and the slow “peep peep” of cold, little spring peeper frogs. Then, a male eastern bluebird landed on the branch above my head. He was a vivid blue exclamation point that seemed to shout, “Spring has arrived!”

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Nature at night

Post by Jen Berlinghof

This winter’s lack of snow has made enjoying the winter woods a little more difficult for me. So, when a scant few inches of snow fell last week I made my way to Old School Forest Preserve at dusk to explore one of the Lake County Forest Preserves solar-lit trails.

Inky black branches of old oaks played in contrast to the white-washed sky before the blush of an orange sherbet sunset took over. The woods were still and quiet as I searched for any signs of crepuscular creatures that capitalize on the twilight. Continue reading

April Fools’ bird

Post by Jen Berlinghof

It was a windy, but bright, April 1 this year. I was on a trail at Ryerson Woods with a group of volunteers. Most of our heads were focused downward, inspecting the minutiae of a bloodroot bloom. Then, someone shouted, “EAGLES!” I truly thought the next thing shouted would be “APRIL FOOLS’!” but when we snapped our heads skyward, we saw two ivory-headed eagles swooping back and forth above the trees. No joke!

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The real Thanksgiving turkey

Post by Jen Berlinghof

There is a lot of turkey talk in my house lately—from handprint turkey crafts to gobbling impersonations and heated discussions of who gets the wishbone this year. Come November, most of us think of turkeys as the centerpiece of a delicious feast. You might be surprised to learn that this symbol of our American heritage is not only found on platters but also resides in Lake County, Illinois woodlands; and their gobbling is growing!

eastern wild turkey

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