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Hawks Aloft Blog

Blog Topic: Education

Decolonizing Nature at UNM

What does decolonization mean? And, how can one even begin to address the process of decolonizing something as big and full of meaning as nature? These are heady topics, and a recent conference in Albuquerque sought to address them in a multitude of ways. I was lucky enough to write an article for the Weekly Alibi about the recent Decolonizing Nature conference, hosted by UNM at the National Hispanic Cultural Center, and in turn, attend some sessions on behalf of Hawks Aloft.

The conference, which was held between April 18 and 22, included an array of sessions that broached such topics as “Species, Place, Politics,” “Building Bridges—Art, Community, Humanities,” “Sustainable Communities,” “In the Borderlands,” and “Water is Life,” among many others. In addition, an art exhibition opened in conjunction with the conference at 516 ARTS and the UNM Museum of Art hosted a small film festival. Through this variety of mediums and topics, the organizers of the conference, led by Subhankar Banerjee, hoped to free minds when it comes to considering our planet and its fate, and to engage the community in a dialogue on its own broad-based health and happiness.

Goodbye to All of That

Virginia Colwell’s “Goodbye to All of That,” part of the Decolonizing Nature exhibition at 516 ARTS

In this process of shaking off prescribed notions of ways of being and interacting with the natural and constructed world, many vital and inspiring conversations took place. Each panel discussion allowed for brief lectures by a carefully chosen group of individuals and left ample time for questions and comments from the community. Jeanette Hart-Mann, who I interviewed about the conference, pointed out that the presenters were carefully chosen because they are individuals who aren’t just “writing glorious papers” for other academics but are actually doing the work that they think is meaningful in their field.

From "Golden Migration," a site-specific work by choreographer and dancer, Lisa Nevada

From “Golden Migration,” a site-specific work by choreographer and dancer, Lisa Nevada

Sitting in on “Species, Place, Politics” panel discussion was interesting, particularly because speakers were selected from a vast number of fields. What many might find surprising is that there were a large number of artists participating in the conference, always game to speak on how art can provide another language to discuss complex, nuanced topics. On this particular panel was local dancer and choreographer Lisa Nevada, and Silver City-based photographer (and former field biologist) Michael Berman, as well as UNM PhD candidate and biologist Carlos Carrion. Nevada talked about her site-specific art, Golden Migration, performed at Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge; Berman presented photography from the border as a vehicle for discussion; and Carrion, a native of Ecuador, talked about Yasuni National Park in his home country, and its fraught future due to Ecuador’s economic reliance on oil.

"Macho Peak Looking North," Pinto Ranch, TX, 2007. By Michael Berman

By Michael Berman

Each presenter addressed the topic in subtle, nuanced ways, suggesting there are infinite ways to tackle such pressing issues, using your own very specific and personal talents. As Hart-Mann mentioned when I interviewed her, the root of our ecological problems is that we view ourselves and our world as fundamentally different; that we as humans are set apart from the natural world. If we are separate from nature, then exploiting it isn’t so problematic. The aim of the conference, in part, was to realize that we are a part of this Earth, and what we do it, we do to ourselves. We are not “Earthmasters” as the Decolonizing Nature program described, but Earthlings, a single part of the biological web much bigger than ourselves.


Maggie and Idaho

 

Maggie Grimason is senior editor and an educator at Hawks Aloft.

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Leucism in Birds

Several weeks ago Hawks Aloft staff made the trip to Monte Vista, Colorado for the Monte Vista Crane Festival. Upon their arrival they started to hear rumors of a Red-tailed Hawk haunting the edges of the wildlife refuge. But this was no ordinary Red-tailed; defying the colors that dominate the species, this was a largely white Red-tailed Hawk, with only the occasional rust or brown feather that birders might expect when it comes down to identifying such a bird.

The leucistic Red-tailed Hawk spotted in Monte Vista, Colorado. Image by Larry Rimer

The leucistic Red-tailed Hawk spotted in Monte Vista, CO. Image by Larry Rimer

This particular hawk—a leucistic one—isn’t an entirely common sight, and Hawks Aloft staff and volunteers were thrilled to spot it on their first day out. It is hard to get an accurate grasp on how common leucism is in birds, but Project FeederWatch, an extensive online database of bird species observed and reported by citizen scientists, has recorded only about 1,600 leucistic birds of any species out of 5.5 million distinct birds indicated. But what exactly is leucism? And why does it happen at all, albeit infrequently?

Leucism is a blanket term for abnormal plumage conditions caused by genetic mutations. This genetic inheritance prevents a pigment—melanin—from being carried and deposited in the bird’s plumage. This condition can end up looking like the Red-tailed Hawk spotted in Colorado, or it can also be displayed as white patches throughout the body, in places where they wouldn’t normally occur in a species. Sometimes the condition also manifests as an overall paler plumage in the bird, as if its color was diluted.

Leucism is quite different than albinism, another similar (and similarly unusual) condition in birds. Considered to be extremely rare in the wild, albinism is marked by a total lack of melanin. Leucism, notably, only impacts the bird’s feathers, while albinism is apparent in the feathers and elsewhere. For example, albino animals almost always sport red eyes, as well as pale pink or red skin, feet and bills. Leucistic birds usually have normally colored eyes, skin and feet; the condition of leucism only impacts the feathers.

Image by Larry Rimer.

Image by Larry Rimer

Although it is quite exciting to see a leucistic bird in the wild, they do face certain challenges that make their lives difficult. These birds, without the protective camouflage that other animals have, become more vulnerable to predators. Additionally, plumage colors play an important role in courtship and mating; as such, many leucistic birds may be unable to find suitable mates. Last but not least, the dysfunctional melanin production in leucistic bird’s feathers may even make it harder for them to fly. Since melanin is an important structural component to feathers, birds lacking the proper amount of this pigment may have weaker feathers that are more prone to breaking and less able to insulate the body against cold and damp.

Leucism can be a great burden on the bird, however, it does remain rare. As such, when a birder spots a bird such as this, it allows for a moment of pause as we consider the great complexity of avian life, and the beautiful and observable variety among these amazing animals.


Maggie and Idaho

Maggie Grimason is senior editor and an educator at Hawks Aloft

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Sandhill Cranes Return Once Again

Image by Steve Vender

Image by Steve Vender

I remember the first Sandhill Crane I ever saw vividly—it was the first winter I lived in New Mexico, nearly six years ago now—near the Rio Grande on south Fourth Street. It was an amazing sight, and continues to be. Second in size only to the Whooping Crane, how could anxious watchers ever cease to be impressed these large, graceful birds? Their gurgling call and shadows cast over the wintry high desert is a sure indication of the changing seasons; without fail, they return year in and year out to New Mexico. Though these large, red-capped bird dependably herald the changing seasons, there is still much to learn about their migration patterns, especially in the face of a warming planet.

Image by Steve Vender

Image by Steve Vender

In New Mexico, the Rocky Mountain Sandhill Crane population’s migration habits are being closely studied by students and researchers at New Mexico State University. As the birds respond to changes in climate that have created water scarcity and loss of wetlands (meaning less habitat) they have taken to traveling back and forth between several wintering areas in New Mexico, in order to find more opportunities for foraging. This is just one observable difference in the behavior of cranes responding to a changing world, and a clear indication of the importance of this kind of research, which reveals essential details about survival rates.

Image by Steve Vender

Image by Steve Vender

With a range that encompasses distant places like Alaska all the way up to Siberia, these stately birds make their way south each autumn to winter in places like New Mexico, even as far south as the state of Durango in Mexico. Winter flocks usually consist of several nuclear families; Sandhill Cranes mate for life, so these may be comprised of parents, their young, and maybe even “grandchildren.” Typically these loose groups will overnight in shallow waters, and during the day forage for a variety of insects, snails, plants and amphibians.

Image by Steve Vender

Image by Steve Vender

A particularly good place to stand in awe of these impressive birds—one of the most ancient species on Earth—is, of course, at Bosque del Apache. Even if you missed out on the Festival of the Cranes, don’t worry, there are still plenty of months to see Sandhill Cranes; they likely won’t start their departure until March. If you have your heart set on a festival, you can put the Monte Vista Crane Festival in the San Luis Valley of Colorado in your planner for March of 2017. Hawks Aloft will be there! Otherwise, just head out your front door to the Rio Grande bosque and look up, you’re likely to glimpse them near water and hear their trumpeting calls, too.

Image by Steve Vender

Image by Steve Vender


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Maggie Grimason is a writer and educator at Hawks Aloft

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Raptor Vocalizations

We’ve all seen and heard it. In commercials for an all-American truck, in movies about the wild, wild West. All too often producers depict a soaring bird, frequently an eagle or even a vulture, and tracked over the shot is the call of a Red-tailed Hawk.

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Image by Larry Rimer

Raptors are thought of as strong and tenacious animals, but that doesn’t always mean they have the vocalizations to match—the ubiquitous cries of the Red-tailed Hawk being the exception. Most raptors in fact have a weaker, high-pitched call. For example, here is a common vocalization of the fierce Bald Eagle:

Image by Doug Brown

Image by Doug Brown

You may think that, if the Bald Eagle doesn’t have a sharp, robust cry, then surely the Golden Eagle does. However, you may not find this to be true either. Take a listen:

Most of the studies done on bird vocalizations emphasize, unsurprisingly, songbirds. Oscine birds (a subset of Passeriformes) include the Brown Thrasher, Hermit Thrushes, and Starlings who illustrate great range with their complex voice boxes. These birds often emit sounds ranging from buzzes and clicks to trilling and warbling.

Birds of prey’s calls don’t tend toward the musicality displayed by songbirds, but are still interesting, varied, and quite often beautiful. Take for example this lovely, common call from the Red-shouldered Hawk:

Frequently film makers will even use a shot of circling Turkey Vultures paired with the cry of a Red-tailed Hawk. However, Turkey Vultures are largely silent birds, and vocalize primarily when very agitated and then it sounds a great deal more like a hiss, even a roar, then a cry.

Image by Doug Brown

Image by Doug Brown

 

Surely no one expects a Hollywood movie to truly reflect reality, and the objective of truth in advertising is often overlooked. A quick review of raptor vocalizations illustrates these points in a simple, often funny way. The next time you hear the cry of a Red-tailed Hawk emitting from a television or movie screen, take a moment to quietly fact-check the content of what you’re seeing, or better yet, head outside to find the authentic music of raptors and songbirds across New Mexico.


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Maggie Grimason is a writer and educator at Hawks Aloft 

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Why is the Crow Black? And Other Interesting Thoughts on the North American Crow

Last week during a school program at La Mesa Elementary School, we presented our Avian Ambassador, Indigo, a North American Crow. After discussing her history and talking about raptor adaptations and how a bird like Indigo differs from hawks, falcons, owls, and eagles, I asked the students if they had any questions.

Avian Ambassador Indigo, enjoying some sunshine

Avian Ambassador Indigo, enjoying some sunshine

A third-grader in the back of the room hoisted his hand up immediately and asked pointedly, “Why are crows black?” It is such a straightforward question, but one with a complex answer.

The answer is: no one really knows why species of corvid like the North American Crow or the Common Raven are black in coloration. The best guess that evolutionary biologists can give us is that flocking birds like crows use coloration as a quick way to identify other members of the same species.

A North American food scavenging tortillas behind Bueno Foods

A North American Crow scavenging tortillas behind Bueno Foods

In one story from the Sioux Nation, the crow was once white as snow. After continually thwarting the hunting efforts of the tribe’s cleverest hunters, they caught the biggest, most important of the crows and, as a punishment, intended to burn him. The crow was very sly, however, and got away, but his feathers were charred, and ever since, all crows have been black. In Lenape legend, the crow was once rainbow colored—the earth’s most beautifully feathered bird. During a long, very cold winter, the Rainbow Crow flew to the heavens to ask the Great Sky Spirit for help. He gave the crow fire to take back to the animals of the land. When Rainbow Crow returned to earth, however, he was a different bird; on the return journey the flame had scorched his feathers black and made his beautiful voice a harsh croak.

Regardless of why or how, crows and ravens are black from their bills to their legs. As extremely social birds, crows sometimes form flocks up to one million in number. Just imagine what that might look like overhead!

Indigo, photograph by Doug Brown

Indigo, photograph by Doug Brown

Besides being one of the few completely black North American birds, crows are also exceptional due to their advanced cognitive abilities. Scientists working throughout the world have proven the crow’s ability to recognize human faces—which is, incidentally, an extension of their keen ability to recognize one another. Crows are also known to have complex communication systems that include regional “dialects” and a long-reaching memory—for example, crows have been known to change their entire migration routes to avoid farms where a single crow has been killed in the past.

Since crows are well adapted to living among human beings, you’re likely to encounter them nearly anywhere—Downtown, Uptown, the foothills, near the Bosque, and beyond. Next time you observe one of these dark birds flying overhead, take a moment to appreciate their unique characteristics and intelligence.


 

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Maggie Grimason is a writer and educator at Hawks Aloft

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Adventures in Education Series – Fall 2014 Overview

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Aztec

This fall has been a whirlwind of activity in the education department at Hawks Aloft! In August,we began classroom visits at our Living with the Landscape (LWL) schools. We have successfully completed all classroom visits at Hawthorne, La Luz, and MacArthur Elementary Schools. Our fourth school, Mountain View, will have their final visit in January. We have reached approximately 1,400 students and 100 teachers  with this year’s LWL program. It is offered to Title One schools in the Albuquerque area through an application process.  We present lessons on bird anatomy, migration, bioaccumulation, and watersheds. It has been an absolute pleasure getting to work with each class and their teachers and we are looking forward to taking students on their field trips in the spring!

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Prairie Falcon, Sunny, at Festival of the Cranes.           Picture taken by Tammy Maitland, Educator

In addition  to LWLt, we also presented eight bird of prey programs reaching 748 students in Albuquerque, Ruidoso, and Cimarron, NM. We conducted nine outreach booths.  Some were local, while others were more distant such as  Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge and Las Cruces; we reached 1,544 participants at these booths. Overall, we have reached approximately 4,000 people face to face since the end of August through our education programs.

We greatly appreciate the support of our volunteers that make our efforts so much more effective and enjoyable.  Thanks to everyone who has helped.

 

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Through the Eyes of an Intern, No. 1: Introductions!

Hello! My name is Mirinisa Stewart-Tengco (please call me Miri) and, in case you haven’t read the latest HAI Flier, I am the intern for this summer. I am very excited to be able to experience all the different facets of this wonderful organization.

For the first week I mostly worked with the educators, which was a good introduction as that was the side of HAI I was most familiar with. I learned how to conduct a basic single-visit school program, including learning some of the educational games—they’re a lot of fun, by the way, and I think that a lot of adults would benefit from playing these same games. (Seriously. There was one game about the effects of farmers putting pesticides on their crops, and it made me realize some of the very concrete and far-reaching outputs of even slight inputs to a system. Highly recommended for anyone who believes that their small actions have no effects on the wider environment.)

Photo of Aztec and Bubba by Mirinisa Stewart-Tengco, photos of Aires and Commodore by unkown

L-R: Aires (Swainson’s Hawk), Aztec and Bubba (Great Horned Owls), and Commodore (another Swainson’s), who all introduced me to my first day of work.

I also had the opportunity to visit a lot of the education birds…and clean their cages, of course! I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to quite get used to taking rat and quail remains off of their mats, but if it gives me the chance to hold birds like the adorable Shadow (a Western Screech Owl, pictured below), then hey, it’s worth it.

Miri and Shadow with Saya (our previous Education and Outreach Coordinator) in the background. Photo by Julia Davis

Shadow says: “Wow, you’ve been holding me for five minutes and I can already tell you’re new here.”

My own education has also included various falconry terms, including:

  • mews: an outdoor flight cage for a bird
  • jesses: the leather strips that attach to the bird’s legs, held by the handler and used to control the bird’s talons as those are its main weapons
  • swivel: the double metal ring that attaches the jesses to the leash and, through the leash, to the handler’s glove

As you can see, we take multiple precautions to make sure our birds stay safely under our control—safer for the birds, of course, but also safer for the spectators nearby. One of the scariest moments for me so far was during cage cleaning, when we had to grab the water dish from the red-tails’ mews; they are already some of the most aggressive birds that we have and, as they were nesting, it was unsafe for us even to attempt to clean the rest of their enclosure. Luckily, most of our raptors are friendlier!

Photograph by Mirinisa Stewart-Tengco

Handlers’ gloves for the birds kept at Gail’s house.

In the second week I had my first taste of field work, a morning of nest checks in the Bosque. I’ll talk about that in my next blog, by which time I will have gone out another time or two and will be able to give you a better insight to field work in general. I also will be assisting with my first educational program this Thursday. I have little experience in education, so stay tuned to see how this goes! Though, seeing as that cutie Shadow is one of the birds we’re bringing along, I’m sure the program will go well.

Until next time,

Miri

 

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Bioaccumulation: A Lesson from the Peregrine Falcon

Peregrine Falcon

Peregrine Falcon. Image by David Powell.

Bioaccumulation is the process in which the toxins in the environment are collected little by little by the organisms at the bottom of the food chain (i.e. plants, plant eating animals). As the toxin accumulates in the bodies of larger predators, it can reach lethal dosages within individuals. The top predators, those that never directly ingested the toxins, are affected by the indirect consumption of poisoned prey.

The story of DDT is popular with this theme in our elementary school programs.  Our educational Peregrine Falcon is often used for this lesson. Most students have never heard of DDT or about the endangerment of Peregrine Falcons,  Bald Eagles, and the Osprey (or fish hawk).  To demonstrate the bioaccumulation topic to today’s children, we play the bioaccumulation game.

This game is played in multiple stages. It starts with a rectangular area to represent a farm field (about 15 by 10 feet), and a student designated as a farmer. The farmer is responsible for spreading the nutrients needed to grow his crops; the nutrients are represented by poker chips of varying colors (about 50 chips). The rest of the students are asked, “What are the nutrients needed by plants (e.g. water, sunlight, fertilizer)?”

Then, about half of the students are given small plastic cups to represent their stomachs. These students are the ‘grasshoppers’ that eat the farmer’s plants, and nutrients for the plants. The farmer steps aside, and the grasshoppers

Peregrine Falcon with chicks.  Image courtesy of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Peregrine Falcon with chicks. Image courtesy of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

pick up, or “eat”, the poker chip nutrients.  When all of the poker chips are collected, the grasshoppers step outside the farm field and count how many red colored chips they have acquired. Students have to remember their number, and the grasshoppers return to the inside of the field. A smaller group of students are given larger cups, to represent their ‘sparrow stomach’.  The grasshoppers are then preyed upon by the sparrows. The grasshoppers hop around to avoid being tagged by the walking sparrows. Once tagged, the grasshoppers empty the contents of their stomach into the sparrow’s stomach, and hop outside the field. Once all of the grasshoppers are eaten, the sparrows count how many red chips they have in their stomachs. The sparrow students step back into the field, and 2-3 students, representing the falcons, are given the largest cups. The falcons can run around the field, while the sparrows can only walk, trying to avoid getting eaten.  When all of the sparrows have been eaten, the falcons count how many red chips they accumulated in their stomachs.

At this time, we all gather to discuss what was really going on. The farmer is called back up, and is asked what he/she planted in the field. Do you want the grasshoppers to eat all your crops?  What do you do to keep them away? The students easily answer, “Use poison!” At this point, I share with the students that the red poker chip they collected was the poison.  If they had more than 10 chips, then they were poisoned and died. And, all of the falcons should have collected more than 10 red chips!

We then talk about how many animals survived with a little poison, but that all of the falcons died with lots of poison. I ask students if they think this really could have happened, and they all agree that it probably did.  From there, we ask students what they think we could do to stop grasshoppers from eating crops and what could be done to help falcons. The students come up with all types of answers, from more sparrows that eat the grasshoppers, to catching all the grasshoppers and feeding it to our kestrels.  

BAEA Juvie taking off - 10-13

Bald Eagles are now protected from DDT, but lead poisoning through fishing sinkers and lead bullets is an on going bioaccumulation threat. Image by Doug Brown

 

 

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