In late September, a new otter pup joined the two adult male otters in the Autzen Otter Habitat at the High Desert Museum!
The male, yet-to-be-named North American river otter pup now delights and educates Museum visitors along with Brook and Pitch. He’s come a long way since he was brought to Museum wildlife staff in May.
The pup was found the week before Memorial Day weekend on a golf course near Sunriver. The otter, which was emaciated and severely dehydrated, was brought to the Museum temporarily for care while multiple wildlife professionals attempted to locate his mother. That search failed. State wildlife officials then determined the otter should remain in the care of the Museum.
Staff took on bottle-feeding and teaching the otter to swim, starting with a kid’s pool and the Museum’s stream. He was just under 3 pounds upon arrival and grew rapidly, and by late September, after successfully acquainting him with Brook and Pitch and growing to a healthy 15 pounds, he was deemed ready to move into the otter habitat full time.
We are happy to report that he is thriving and loves his new home. He is full of energy and often active throughout the day, even when his older playmates need to take a nap!
You can visit the otters at the Autzen Otter Exhibit—the daily Otter Encounter talk is at 1:00 pm—learn from Museum volunteers about his care, and discover how we can all work together to conserve habitat for wild otters in the High Desert.
How do volunteer wildlife interpreters stay up to date in order to engage visitors? One way is through a volunteer book club. Each month we select a new title to read and discuss that relates to the daily talks we offer. Reading together helps improve our knowledge and enables us to better engage with visitors and respond to questions, not to mention that learning new things is interesting and fun! If you’d like to get in on what the Wildlife Team has been reading, here are a few titles we’ve looked at recently.
A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold. A must-read for anyone who loves wildlife and seeks to understand the history and current state of wildlife management in the United States. The seminal work of the “father of wildlife ecology,” this book is a collection of short essays where the author speaks of a land ethic and our moral responsibility to the natural world—a community to which we belong. Leopold’s sentiments have informed the work of the wildlife field and have much in common with how we hope to create connections to wildlife with our visitors.
Path of the Puma: The Remarkable Resilience of the Mountain Lion by Jim Williams. If you live in the High Desert you are living with large carnivores, and mountain lions make the news on a regular basis. With our daily Carnivore Talk in full swing, interpreters regularly get questions about these “big cats.” Williams goes into detail about the natural history of the mountain lion, why they are important to the landscapes we all share and their conservation in our region and beyond. After reading this one, interpreters are ready to chat about cats with museumgoers.
Animal Weapons: The Evolution of Battle by Douglas J. Emlen. Some of the more frequent questions we get about deer and elk are from visitors fascinated by their amazing antlers. The author of this book outlines his perspective as an evolutionary biologist working to understand the factors that can lead to an animal arms race, where species such as deer and elk may compromise their own health to grow out-sized and seemingly unnecessarily large weapons. Read it on your own or ask a volunteer to fill you in after the daily High Desert Hooves talk.
And a few more on the list –
The Fish in the Forest: Salmon and the Web of Life by Dale Stokes
Hurricane Lizards and Plastic Squid: The Fraught and Fascinating Biology of Climate Change by Thor Hanson
Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law by Mary Roach
Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer
Stronghold: One Man’s Quest to Save the World’s Wild Salmon by Tucker Malarkey
Fur, Fortune and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America by Eric Jay Dolin
Collared: Politics and Personalities in Oregon’s Wolf Country by Aimee Lyn Eaton
Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence by Marc Bekoff
The Predator Paradox: Ending the War with Wolves, Bears, Cougars, and Coyotes by John Shivik
Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life by Lulu Miller
Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard by Douglas W. Tallamy
Of all the animals cared for at the Museum, raptors are perhaps what we are best known for. Twenty-eight nonreleasable birds call the Museum home, half of which participate in Raptors of the Desert Sky.
The Museum started the free-flight Raptors of the Desert Sky program, which runs from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day, more than a decade ago. Each summer day, visitors with tickets to this iconic program leave the buildings and asphalt trails behind, walking to a nearby forest clearing. The natural venue provides a unique space where five birds fly daily, landing just feet away from visitors and occasionally gliding close overhead. Human elements are minimized, giving people a glimpse into the lives of wild raptors—from owls to turkey vultures. During the program, a naturalist narrator conveys the bird’s unique adaptions, habitat requirements and conservation needs. These close encounters enable people to connect with the birds on a deep level, inspiring many to become lifelong stewards of wildlife and the landscapes we all share.
The program is as enriching for the birds as it is for the audience. The activity provides exercise. The birds are empowered to navigate their environment, free to make choices, rewarded for coming close.
Each day each bird can choose to participate in the program. It turns out raptors aren’t that different from people. They have stage fright. They get tired. They have bad days. They don’t have to fly if they don’t want to. Another can take their place. Some, like Pefa the peregrine, are fearless, confident and highly motivated. She rarely misses a show. Others, like Walter the golden eagle, can be shy and easily overwhelmed. They might only make occasional appearances. That’s okay, as it’s all about providing the highest possible welfare to the animals we care for while sharing them with our community, and it makes for a dynamic program.
Many visitors come back multiple times, meeting different birds and learning more about the region’s wildlife with every visit. Tickets aren’t available in advance and sell out quickly—get to the Museum early to experience this summer highlight!
For many visitors, the Don Kerr Birds of Prey Center is one of the highlights of a day spent at the Museum. Raptors are not just an iconic part of the High Desert — they also have intangible value for cultures worldwide and throughout human history. The human connection to raptors is innate and universal. People everywhere are drawn to these powerful birds.
An important part of the Museum’s mission is to create a refuge for disabled raptors and provide the community with opportunities to enjoy them and learn about them up close. We do that with a collection of 30 non-releasable birds that participate in more than 1,000 public programs every year.
With that volume of education and outreach, raptor handlers quickly learn to anticipate the questions of a curious audience. Wildlife staff works tirelessly with our birds so they are comfortable with people getting close. Once close, people naturally want to touch. Being able to feel and hold something is a crucial component of an educational program. Touching has the potential to create powerful learning experiences. There’s a lot you can learn from holding a feather or talon, turning it in your hand, and feeling it in your fingers that would be imperceptible simply looking at a bird from across the room.
Unfortunately, raptors don’t enjoy being petted or touched. Instead we offer the chance to handle raptor feathers, talons and wings at our regular talks called Bird of Prey Encounter, during Kids’ Camps, in classrooms and during community-outreach programs. Inevitably, people ask if they can keep a feather to take home.
Human fascination with raptors and other birds has not always been reverent or respectful. In some cases, it has led to the exploitation and abuse of wild populations. Many species were once hunted for the commercial value of their feathers, a practice that peaked in the early 1900s. In an effort to halt the commercial trade in bird parts and stem the decline of wild populations, most bird species received protection under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918. This federal legislation prohibits the possession of bird parts including feathers, eggs and nests, and together with the Lacey Act — which prohibits trade in wildlife, fish and plants that have been illegally taken, possessed, transported or sold — eliminates any legal commercial trade in raptors.
Sadly, sometimes raptors are still killed for their feathers. Because bird parts can command high prices on the black market, it remains illegal for people to keep raptor feathers and for the Museum to give them to anyone without a special permit.
We work closely with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to maintain special permits so we can house live birds. This arrangement ensures that visitors have a place to enjoy raptors while learning about biology and conservation. We also have permits to salvage raptor parts for education so we can make sure the public has opportunities to feel how sharp a falcon’s talon is, the softness of an owl’s feather and how light birds’ bones can be.
On a live bird, feathers eventually wear out. Molting is the process by which birds lose old worn out feathers and replace them with new ones on an annual basis. With 30 live birds molting a full set of feathers every year, we have far more feathers than we would ever need for education. While we cannot allow visitors to take feathers home, we do not throw feathers away. One of behind-the-scenes ways the Museum supports raptor conservation is by making naturally molted feathers and excess salvaged bird parts available for use by Native American Tribal members. Raptors hold deep spiritual significance to most Native cultures. Tribal artisans and craftsman incorporate feathers into incredible works of art that clearly emphasize reverence and respect for the birds. Examples of these beautiful and historic objects are also exhibited at the Museum, illustrating the strong connection between wildlife, history and contemporary culture in the High Desert.
Every year in January the Museum’s wildlife staff prepares a report for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service detailing the use of every live bird and bird part in the collection, including feathers that are part of historical and cultural objects on display. In our By Hand Through Memory permanent exhibition alone there are more than 200 bald and golden eagle feathers on exhibit, each one meticulously identified and inventoried by dedicated collections volunteers. Each item is required by law to be made available to the public a minimum of 12 times per year or for 400 hours, a benchmark the Museum far exceeds by providing exhibitions and programs to the Central Oregon community and visitors 362 days a year.
Extra feathers and other items are carefully packaged and mailed off. Eagle feathers and parts go to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Eagle Repository in Colorado, and other feathers go to a Liberty Wildlife Non-Eagle Feather Repository in Arizona. These facilities ensure that raptor parts are legally sourced and distributed to Tribal members throughout the country for traditional use. We recently sent off a shipment containing two seasons worth of feather collection, totaling more than 2,500 feathers or more to the two repositories.
This is one small way the Museum works to conserve wild bird populations while simultaneously supporting the rich cultural traditions raptors have been a part of in the High Desert for thousands of years.
Storytelling is a big part of what we do at the Museum. Narratives can be a powerful tool for teaching and learning, and for fulfilling our mission of connecting audiences to the High Desert region. All of the objects, exhibits, and staff at the museum have stories to tell, and so do each of our animals. One of the things we look for when we bring an animal to the museum is a good story, one that will spark a connection with our visitors.
Late last summer a new resident arrived at the Museum, one with a particularly dramatic and colorful past that paints a vivid picture of the recovery of her species from near extinction, and of the challenges they face in new habitats today. She is a peregrine falcon named “Hope,” one of a clutch of four hatched by wild parents high upon a building in Tacoma, Washington.
In the early 1970s peregrine falcons were among the first animals added to the Endangered Species Act, their populations ravaged by the effects of the organophosphate pesticide DDT. Thankfully they are also one of the ESA’s most resounding success stories, soaring back from near extinction and quickly recolonizing habitats across the continent, including in major cities where tall buildings simulate the cliffs they require for nesting, and where urban pigeon and starling populations provide an abundant food source. Once extremely rare, today peregrine falcons are part of the daily lives of people in major cities throughout the country, and Hope and her siblings enjoyed celebrity status for a short time in Tacoma. However, the attention urban raptors receive also means that human onlookers often get a front row seat to the harsh realities of their natural history.
Like most raptor species, peregrine populations endure high mortality rates in the first year of life. At least 60 percent of peregrine falcons will not make it to age 2. Big cities can be good habitat for falcons, but they are also dangerous places for learning to fly. Hope and one of her brothers both fell from the nest to city streets below, but were “re-nested,” or returned to the high ledge by humans for their parents to continue care. Eventually, two of her brothers, including the one that fell, successfully fledged. However, a third died after flying into a window, and Hope eventually fell a second time. The injury to her wing was too severe for her to make it as a wild falcon.
The High Desert Museum is a refuge for many native animals that would not survive in the wild, serving as both steward and custodian of animals that by law belong the people of Oregon and the United States. Non-releasable animals come here from rehab facilities across the west for lifelong care, and are made accessible to the community through dynamic educational programs that emphasize wildlife ecology and conservation in our region. Each individual animal is evaluated carefully based on its preferences, history, and physical limitations for what programs it wants to participate in, and is trained accordingly not only for public presentation, but also for daily exercise and enrichment. The goal in all cases is to give these animals the best quality of life possible.
Hope has proven to be a very special bird. After a few short months of careful handling and daily exercise, not only has she learned to sit on the glove for daily bird of prey talks, but she has very quickly progressed through an intensive training, physical therapy, and exercise regime, and has once again learned to fly on a limited basis with her injured wing, and she absolutely loves doing it! Flying sessions have become a highlight of every day for both Hope and the wildlife staff.
Because of her story, Hope will be especially useful for connecting audiences to the adaptability of peregrine falcons and their increasing use of urban environments, and also to the additional challenges they face in those habitats. This winter and spring you will be able to come to our daily Bird of Prey talks, and next summer she will debut in our Raptors of the Desert Sky free-flight program where she will educate audiences about the recovery of her species throughout the High Desert region and beyond.
A few years ago, High Desert Museum staff learned from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that the Blue Mountain Wildlife Center in Pendleton, Oregon, had several non-releasable eagles.
One of the birds was a sub-adult male golden eagle that appeared to have been struck by a car. It also had serious levels of lead poisoning. Lead levels in raptor blood more than 65 micrograms are considered “clinical poisoning”. This eagle had levels more than 100, enough to be lethal.
Lynn Tompkins, the executive director of Blue Mountain Wildlife, successfully chelated the eagle (a process where lead is chemically removed from the bloodstream) and lowered the blood lead levels to under 5 micrograms per deciliter. She then flight conditioned the eagle and, after a few weeks, considered it strong enough to be released.
Unfortunately, six weeks after its release, the eagle was recovered starving, likely the result of a permanent wing injury and possible continuing neurological effects from lead poisoning that made it unable to hunt successfully.
This bird was now considered ”non-releasable,” yet still had some flight capability and looked perfect to the unsuspecting eye. Knowing this opportunity may not come around again for years, Museum staff completed the necessary transfer permits and made arrangements to travel to Pendleton.
Upon arriving at Blue Mountain Wildlife, staff watched the male golden eagle fly swiftly in the large chamber. While he looked strong, they saw a slight hitch in his left shoulder, which is what made him unable to capture prey following his initial release. He would be perfect for the education programs at the High Desert Museum, and (hopefully) be a candidate for the Museum’s Raptors of the Desert Sky and Sky Hunters free-flight programs.
Almost three years later, Phillip is one of the most important birds at the Museum. Phillip ties the research work the Museum has done into lead poisoning directly to the Museum’s education programs. He is a living example of how lead poisoning affects raptors and though he displays ongoing signs of neurological damage, he has a even temperament while being handled.
It took about a year of training before Nelson was comfortable having Phillip participate in the public education and free flight programs. The trainers combined traditional falconry training with positive reinforcement (food) and increasing exposure to people to bring Phillip’s comfort level with the public to the point where he participates in three-to-four programs a week, primarily educating visitors about lead poisoning in the wild.
Fun Facts about Phillip
He weights about 8 pounds.
His wingspan is 6 feet plus.
His favorite food is rats.
He can still fly, but is limited to 100-150 yards at a time because of a damaged wing.
He is well mannered and allows people to get near so they can see up close this magnificent bird.
Finding the right raptors for the Donald M. Kerr Birds of Prey Center is one of the most challenging aspects of managing the High Desert Museum’s wildlife education program.
One priority for the limited space at the Museum is conserving species of special concern, species that depend on public support for their survival. In many ways, the golden eagle is the epitome of this strategy. It is an apex predator of the High Desert and its survival is essential to sustaining a healthy ecosystem well into the future.
But there are many things to consider when assessing a new bird of prey for the Museum. First of all, these birds are not captives; they are wild raptors that have been deemed non-releasable due to severe injury or poisoning. As such, a facility must have highly-trained staff that understand the wild raptors and have the skills to interact with them and manage their health and safety.
Many non-releasable eagles have wing amputations due to car strikes or electrocution. At the Birds of Prey Center, the strategy is to acquire birds that appear normal as opposed to birds with conspicuous injuries. Wildlife curators feel strongly that exhibiting intact, vibrant individuals helps visitors connect to the majesty and beauty of species in the wild as opposed to the pity and sadness that often accompanies seeing a conspicuous amputee. It is a hard choice to pass on birds that need homes, but it is important to keep focused on the mission at hand – to educate visitors about High Desert wildlife.
The ideal candidate is a golden eagle that has experienced independence in the wild, having learned survival skills and is able to hunt, but has not developed an extreme resentment of humans due to the rehabilitation process.
Think about it from the raptor’s point of view. It is injured or poisoned as a result of human activity; it is captured, restricted, and subjected to repeated and extensive medical treatments. If it survives, the golden eagle, a very intelligent animal with a strong memory, often remembers the involvement of humans and can harbor deep resentment, but hopefully not too much because a rehabilitated golden eagle suitable for an education program must eventually bond with its trainers in its new home if it is to be successfully integrated into the facility.
This is often possible because wild golden eagles with hunting experience, even if injured or recovering from poisoning, bond more quickly with a trainer and learn faster given food motivations, creating an opportunity to truly spotlight the behaviors one would see in the wild.
At the High Desert Museum, golden eagles are flown and trained every day, including feeding from the glove. However, if they chose not to fly or train, food is never withheld.
The High Desert Museum currently has three golden eagles in residence. Phillip is an education raptor, especially telling the story of lead poisoning in the wild; Nicholas is on exhibit; and Walter is currently being trained for education talks and free flying. They can be viewed at the Donald M. Kerr Birds of Prey Center.
Since its inception, a cornerstone of the High Desert Museum has been maintaining the Donald M. Kerr Birds of Prey Center and its collection of rehabilitated birds. It is a critical part of educating people about the support necessary for several species’ survival.
This is the story of the golden eagle on exhibit. His name is Phillip.
The High Desert regions of Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, Idaho, Oregon and Washington have become an important refuge for the golden eagle, a species whose breeding range once encompassed large tracts of the northern hemisphere. The vast high desert in the West still offer isolated nesting sites and the surrounding sagebrush seas offer abundant food in the form of jackrabbits, ground squirrels rodents and other birds.
However, raptor biologists began realizing that populations in the High Desert were declining, threatened by a number of human-based causes including electrocutions; car strikes; habitat degradation and loss, including higher exposure to people, exposure of isolated nesting sites, and threats to food resources; exposure to lead; and persecution in the form of shooting, trapping, and deliberate poisoning. In addition, people often ask about wind turbines affect the golden eagle population. While it is an active area of study, power lines and cars kill far more raptors than wind turbines.
Biologists believed these issues presented an alarming future for this apex predator. Based on these concerns, in 2013 the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service established the Western Golden Eagle Conservation Team. Its mission is to evaluate the various threats to golden eagles and recommend conservation strategies to curb mortality rates.
This is where the Donald M. Kerr Birds of Prey Center comes in. It has in residence many birds of prey that were injured in the wild. Those injuries were so severe they resulted in permanent disability, at which a point a wildlife veterinarian deemed them non-releasable. In these cases, the birds were evaluated and based on the findings, euthanized or transferred to an education facility such as the High Desert Museum.
At the High Desert Museum, birds of prey, including its three golden eagles, are wildlife ambassadors, working with Museum staff to educate the public. Staff talk with visitors about raptor conservation and demonstrate the power and magnificence of these birds through free-flight programs and interpretive talks. Nothing is more impressive than a golden eagle standing on a perch 10 feet away. Visitors experience first hand the keen gaze of the eagle that can spot prey far away and the enormous spread of its wings that, when healthy, would have carried them miles, soaring above the High Desert.
Visitors also learn about their habitats and habits, and how we can all participate in minimizing human-cased threats to ensure their survival. For example, lead poisoning in birds of prey.
In addition to live rodents, rabbits, ground squirrels and other birds, golden eagles feed on carrion in the wild. And this carrion, often remains left by hunters, carries lead from bullets that gets ingested by golden eagles. Once lead is incorporated into the bloodstream at a large enough concentration, a bird can become very sick, exhibiting a range of neurological symptoms, such as tremors, convulsions, lack of coordination, and paralysis of the digestive system.
If the bird gets a large dose it can deteriorate and die directly from the lead poisoning. However, even at lower concentrations, lead in a raptor’s system impacts motor control and reaction times, likely contributing to other kinds of injury or mortality. This would account for why so many birds taken to rehabilitation centers for various mechanical injuries also turn out to have been exposed to lead.
According to the American Bird Conservancy, millions of birds are poisoned by lead every year. Unfortunately, only a portion of these find poisoned birds find help at raptor rehabilitation centers like Blue Mountain Wildlife in Pendleton, Oregon, and eventual homes at facilities like the High Desert Museum in Bend, Oregon. Switching to alternative source of ammunition, such as copper, would prevent many majestic birds of prey from being poisoned.
Few people know about lampreys; fewer still have ever seen one. When they do see one for the first time the initial response is often is fear or revulsion. Most often this is because of the Pacific lamprey’s appearance and their parasitic feeding behavior once they’ve migrated to the ocean.
Evolutionary biologists make the argument that humans are hard-wired to fear things that slither and crawl, animals that may bite. Even if this theory is true, I would argue that the instinct is strongly reinforced by the society we live in. Movies and media depict monsters inspired by real life. Americans are immersed in the notion that some animals are good and some are bad, and those black and white ideas shape the way we react to wildlife. Not does the lamprey look like a snake, but it is also a parasite. Juveniles in fresh water are filter feeders that live in the sediment at the bottom of streams. However, adults (having migrated to the ocean to build up the stores of energy needed to spawn) have a sucker-like mouth lined with rows of sharp teeth with which they attach themselves to hosts (other large fish and marine mammals) and then feed by sucking blood and other bodily fluids.
From a Western perspective, lampreys look and behave in ways that many people find alarming, even scary. Unfortunately, this has led, in part, to their decline. Often considered a “trash fish, lamprey have been overlooked, abused, and persecuted in modern times. Their habitat has been altered, their path to the sea blocked, and they have been eradicated with little regard because their physical appearance overshadowed their importance within the environment. The lamprey has been lost from many streams within its historic range, and their abundance has plummeted from historic levels to point that their future existence may be in serious jeopardy.
Few animals are in greater need of public awareness and education. Please enjoy learning more about the lampreys on exhibit in the Autzen Otter Exhibit.
The same characteristics that enable lamprey to persist for a year without food, also makes them valuable to the ecosystem and a precious and highly valued resource to Native American tribes. Historically, lamprey was a rich source of protein-rich food, higher in calories than salmon. They played a significant role in ceremonies and celebrations, and the oil was believed to have medicinal qualities.
The first Europeans setting in Americans brought many changes that devastated lamprey fisheries, and populations have continued to decline well into the 21st Century. Biologist attribute the ongoing decline of the lamprey to passage problems at dams, destruction of spawning and rearing habitats, declines in their food sources, and intentional poisonings of streams to eliminate unwanted fish.
Despite these challenges, Native American tribes have maintained a deep cultural connection to the fish. As a result, the tribes of the Columbia Basin have spearheaded efforts to conserve them, leveraging traditional ecological knowledge and merging it with contemporary fisheries science to restore lamprey to High Desert streams from which it had been lost.
Fish are trapped from locations such as Willamette Falls and Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River, then moved upstream, past other dams and miles of degraded habitat before being released into streams from which they had been wiped out, hopefully to spawn and reestablish lost populations. The tribes have also done amazing work at spreading the word about lamprey conservation, educating the public and changing people’s perceptions about these misunderstood fish.
As one small part of that effort, the High Desert Museum is happy to display two adult Pacific lamprey from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. These fish are on display in the Autzen Otter Exhibit. Visitors can view and learn about the lamprey’s role in riparian ecosystems, as well as the history, science, and cultural ties these special fish have in the High Desert.
The wildlife staff at the High Desert Museum can’t think of a more appropriate species to help audiences discover cultural connections to the past and understand their responsibility for protecting the lamprey today and into the future.