Sitka raptors visit Petersburg schools

raptors and students
Hannah Blanke and Owlicent the great horned owl (left) and Jennifer Cedarleaf with Jake the red-tailed hawk (right) chat with Stedman Elementary School students about the natural history of raptors. (Shelby Herbert/KFSK)

The Alaska Raptor Center treats and rehabilitates over 200 injured birds each year — but some can’t be returned to the wild. Some of these non-releasable birds get to join the Center’s “Raptors-in-Residence team,” where they help teach school kids about the natural history of raptors. Two of them visited Petersburg schools in March.

Owlison the owl and Jake the hawk flew down from the Alaska Raptor Center in Sitka to Petersburg. But they didn’t fly in on their own — they came on a seaplane with their human handlers.

In the Petersburg Middle and High School auditorium, Jake perched on Jennifer Cedarleaf’s gloved hand. Cedarleaf is the avian director for the Alaska Raptor Center. Jake is a red-tailed hawk; a rich brown bird with a pale belly and — you guessed it — a red tail. She intermittently feeds Jake chunks of raw chicken onstage. Then, to her audience’s amazement, she pulls out a spray bottle and squirts Jake with water. She proceeded to explain why.

“Birds don’t really sweat like we do,” said Cedarleaf. “We get hot, we sweat. They sweat through their feet. He also was on an airplane earlier today and hasn’t really had any water. They get most of their moisture from their food that they eat. But he’s also eating chicken today, which is a little sticky. And sometimes it just helps calm them down and cool them down.”

Jake found his way to the Alaska Raptor Center in 2014. He was taken from the nest as a chick and raised by a 13-year-old boy. After four months, the family surrendered Jake to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

a woman and a hawk
Jennifer Cedarleaf feeds Jake the red-tailed hawk some raw chicken in the Petersburg Middle and High School auditorium. (Shelby Herbert/KFSK)

In spite of the strap — or “jess” — tethering his foot to Cedarleaf’s glove, Jake periodically beats his wings in the air. Jake is completely capable of flying. The injury that brought him to the Raptor Center isn’t physical, but behavioral. He can’t hunt for himself because he’s always relied on humans for food. Petersburg students had lots of questions about him.

When a student asked what red-tailed hawks like to do, Blanke answered:

“That’s not [a question] I can answer for sure, because I don’t know what they’re thinking in their brains. I will say what they commonly do is sit in a tree. They fly when they’re looking for food or when they’re traveling down south. And they do sometimes play. Not a lot of birds play, but red-tailed hawks have been seen basically passing a stick back and forth in a little game.” 

Hannah Blanke is an avian care specialist at the Raptor Center. They fielded some interesting questions from students. One of them asked if a red-tailed hawk could eat his dog.

“How big is your dog?” Blanke asked in reply. “Probably not, though,” she said. “Not a red-tailed hawk. A bald eagle? Maybe.”

Owlison the great horned owl is perched on Blanke’s glove. Owlison was admitted to the Bird Treatment and Learning Center in Anchorage with fractured wrist bones and a wound on her chest. She can fly a little bit, but not well enough to survive in the wild.

Blanke points it out when Owlison tucks away the feathery “horns” on her head.

“She’s not really showing off her namesake right now,” said Blanke. “But this species is named after these two tufts of feathers on the top of her head. Sometimes you’ll hear those referred to as ear tufts. I personally hate that because they have absolutely nothing to do with our hearing. These types of feathers are simply feathers. I prefer the term, ‘feather horns’ because that sounds really metal.”

Cedarleaf said the raptors haven’t gotten to go on tour in recent years. That’s because of a statewide outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza — a virus that’s deadly to birds. However, her team hopes to do more visits this summer, starting with the Yakutat Tern Festival in early June. The raptor visits in Petersburg were coordinated by the Petersburg Marine Mammal Center.

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