Trying to Cope

This post is not a lament of birding I haven’t done.

Disclaimer:  no bird was hurt in the processes described within.

Rather the title refers to the falconer’s definition of coping, to clip or dull the beak or talons of a raptor.  Although to struggle with is an apt description based on some of the stories I’ve heard.

As I’ve mentioned previously, the center I work for has two rehabilitated raptors: a Barred Owl and a Red-tailed Hawk.  Every season we have to cope the birds.  And they have to cope with us All The Time.  They dislike this process of coping immensely and who can blame them?  They are trussed like chickens and chopped at like suey.

For the owl, it’s a two person process.  Yes,  it requires two people because it involves wrangling.   My boss and I tackled the owl first.    The first task is to lay the owl on it’s back and then wrap a towel around the body.  Like a horse, if the raptor can’t see, then it’s less likely to make a fuss.  Also, so long as you have a firm wrap, the wings can’t get free and beat you.  Or worse yet, allow the bird to fly away.   Once the wings are secure, you need to readjust the grip of the feet.  This is where I came in: my responsibilities were to hold the feet and to keep the towel in place.  It may not sound like much, but if I failed, we would have had an owl on the prowl.

Once the owl was down, we checked the jesses and decided to swap them out for new ones.  A bold move because at this point should the owl break lose, it would truly be free – the owl will not step onto a glove for love nor money, nor mice.  The transfer went successfully, then we trimmed all four talons on each foot; inspected the feet for abrasions and treated them with a bit of vitamin E.   For trimming we basically use the same sort of nail trimmer you would use for a dog or cat.  Following this, Mitzi did get a wing free and made the rest of the process slightly more difficult.  The next step was to cope her beak.  Surely you know all the joy and excitement one experiences from a trip to the dentist.  Mitzi can empathize – especially that moment when the dentist approaches, the machinery is humming and you realize that thing is going into your mouth.  We do the same to Mitzi. For coping the beak, we use a dremel which files down the beak.  We also have a file and can use which ever seems more appropriate at the moment.  Beaks like talons grow continuously.  In the wild, most birds naturally wear this down.  Captive birds need a little assistance.

Before unraveling the owl, we checked her keel.  If you think of the keel of the ship – straight line down the bottom of the ship’s middle – lowest part – dead center, the keel on a bird is very similar.  It’s a large protruding bone from the chest – where our flat sternum is.  The keel is essential for flight as it’s what the flight muscles anchor to, allowing the bird to become airborne.   I got to feel her keel.  I had felt the feel of some small winter bird – titmice or chickadees back in 2010 during a visit to the School of Conservation, but it was definitely a difference experience to feel a keel on a raptor because it’s much harder to miss.

The last step is to weigh bird.  First one frees the bird.  She baits.  She settles. Baits again.  And then perhaps a person can convince her to step blindly backwards onto the perch screwed to the scale.  You then hope she perches long enough for the scale to get a read.  Then you return her to her box.  With relief, she dives in and proceeds to very audibly scold you for the torture season.

I don’t have any pictures of this process since it was a two person job and two people were present.

The Red-tailed Hawk comprised Act II.  As a larger bird, she requires three people.  In this case, one person to hold the towel over her and the other to worry about keeping the talons separated.  I remained on talon duty and we called in the front desk to hold down to fort over the wings.

She was very well behaved as we put her through the same processes of checking and caring for her feet, her beak, and then checking her keel and weight.  Her keel had a very different feel.  It was very…. plump.  Ruby’s not a lightweight.  In fact she clocked in at 4.6 lbs which is heavy for a Red-tail.  She put on 0.5 lbs since the last coping.    Imagine balancing 4.6 lbs on your non-dominant wrist/hand.   Mitzi remained at 1.6 lbs.

Interested in learning more?

The Bird Skeleton.  Avian Anatomy and Morphology.
.  The Modern Apprentice.
Foot Care
. The Modern Apprentice.
Falcon Beak Coping Part 4. Canadian Bird Nerd (note: we don’t sedate our birds)

2 thoughts on “Trying to Cope

  1. Fascinating description of how to cope the bill and talons Kathleen. It must have been awesome to feel the keel of both birds. Ruby sounds very big!

    I knew about coping because of falconry birds and also from an experience of finding a Red-tailed Hawk here with Long Bill Syndrome. Unfortunately that bird had such a severe form of Long Bill Syndrome it was decided not to capture it to cope the bill. You can search on my blog for images of the hawk.

  2. Ruby is a *very* big bird. How big is definitely on your mind as you’re holding her and your arm is trembling. It’s one of the reasons why I typically bring Ruby out first when presenting raptor programs.

    I will definitely check out the link as soon as school craziness dies down or I need a bit of a bird break!

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