Raptor Free Flight- the season has begun

by Dan Weisz

Web Presentation by Douglas Everett @ Hummingbird Market

The Arizona Sonora Desert Museum is a Tucson-area jewel.  From mid-October through the beginning of April, they have a program called Raptor Free Flight.  Various species of southern Arizona Raptors are flown in the open desert showcasing their natural behaviors.  Unlike other bird flight shows, Raptor Free Flight focuses the attention on the birds and how they behave in nature.  Yesterday, the "Members Only” preview was held.  Beginning today, demos are scheduled for 10:00 am and 2:00 pm daily.  For more info, see https://www.desertmuseum.org/visit/rff_index.php

Some photos from the AM demo:

A Chihuahan Raven- these birds are desert specialists whose range is from southern Arizona and New Mexico, to southwestern Texas and across the border into the Mexican states of Sonora and Chihuahua (where it got its name).  They are larger than their cousins the American Crow and smaller than the Common Raven.  The birds we see flying over the Foothills are likely Common Ravens.

Great Horned Owl- these are the most common owls in America and the largest owls in Southern Arizona.  We have many in the Foothills.  Although they hunt at night, they have very good daytime vision as well.  Their colors match those of the desert southwest.  In other parts of America where it it colder and more humid, great-horned owls are more brown and have orange in their face.

Those are called Plumicorns!  Those feather tufts give the Great-horned Owl its name. Those aren’t horns, and have nothing to do with its ears or hearing.  Those feathers are useful when the owl is at rest during the daytime against a tree trunk as they break up the silhouette of the owl, helping to disguise it somewhat.

Landing!  The owl flies horizontally but will go vertical when it lands, using its tail as a brake and having all of the air spill out from under its wings.

Those long, needle-sharp talons work well at seizing prey.  A Great-horned Owl can squeeze at 500 pounds per square inch, killing smaller prey through constriction and immobilizing larger prey if not puncturing vital organs.  A strong human can squeeze at just above 100 pounds per square inch.  For a bird weighing 2+ pounds, that’s a strong grip.  The owl’s feet are feathered to help keep it warm when hunting at night, to help silence the flight, and to aid when prey fights back.  If a prey animal tries biting the owl’s feet, the feathers help to act as gloves, protecting the feet.

Heading home after the demo- flying horizontal, its neck pulled in and plumicorns flattened.

Ferruginous Hawk- American’s largest and fastest soaring hawk is a winter visitor in southern Arizona.  We do not see these in the Foothills but they are nearby in agricultural areas north of Marana and south of Wilcox, in the Sulphur Springs Valley.  Ferruginous means rust-colored, referring to their backs and legs (from ferrous meaning iron or containing iron).  As you can see, they have a very large gape which they use for thermoregulating when it’s hot and for swallowing prey whole.

The Ferruginous Hawk on the move with a wingspan of up to five feet.

The newest member of the Raptor Free Flight program is a juvenile Crested Caracara.  These birds are seen regularly near Sells and Ajo.  They are also becoming much more common in the agricultural areas north of Marana up to Eloy.  I saw one on a saguaro north of Catalina last spring.  Although in the falcon family, it is not a fast flying bird as other falcons are.  Caracaras include carrion as part of their diet and will hunt on the ground.  In a few years as it ages, those brown feathers will be replaced by black feathers and the tawny feathers on its neck will be replaced by white feathers.  See its crest?

This is the older brother to the Caracara (above) in Raptor Free Flight.  Born two days earlier, this bird is part of the Interpretive Animal Collection and is a “glove bird” used by docents around the museum.  The bare skin on his face likely serves the same purpose as a vulture’s, allowing it to feed on carrion without getting its facial feathers too messy.  For Caracaras, this facial skin is very unique. As a juvenile, that skin is pink but it will become light orange as an adult.   That skin serves as a sort of “mood ring” and will change colors depending on the bird’s mood turning bright purple in the young and bright orange/red in adults.