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Birds of prey entertain and educate

By Joanne Bowlby Wyoming Tribune-Eagle (August 25, 2002)

HawkQuest showcased an owl and a hawk at the Wyoming State Museum Saturday.

It's the only time Spires averts her glance from the owl. When she looks at Thomas her cheeks blush as red as the hair on her head.

The girl returns to her seat in the crowd and eagerly watches as Thomas explains the difference between a day-hunter like a hawk and the owl.

"A hawk sees colors," Thomas says. "The owl sees almost no colors, but it sees shades of gray. From one candlelight of power on a pitch dark night, it can see a mouse up to three football fields away."

CHEYENNE - Alissa Spires is pulled from a group of more than 100 people at the Wyoming State Museum on Saturday. Her body faces the crowd, but her head is turned so she can keep an eye on the barn owl just over her shoulder.

It's with good reason she keeps watch on the bird of prey. Spires and the rest of the audience has just learned that the owl is capable of swallowing mice and rats whole.

The barn owl was brought into the room moments before to oohs and ahs from the crowd. The owl's face looks like a Macintosh apple cut in half - its dark eyes the seeds and the tufted feathers that cover its beak look like the core.

The owl bobs its head side to side as sunlight entering the museum illuminates the golden feathers on its breast and neck. HawkQuest narrator Nancy Thomas explains to the crowd that the owl does this to locate its prey.

"It's waiting for the sounds in both ears to come together," she says. "Then she can fly down and catch a mouse, up to a quarter of a mile away."

Thomas asks Spires to hold out her finger and pretend it is a mouse. The 5-year-old complies, but keeps her eyes on the bird.

Thomas explains to the crowd that the barn owl's talons spread two to the front and two to the back when it swoops down on its prey. She says that the nocturnal hunter can't see what it has captured underneath its body, so it has feathers on its feet that can sense the slightest vibration. When the mouse's whiskers twitch, it knows it has hit its target, she says, as she grasps Spires' finger.


Thomas takes the crowd outside and shows them how the hawk can spot a small piece of meat several yards away. The hawk sees the meat she holds in her leather glove. It lowers its head, perks up its wings and sticks its tail feathers into the air.

At Thomas' signal, the hawk leaves its perch and flies across the front of the crowd, picks up the meat and lands on Thomas' hand. The group heads back into the building to see a golden eagle.

Sitting in the front row are a brother and sister from northern Laramie County. Annie and Josh Ballard say they see raptors near their house, but will look at them differently after attending the HawkQuest program.

"It was cool. I knew some of it, but I learned a lot about the owls," 14-year-old Josh Ballard says.

He has shared his knowledge with his 17-year-old sister.

"I've learned most of what I know from him," Annie Ballard says as she points towards Josh.

"The eagle's what I've been waiting for," Josh says.

The bird is brought in a moment later and it spreads its six-foot wing span over the two Ballards.

"He was awesome. The air from the wings is amazing," Josh says after the program. "It's beautiful how they fly."

Annie's eyes grow wide as she says in agreement, "They're pretty."

A Golden Eagle looks around the room after handler Becky Rex removed the mask the eagle wore to keep it calm during a bird of prey demonstration Saturday morning at the Wyoming State Museum. The eagle and three other birds were brought to Cheyenne for the demonstration by HawkQuest from Parker, Colorado.

Posted 9/2002

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