Adventuring out with Nickerson During Molting??

Adventures of a Volunteer! by Amy Sanders

August is molting time for eastern screech owls, and poor Nickerson is not immune.  Molting brings about not only the loss of many feathers at once, but also a cranky disposition, which is understandable (I mean, who wants to be seen like this??).  Truthfully, I’m imagining an owl missing so many feathers must feel vulnerable, and thus more apt to want to stay away from everyone.

But alas, Nickerson is an educational animal.  She has a job.  Preschoolers in a summer fun program at Bourne Farm in Falmouth were learning about nocturnal animals and owls. Nickerson was being requested, and I was being asked to take her and present a talk.

This molting image of Nickerson was on our dry run several days before.  Simply put, she was not in the mood.  She nipped twice, grumbled about having her picture taken, and then on the way back to the barn, started indicating stress (open mouth breathing).  So, our dry run was cut short.  I was just praying for a better disposition for the talk.  But, I did warn the organizers of the event that Nickerson might be, well – less than cooperative.  Our visit might, by necessity, be cut short.

The day of the talk started off less than stellar.  An emergency had the entire place short staffed, and everyone, including me, was desperately trying to get the place under some semblance of control.  Stephanie came in for the rescue, got Nickerson ready to go and we were off.

We arrived to a lovely group of 20 preschoolers quietly sitting on a rug in an old barn with both sides open to the rainy weather.  No problem.  I talked for a couple of minutes about how Nickerson was molting (new vocabulary word to discuss), and thus cranky, and brought pictures of her in her more typical garb.  Then it was time to get her out.  I opened the box, and she was surprisingly sitting right in front of the door (usually she’s on her perch about 6 inches back).  “Grrr…snarrrllll,” she said, with a small gentle nip of her beak (one of many reasons to wear leather gloves).  So she and I chatted softly for a minute about her attitude (thank you patient preschoolers!), until she agreed to be seen, and climbed gently onto my hand.

The children were instantly in love.  She’s tinier than they thought.  The questions started before I got a chance to say anything else.  That was fine, speech aside, I’d do this through questions.  I sat in a tiny chair (preschoolers really have tiny chairs!), and the fun began.  That is, until a hawk made a pass at the open side of the barn just behind us.  We got an amazing demonstration of how fast, and how far an owl can turn her head!  This hawk thought he had found breakfast and opted to perch just outside.

It was not to be for the hawk though and a staff member intervened by walking over toward that side of the barn.  Copious questions ensued, and Nickerson even took a close up tour with the kids (who amazingly kept both quiet and hands to selves).  Kids saw more pictures too, of owls showing how amazing their camouflage is when they are in the trees.  One youngster remarked with great enthusiasm, “I can’t even see any of them, except one!”

Another little girl raises her hand and says her owl looks just like Nickerson. Huh?  Turns out, prior to my arrival, the kids had been working on making paper owls.  Someone had cut a template for them onto which they were gluing feathers.  The kids would be finishing this project after I left.  So, I toured the creations with her, and she showed me hers.  Most had quite a few feathers on them.  Hers, only one.  Just like Nickerson’s missing feathers she thought. How totally delightful!

All in all, I have to say, despite my trepidations about Nickerson’s mood, the event turned out to be a blast.  And we’ve since been sent a picture of those beautiful owls (the bit of blurring you see is to protect the anonymity of the kids)!  So thanks to the great kids, and thank you Nickerson. You were a star, even when you didn’t really want to be.


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