By MARTHA SMITH
Special to the Standard
NORTH KINGSTOWN â€“ Silo, a 16-year-old barn owl, is special for a number of reasons. Her advanced age is one; the oldest owl living in captivity is 20.
Her very existence is another. As predatory birds fall prey themselves â€“ theyâ€™re dying from eating mice which have consumed rat poison â€“ only five nesting pairs of barn owls remain in all of Connecticut.
Silo had every right to enjoy her moment in the spotlight on Sunday, during Wickfordâ€™s first birding event â€“ although, to be honest, it was less a spotlight and more a heat lamp.
In fact, Horizon Wings, the Ashford, Conn. non-profit wildlife rehabilitation center presenting the owl and a red-tailed hawk in a mini-workshop on raptors, cut the session short. Both the birds and bird-watchers were wilting in the relentless sun.
The event, conducted on the asphalt parking lot behind Wilsonâ€™s of Wickford and sponsored by the Shops at Wilsonâ€™s, was one of three programs scattered throughout the village. Others were offered by the Audubon Society on hawks of Rhode Island, presented at Different Drummer, and a second, on owls, at the Yes! Gallery which also hosted an exhibit of bird studies in various media by local artists.
The afternoon focused on raptors, predatory birds which capture live food. According to â€śRaptor Facts,â€ť the term raptor derives from the Latin â€śto seize or grasp,â€ť and it perfectly describes how the large creatures use their powerful talons to grab up smaller birds in flight or animals running on the ground. Among the species considered raptors are eagles, hawks, kites, falcons, and owls.
Organized in 2001, Horizon Wings has 15 birds including a peregrine falcon, three varieties of hawk, a turkey vulture, two types of kestrel, five types of owl and a bald eagle. Its co-founders are husband-and-wife team Mary-Beth Kaeser, a wildlife rehabilitator for 27 years, and Alan Nordell, who has been involved with Connecticutâ€™s Bald Eagle Study Group for many years.
At the Horizon Wings presentation, Siloâ€™s handler, Jeanne Wadsworth, told a mesmerized crowd, â€śIf we had eyes the size of owls, weâ€™d have heads like melons.â€ť Siloâ€™s eyes are fixed in her oval face so she uses 14 vertebrae to turn her head three-quarters of the way around when hunting dinner.
Raptors have hearing and vision estimated to be eight to 10 times more acute than that of humans.
Owls â€śhunt by hearing,â€ť usually at night, she added, using asymmetrical ears with flaps to block out distracting noises, that are set behind their eyes on the oval disc. They also have special feathers that make their flight virtually soundless and they can carry prey weighing two to three times more than they do.
Besides the variety of birds who have taken refuge with Horizon Wings, the center has a different sort of mascot: an Eastern Box Turtle named Beamer who had only three legs when brought to the center. Kaesar explained that, since the turtle had basically no chance of surviving in the wild, she was outfitted with a prosthetic device â€“ a Lego wheel â€“ and now lives permanently at Horizon Wings as an educational animal.
Beamer is, she added, â€śextremely popular with the kids!â€ť
Kaeserâ€™s portion of Sundayâ€™s demonstration featured Dakota, a red-tailed hawk who came to the rehabilitation center after being struck by a car. Many people, including young children, asked questions about raptors before everyone decided to imitate bats and find a cool spot to hang out in.
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for SRIN.