Raptors in the 21st Century

On Tuesday, November 20th Outdoor School yet again gave everyone a memorable and educational experience to look back on. This week’s activity had us go to the Rutherford Conservatory and Gardens for a presentation and talk with Wild Ontario, an education program focusing on birds of prey based right here at the University of Guelph.

Officially launched as Wild Ontario in 2010, the program does many things. They run live animal shows to educate the public, offer volunteering opportunities to students and care for birds that are unable to properly do so by themselves in the wild.

Red-tailed Hawk wing

For our class we were met in the conservatory by Wild Ontario’s Education Coordinator, Kyle Horner, and three volunteers. Along with them were four very different species of birds of prey which we very lucky to meet.

First introduced to us was an adorable American Kestrel named Artemis. Rather tiny and cute, her appearance is deceiving as it is actually possible for this species to prey on animals as large as themselves. Artemis came to live at Wild Ontario for being what the volunteers called “too cute for her own good”. This means that she was likely stolen from her nest to be kept as a pet, and as a result she does not fear humans or possess any of the skills needed to survive on her own.

Artemis the Kestrel

The next raptor we met was Whistler, an elderly Broad-wing Hawk. At 20 years of age she is already at what is the common lifespan for her species, however she is still in good health. Whistler’s situation is similar to Artemis in that she is a human imprint, meaning raised by humans and thus unfit for living in nature. When discovered she was even found to be fond of humans and would jump right up on the falconer’s glove.

Whistler the Broad-wing Hawk

The third bird brought in was a Barred Owl by the name of Mowat. This species is actually one of two in Ontario with dark eyes making him absolutely stunning to look at. As well, we learned that owls are actually incredibly dumb contrary to the popular belief that they’re wise creatures. Their eyes are so large that they take up most of the space in the skull, not leaving much room for the brain. Mowat now calls Wild Ontario home due to being hit by a vehicle. No longer able to fly without difficulty, it would have been unsafe to release him.

Mowat the Barred Owl

The final raptor introduced was Ellesmere, a Gyrfalcon. They’re typically known to live in the Artic but will sometimes fly south in search of food. This is what Ellesmere did before her accident. Similar to Mowat’s story, Ellesmere was hunting near the roadside for small mammals that are attracted there by litter when she was struck by a vehicle. Now barely able to fly, the volunteers at Wild Ontario take care of her.

Ellesmere the Gyrfalcon

Everyone at Wild Ontario does important and necessary work educating the public about things such as biology, ecology and nature in general. Even the birds have a special role showing what can happen if nature is not respected. They teach us that wildlife is precious and that humans should do a better job at not interfering with the ecosystem by doing even the little things like not littering.

If interested in Wild Ontario and want to learn more visit their website at http://www.wildontario.ca

Wild Ontario

On Tuesday, November 20th our outdoor school professor Diane brought us on another unforgettable experience. I came to class prepared to endure another chilly class in the elements. Myself and likely the rest of the class were pleased to hear that our class would take place in a warm and cozy greenhouse after just a quick walk from the classroom. Wild Ontario was generous enough to bring some of their raptors for us to get an up close and personal look at them. We learned that raptors, formally known as birds of prey are called such because even though they hunt for their food they are unique animals because they use their feet to catch their prey.    We saw a variety of different birds all native to Canada including the smallest Falcon in the world the American kestral right beside the largest falcon called the Gyrfalcon. It was really cool to see the comparisons if the two birds up close. We also saw a red-tailed hawk who we were told was quite old for its species yet, still seemed very spry and healthy. A Bard owl became a fan favorite for many students including myself. The Wild Ontario volunteers passed around feet and wings from some raptors, this was really cool to be able to touch and see some of the physical difference between the birds. The wing of an owl, for example, was much more fluffy than others and this allowed the owl to be silent during flight.  Wild Ontario is made up of volunteers who are mostly University of Guelph students. The volunteers care for raptors that are brought to them injured or who have tried to been domesticated in the past an otherwise would not be able to care for themselves in the wild. They also raise awareness about the birds because as beautiful as the birds are they are not meant to be pets and should be enjoyed from a distance. We also learned that unfortunately a lot of raptors are injured on the side of roads because of food that is thrown out by passengers in cars. Overall, this experience made me aware that these majestic animals are living in our own backyard and we need to be aware of their presence. Hopefully, now I will be able to recognize them in the wild as they are truly an amazing animal to see in person. There have been so many enjoyable classes during this course however, I must admit this was my favorite and I cannot wait to see what our last couple of classes have to offer.

Insights into indigenous culture

Every Tuesday at 14.30 I am excited to see what our outdoor school professor Diane has in store for us, we’ve been to the Arboretum countless times, the bee apiary, we’ve gone mushroom foraging and every one of those activities is a new learning experience. However, nothing quite compared to what was waiting for us at the circle mound at the art gallery of Guelph, we would be meeting an aboriginal elder.

We all entered the circle in a clockwise direction, connecting us to the earth that turns in that fashion as well, the circle formation is so that everyone is equal, no one is higher up than another and everyone can see and hear the same things. The ceremony began with all the students passing around an eagle feather, holding it in their left hand and introducing themselves. An eagle feather was chosen because the eagle is thought to be a reminder of a person’s connection to the creator, being that the bird can soar the highest in the sky it serves as a messenger for prayers to and from the Creator. Jan explained that each gender had their own job in the ceremony, men are fire keepers, they are the ones to light the fire, so just like that one of the men in our class lit the fire and walked around the circle with an eagle feather in  his hand, stopping in front of each student so that they could “wash” themselves with the smoke, freeing them from all their worries, even if it was for just a while. Moving on we were told that women were the caretakers and protectors of water, that being because life starts from the water of a woman, a female student walked around the circle with a bowl of water in her hand everyone had to take a bit of water first and give it back to the earth, then dip their hand in the bowl again and put it on their heart, all while Jan sang a song about the importance of water. Finally, Jan herself passed around strawberries, instructing us to cut off a small piece and give it back to the earth and then enjoy the rest. She explained how strawberries, also known as “heart berries” due to their shape and color are incredibly symbolic, they have their seeds on the outside, symbolizing openness and honesty, also they have a very complex root system symbolizing the complex relationship between humans and the rest of the world. Following that we were instructed to feed our bodies, everyone was asked to bring some food to contribute to the ceremony and then I was asked to put a little bit of each food on a platter to give it back to the earth with a prayer of thanks.

Jan giving a prayer of thanks before we enjoy our food

To end the ceremony we all took a drum and Jan sang “Boy we’re glad you’re here, I want to get to know you, I want to be your friend and friend for us means family.” While we banged along on our drums.

To end the incredible day Jan told us a story about herself. She explained how normally when women go foraging and find poisonous snakes they sing to them to let them know that they are coming and that they mean no harm. One day when Jan was taking a walk in the arboretum she came across a snake and decided to sing to it. The snake turned around and lifted its body to look at her, not long after 6 more snakes appeared, some from holes, others from bushes and they all just watched her as she sang. Once the song was over they disappeared, and everyone went on with their own business.

Jan showing us her drum

I learned a lot from this class, my knowledge of aboriginals was limited to what I knew from Pocahontas. Jan made everything so easy to follow and interesting, my point of view of humans and their role on this earth completely shifted after I heard of the respect they give earth and its other creatures. After talking to my classmates, I came to realize we all had an amazing experience and it was the best class so far.