On Monday morning, SVNHM wildlife expert Mike Clough spent the morning with DVES students, teaching them about the bird that would be released later in the day. Accompanying Clough was one of two kestrels that reside at the museum, located on Hogback Mountain next to the Hogback Mountain gift shop.
The kestrel is a small falcon that lives in the eastern half of North America. The kestrel that was released on Monday morning came to the museum from Florida, where it had been found with an injured wing. After recuperating in a wildlife rehab center, the bird was considered unreleasable and put up for adoption to a qualified facility such as the SVNHM. “We were looking for a male kestrel to use in the exhibit, and we found this one,” Clough said.
But after the bird was settled in at the museum, Clough said the staff noticed that he was flying very well for an injured bird. “So we put him in the big room at the museum and let him go. He was flying great.” Next, the museum took the bird to a veterinarian for an examination. “The vet said there was no evidence that the wing had been broken,” Clough says.
With the possibility of releasing the bird back into its natural habitat in mind, the museum took the bird to the Vermont Institute of Natural Science Nature Center in Quechee, where the bird could be evaluated in a larger enclosure to see if it would still hunt.
On Monday morning, with the museum’s female kestrel perched on his hand, Clough told students that the male kestrel passed his final test with flying colors. “He could still catch mice,” Clough said. “So we had to make a decision: Should we keep him at the museum or let him go?” Most of the students agreed that the bird should be released.
Although the museum already had a healthy female kestrel, they weren’t seeking a mate for her when they adopted the male kestrel. Clough told students that her problem isn’t physical, it’s mental. “She’s what we call a ‘human imprint,’” Clough explained. “When birds are about two weeks old they look up and the first thing they see they think is their mother. This bird looked up and saw a human. She can do all the things a kestrel can do, she can hover, she can see where mice pee, that’s pretty important for a kestrel, but she thinks she’s a person.”
As a result, the bird wouldn’t have accepted the male kestrel as a mate. “This time of year, when she’s thinking about boyfriends, that’s where she has problems,” Clough said. “In fact, she’s been checking out (museum volunteer) Dale, here.”
At the end of the classroom session, Clough led students outside where the male kestrel was waiting to be released.
Clough had set up a kestrel nesting box on a tree at the edge of the field in hopes that the released bird might find a mate and stick around, although he warned students not to expect it.
After students got one last chance to see the male kestrel, Clough raised his hand up and released him into the air. The kestrel appeared to revel in his freedom, circling the school grounds several times before heading east and disappearing behind a nearby ridge.
Clough said the decision to release the bird was difficult for the museum staff, but it was the ethical thing to do.
But there are still plenty of live exhibits at the museum. In addition to the third largest taxidermy collection of native species in New England, Clough says the museum also has “quite the turtle collection,” including a snapping turtle that doesn’t bite.
There are also snakes at the museum, including one snake that was recently featured in an onscreen role in a new Jay Craven movie. In addition to the kestrel he brought into the classroom Monday, the museum’s live raptor exhibit also includes a number of hawks and owls.
Clough says that there is a whole network of organizations that connect rehabilitated wild animals with educational established wildlife centers like the natural history museum. Keeping wild animals requires state and federal permits. Clough says the museum is currently seeking additional federal permits to add a bald eagle to their exhibit. “There’s a lot of paperwork involved in that,” Clough said. “But surprisingly, there are quite a few nonreleasable bald eagles available for adoption.”
Clough says keeping a bald eagle presents a number of challenges – the museum must build a special enclosure big enough for an eagle before the permit can even be issued. “And they’re harder to care for, they eat a lot. And they’re dangerous. They can break an arm with their talons.”
The museum is open to the public on most weekends until Memorial Day. After Memorial Day, the museum is open seven days per week, from 10 am to 5 pm. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for seniors, $2 for children age 5-12, and free for children under 5. Call ahead at (802) 464-0048.