Work has been underway since last fall to expand the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium’s Live Animal Outreach Program with the arrival of two new raptors this spring. The expansion will enable staff to address Iowa bird conservation initiatives, provide teacher workshop opportunities, and add avian ambassadors to the outreach program’s portfolio.
During the last several months, the River Museum received financial support from Resource Enhancement & Protection – Conservation Education Program (REAP-CEP), Alliant Energy Foundation, and private funders Richard and Jane Worm to create housing and facilitate the arrival of two new animal ambassadors, an owl and a kestrel.
Both species are native to Iowa and dependent on native tall grass fields and prairie habitats. These species have also experienced population declines for unknown reasons. Both serve as indicator species, meaning their declining numbers indicate a change in their habitats. While those changes are unknown, individuals can do their part by supporting pesticide-free lawns and reducing the use of rodent poisons—both of which are ingested by these species through their prey.
The barn owl came to the River Museum from the World Bird Sanctuary in Missouri and is nine weeks old. While the sanctuary releases the majority of its birds into the wild after they are hatched, a few are brought into outreach programs throughout the nation to help educate the public on species declines and the importance of conservation efforts to maintain habitats and ecosystems.
The kestrel came to the River Museum from the Northwoods Wildlife Center in Wisconsin. It suffered a broken wing as a fledgling in 2017 and could not be rehabilitated to sustain flight.
The barn owl is currently on display in an aviary near the bald eagle, while the kestrel is off exhibit. Later this summer, both birds will be moved to an outdoor enclosure near the River Museum’s boat yard. There the raptors will be on exhibit when not engaged in outreach programming.
“Both birds are currently in training,” states Jennifer Drayna, Outreach Coordinator. “This means they need to learn things like stepping onto a scale, standing on a glove, being in new spaces, and being around lots of people. These are all behaviors that allow us to provide high quality health care for the bird and make sure they are comfortable helping us teach.”
Animals are trained through use of positive reinforcement. In simple terms, the animal gets a treat, such as a piece of mouse, for doing a behavior. Since the bird receives a treat, it is more likely to repeat the behavior in the future—just like humans.
“Raptors are charismatic animals with distinct personalities, and they draw people into conversation,” Drayna says. “They are a great way to connect nature, conservation, and culture. These avian ambassadors will help us illustrate the importance of healthy habitats and show people ways they can help native wildlife.”
It is anticipated the kestrel will begin to join small group programs and virtual programs in July, with the younger owl joining such programs later this summer. For more information on the River Museum’s outreach programs, visit rivermuseum.com/outreach.