Monday, December 30, 2013

Wildlife Through The Winter

Don Kerr's passion for wildlife, and particularly his love for raptors, was the inspiration for the High Desert Museum. And to this day, wildlife is one of the aspects that makes this Museum unique.

Animals are a year-round attraction, but in the Wildlife department things slow down this time of year as our winged and four-legged friends adapt to colder conditions.

Take our badgers, Bonnie and Clyde, for instance. During summer they demonstrate their digging prowess on a daily basis in our Desert Dwellers show. But in the winter they're barely active.

Badgers put on a lot of weight in the fall and go into a torpor state in winter... their breathing slows down and they're almost completely dormant. In the wild, badgers go underground for as much as 70 days, but they are not  hibernating, per se.

Rogue, our river otter, doesn't mind the cold. Not one bit. Even during the most severe cold snap he's as comfortable in the water as he is in his den.

"Rogue has no problem venturing outside to eat or to play in the snow, says Jonathon Brower, Assistant Curator of Wildlife. "He's very well insulated. But when it's really cold Rogue stays in his den most of the time."

Our cats, in typical cat fashion, also seem unfazed by the cold weather. In fact, they're much more sensitive to the summer heat than sub-zero temperatures. Both Vivi, the bobcat, and Snowshoe, the Canadian lynx, are well adapted for winter hunting.

"This is the very most southern territory for the Canadian lynx," Brower says. "They roam all the way up to the arctic, so they're very comfortable in cold temperatures. Their paws are even adapted for walking on snow... like big soft snowshoes."

However, since both cats are getting quite old Brower puts heating pads in their dens when the temperatures dip into the single digits.

Keeping birds of prey warm and healthy during winter is mostly a matter of proper feeding... they simply eat a lot more during the winter in order to regulate their body temperatures effectively.

"Our hawks will eat four to five times as much in the winter because they burn a lot of calories keeping warm," Brower says. "The Harris' hawks need some accommodation when it gets really cold, since they're more adapted to the high deserts south of here that don't get so cold... We just move them to even warmer quarters, temporarily."

Porcupines also eat their way through winter. In the wild their winter diet consists mostly of  the inner bark, or cambium, of coniferous trees which biologists say is nutritionally only slightly better than cardboard.

To handle a sparse diet throughout the winter, these lumbering tree climbers start with a lot of body fat. Like the badger, porcupines spend summer and autumn putting on weight. A recent study  found that porcupines averaged around 60 percent body fat at the start of winter. By April, porcupines lost roughly 35 percent of their body weight, mostly body fat. They lost almost no lean body mass during this study period, meaning that despite a poor diet, they fared well through the winter. This behavior of putting on weight isn't typically seen in other rodents.

At the High Desert Museum, the porcupines fare much better than those in the wild, enjoying a healthy vegetarian diet all year long. 

Here's a fun fact:  The porcupine's scientific name, Erethizon Dorsatum, means "the animal with an irritating back." The common name "porcupine" comes from two Latin words: porcus and spina, giving porcupines the nickname "thorny pig."

None of the animals cared for at the Museum can be released into the wild. Either they were bred in captivity, rescued after being injured or "imprinted"on humans and never learned how to hunt or avoid predators. They rely on us to survive.

The wildlife staff works with our animals daily to build their trust and provide the highest standard of care. Our animals’ habitats are designed to provide the space and healthy environment each species requires. Many of the birds, like our bald eagles, cannot fly due to broken wings or other injuries.

Not many museums can offer a close-up view of a live bobcat, otter, or hawk — especially in the winter. But the High Desert Museum will continue to maintain Don Kerr's tradition and provide a unique perspective on the most engaging animals of the high desert.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Farewell to Thomas

Some animals seem to be born with a happy demeanor and zest for life. Otters are famously friendly and always entertaining. Everything about them — from their tiny ears and webbed feet to the way they roll around on a sunlit rock — spells fun.

So it's with heartfelt sadness that we say goodbye to Thomas, our longtime resident river otter.

Thomas was 16 years old, and had been delighting Museum visitors since 2002.Our wildlife staff, volunteers and visitors will miss Thomas tremendously. 

For a long time, Thomas was the lone otter here at the Museum. But last winter we added a young male named Rogue, and the two got along famously. Thomas didn't appear to be getting old, as he rolled and frolicked with his new, younger pal. But in fact, his age was catching up with him.

The life expectancy of river otters in the wild is eight to ten years. In captivity they can live to be 20. No matter how hard the wildlife staff tries to stay professional, they inevitably get attached to their charges over the years.

John Goodell, Curator of Wildlife, said the loss has had a profound effect not only on the wildlife staff, but everyone who's been around the Museum for any length of time.

"It's part of the job, but for the people on our mammal team, it's always difficult. They have a lot of passion for what they do, and they're with these animals day after day for years."

 Goodell said otters like Thomas and Rogue are a great match for the High Desert Musuem, for many reasons. Otter populations are thriving throughout the High Desert, and they are often found in local rivers including the Deschutes. 

"Otters are good indicator species as to the health of aquatic ecosystems," Goodell said. "If you have otters, you know you have a healthy waterway. So otters are a good way to introduce the topic of watershed quality and healthy riparian ecosystems."

Otters are predominantly loners in the wild. Sometimes two young males will team up for short periods of time, until inevitably, a female shows up. Then they get competitive and go their separate ways. So if you see a group of otters together in the wild, more than likely it's a mother with her cubs.

In captivity, two males like Thomas and Rogue often work well together. Goodell said his team is working with the Oregon Fish & Wildlife Department to find a new otter who can keep Rogue company. He hopes to have a new addition to the otter family by spring 2014.

The daily Otter Talks may not be the same without Thomas, but if you haven't seen one recently you're missing out on a thoroughly entertaining experience. As Rogue dives, swims and rolls in the background, the speaker shares interesting facts about the behavior and adaptations of river otters. For instance, did you know they aren't born knowing how to swim? The mother has to give the pups a brief swim lesson. But they learn fast.

The Museum will hold a private memorial for Thomas. The public and especially children are invited to send in cards and pictures of Thomas which will be displayed on a memorial wall in the Autzen Otter Exhibit. The Museum has also established a fund in Thomas memory for otter care. Cards and gifts may be sent to the High Desert Museum, care of Thomas Memorial Fund, 59800 S. Highway 97, Bend, OR 97702.

Another way to show your support is to participate in the Adopt an Animal Program. Otters have a very high metabolism, and may consume up to 20% of their body weight in a single day. By adopting an otter, you'll help provide the nutrition and care they need. See our website for details.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Behind the scenes with raptors and bird nerds.

The slow-flying pigeon didn’t have a prayer. From high above, the peregrine falcon zeroed in on its prey, tucked his wings, and dove. With speed topping 200 miles an hour, it struck with its lethal talons and dispatched the bird from the air. It was mercifully instantaneous.

The hunting prowess of falcons, eagles, hawks and owls has enthralled people for more than 4,000 years.  In parts of Asia and the Mid East falconry has been in continuous practice almost as long. Some cultures, such as the Mongols and the Bedouin, relied on their friendly falcons to put food on the table.

Today, people stop and gawk when they see a hawk perched on a fence. A golden eagle nest in Central Oregon has its own web cam and an owl in the park is front page news. 

So it’s no surprise that our free-flying show, Raptors of the Desert Sky, is a big success this summer.Worthy of three pages in The Bulletin.

“People are naturally fascinated by these birds,” said John Goodell, Curator of Natural History at the High Desert Museum. “They’re just so majestic and impressive to watch, especially when they fly so close overhead. You’ll never have an experience like this in the wild.”  

Goodell has worked with almost every species of raptor in the High Desert. He and staff of bird nerds at the Museum currently care for more than 20 birds of prey, five of which regularly participate in the flight program.

This is just the third summer of the Raptors of the Desert Sky program. Putting on a live show featuring various species of raptors can be a challenge. As Dana Whitelaw, VP of programs put it, “Sometimes things can get a bit interesting.”

Recently, the turkey vulture added suspense to the show when he decided to wander off for a bit of sunshine and free time. The show is outdoors, so the birds are equipped with radio transmitters just in case. But in the end, the vulture returned on his own time.

Our two Harris’ Hawks act like an old married couple… He tries to steal her food. She squawks at him, and bullies him around.  Of course, she’s bigger than he is -- that’s just the way it is in the natural world of raptors.

One of the most frequently asked questions by spectators is where the birds come from… how they end up at the High Desert Museum.

Every bird has a unique story, but they all have one thing in common: They could not survive in the wild. They’re either injured or “imprinted” by human contact. The turkey vulture, for instance, was raised in captivity after being found out of the nest at a very young age. Once they’re taken in by a human, there’s no going back.

The Peregrine falcon is 17 years old, much older than any in the wild. She’s fed a healthy diet of meat, much like she’d have in her natural habitat. Goodell’s staff monitors her food intake to the gram and works with her daily to keep her in flying shape.

One bird that’s being nursed back to health, and is likely to be released into the wild, is a small Merlin with a broken beak. “We are a licensed rehab facility, although that’s not what we focus on doing. Most of the birds we get have already been through that, and need a permanent home.”

Surprisingly, Goodell said many hawks and owls are injured after having run-ins with cars. For instance, we have a Swainson’s hawk that was hit by a car and is blind in one eye.

Goodell hopes to add three more birds to the show by next summer, the first being a young Prairie Falcon later this fall.

Wildlife was always at the heart of Donald Kerr’s vision for the High Desert Museum. His hope was that witnessing the flight demonstration of an American kestrel, touching the belly of a gopher snake, or seeing a bobcat curled up with his favorite old boot would be enough to inspire others to become stewards of High Desert wildlife.

In his program Goodell makes a point to describe the threats that each bird of prey species face. He also loves to tell the story of the Peregrine falcon because it has such a happy ending. “In the late 60’s DDT and other pesticides had wiped out the Peregrine Falcon completely from the Eastern United States,” he said. “But captive breeding and relocation efforts called hacking successfully reintroduced the birds over a 30 year period. In 1999, the peregrine falcon was removed from the endangered species list and today there are healthy populations throughout the United States.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Observations from a Museum newbie.

There's nothing quite like the perspective of a newcomer. A couple weeks on the job here, and everyone wants to know, "How's it going?"  "What's it like there?"

So here's what I see...

First and foremost, I realize that I've taken the Museum for granted. It's easy to do when you've been in Bend for 20 years and it's right here, in your own backyard. The kids grow up, friends and family have all "been there, done that," so it falls off the radar. What I never realized was the variety of the exhibits, and how things change month to month, season to season.

I see all sorts of new stuff. Just in the last year there have been exhibits of Native American Beadwork, Oregon Quilts, the Botany of John Muir, High Desert Ranching, Butterflies and Hummingbirds. And coming soon, Dinosaurs and Frontier Firearms. There's always something new and intriguing to learn and if you look closely, you'll never get bored.

 I see a very a devoted team of volunteers. Everyday there are people who show up here, just out the goodness of their hearts. They love this place enough to give their time and their hard work, just because... Photographers, living history actors, greeters, you name it. They keep coming back, logging the volunteer hours. As many as 1000 hours in a year. So as a paid staff member, it really puts things in perspective.

I see pleasantly surprised visitors. Thousands of them! When you thumb through the comment cards, the most common refrain is "we could have spend a lot more time here." Or "wish we would have had another two hours." Expectations are consistently exceeded in pretty much every department and continually improving that visitor experience is a high priority for the staff.

I see kids grinning from ear to ear. Big groups of field trip kids chattering, parading around, just dying to see what's next. (Reptiles and Raptors are always a big hit.) The education staff does a great job of keeping them engaged with hands-on activities and dramatic lessons that'll last a lifetime.

 I see a lean organization, doing a lot with a little. A tour of the vault reveals an impressive collection of 29,000 items that leaves you thinking, "I had no idea."  The building could handle another dozen full time employees, but instead, staff members wear a lot of different hats and just chip in wherever there's a need. Thanks to several years of fiscal restraint, we just retired the long-term debt and the Musuem's in a solid financial position.

Finally, I see people here who are passionate about their work. When you peek behind the scenes it's obvious they really, truly care. There's a tremendous effort to deliver a museum experience that's absolutely world-class, to raise the money needed to continue delivering that experience and to do what Don Kerr originally intended for this place... To responsibly teach and wildly excite.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The 1800's: How far have we come?

This week we're featuring a guest post by one of the Museum's volunteers.

By Susie Linford, Volunteer Interpreter, Spirit of the West

The stories of those who came to the High Desert in the 1800’s, depicted throughout our Hall of Exploration and Settlement, appear to be frozen in time, but a closer look at the “back stories” reveals circumstances that are the origins of what we confront today.  Although we can’t know the past exactly as it was, with some scrutiny, these stories can inform and reassure us about our responses to the world we live in now.

Economic Depressions and Speculative Bubbles

People don’t usually leave home when living there is good. From the mid 1800’s on there were constant economic upheavals causing depressions; speculative boom and bust cycles; a decrease in the value of farm lands and other commodities causing banks to fail; plunging many into steep poverty. This displaced hundreds of thousands of people and put them on the trails heading to the wilderness of the American West.

They came from all over the world and (most of them) stayed to form a heady mixture of risk taking, verbose people who argued and debated nearly everything, especially what it meant to be an American.  They moved across vast distances larger than their native countries and then they often kept moving from farmlands to gold camps to homesteads.

Nineteenth Century westerners were a restless, mobile, vigorous mix of nationalities and races, and now and then, they shot each other, but that was just their way.   In the century that followed, their descendants would invent Hollywood, the Atomic bomb and the Internet and become a superpower in a fast changing, volatile world.

The Federal Government Versus States’ Rights

When the Union of the United States was formed, many states were leery about how much they would be controlled by Washington.  Sixty years later after the issue was thought to have been solved by the Constitution, long, windy, emotional speeches and debates objected to a federal government and a President (Lincoln) that presumed to have the right to regulate their affairs.

Opposition to the President was heated and aggressive. Every aspect of his appearance and character was unflatteringly portrayed in print and cartoon sketches. Predictions were strong that he was leading the nation on a path of destruction, damnation and ruin.

The same arguments against the power of the federal government to regulate the states can still be heard in the halls of government today.

"Immigrants Go Home!"

By the 1880’s the number of immigrants increased rapidly from Asia and from Europe. They were eager to work for any money even at the worst of jobs, and there   weren’t many jobs. Arguments about the rights of immigrants to take jobs away from citizens were heated. Laws were passed that restricted immigration and immigrants were often attacked and even killed in many gold camps in the west.

American English

Many Americans including new immigrants took pains to speak and write English in order to assimilate in their new country. But others, especially those living on a frontier, didn’t see a big need for “book larning.” This didn’t keep the trail emigrants from writing, and from their diaries we can puzzle out what they meant when they said,   “We hit thet chickin wit a hamer, and thin Mudder cookd thit.

Those who came west with an excellent education and who helped set up small schools that offered a good and sometimes even a classical education contrast this.

Booze, Drugs, Vice and Virtue

In the 1800’s in the west there are several saloons on every block and men drinking in them morning and night. There were also churches on nearly every corner, and the majority of citizens got their once-a-week bath (water was scarce in the west) on Saturday night and attended church on Sunday.

Opium, morphine, cocaine and heroin were not illegal and were even thought to have some beneficial mind-expanding properties. Patent medicines were laced with both alcohol and opiates, and the local doctor provided the remedies. Self-medication was common for the many ailments and injuries suffered in the west.

American Identity – Who are We?

The debate over our American identity has been discussed and debated since George Washington had to talk wearing wooden false teeth. Every generation holds forth on this with the elder generations predicting that our national identity is in decline and is even following in the footsteps of the Romans.  

In the Nineteenth Century Europeans characterized Americans as brash, coarse, boorish, churlish, arrogant, verbose, prone to spitting tobacco juice everywhere and shooting their guns off in public places.   Americans offered their daughters and their fortunes in exchange for aristocratic titles and in atonement for being so vigorous and rich. 

Jenny Jerome, heiress to a fortune dug out of western mines, made such a match. Her son, Winston Churchill, demonstrated many allegedly American characteristics of defiance, persistence and courage despite the odds (he also wrote and talked a lot). He commented on and demonstrated the notion of “vigor,” that life force and vitality that was so, so, well, American.

The people who settled the west in the 1800’s passed on many of their codes for responding to economic depressions, ongoing waves of immigrants, arguments over the balance of powers between the federal and the states’ governments, a fondness for self medication, poor grammar, an ongoing debate over our national identity with gloomy predictions and allusions to what the near future will hold (nothing good).

In all of this is a hybrid vigor of people who can and do disagree, reinvent themselves, take risks and do things that haven’t been done before, all the while alternating between self congratulation and self criticism.

And if an old-timer from the west were to be asked what he made of all of this, he might respond, “Yep, and ain’t it grand.”  Which is, of course, extremely arguable.