By CHRISTINA WOOD
Of the Baker City Herald
There was a whole lot of oohing, ahhing and hooting going on in the Leo Adler Theater, and most of it was coming from the audience of nearly 80 adults and students.
But not all.
Larry Ridenhour and his winged colleagues presented a demonstration on birds of prey at the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center.
The birds three owls and a hawk were mostly quiet except for some soft chirps, yips and chuckles.
That didn't stop the audience from reacting enthusiastically to a flourish of wings and a gaze from nature's aerial hunters.
Ridenhour is an employee of the Bureau of Land Management assigned to the Snake River Birds of Prey Natural Conservancy Area just outside of Boise. The area features 81 miles of raptor habitat and has the densest concentration of nesting raptors in North America.
While some owls do hoot, Ridenhour said most of them emit yips and chirps, as one particularly friendly shorteared owl named Copper obligingly demonstrated to the audience, which included 52 fourth grade students from Adams Elementary School in Boise.
The students were there on a field trip after studying pioneers and the Oregon Trail this year in class. Teacher Julie Bower said it was just happenstance they were at NHOTIC that day, but her students had also had a unit on birds of prey so they were knowledgeable about them and still being full of questions.
andquot;It was a wonderful surprise to us to have them here today,andquot; she said of the birds.
Ridenhour has been working with the birds for about eight years now, specializing not only in their care but in educating the public about the animals' role in the ecology of the West and their needs and habitat.
He said the birds he had were all either suffering from injuries or were mentally not able to compete for food in their native habitat.
His shorteared owl had been stolen from its nest as a hatchling by a human and had imprinted on people.
andquot;He thinks he's people too, and would look for a mate among humans,andquot; Ridenhour shared. He said the bird had gotten loose in the wild a few times but flew only a short distance before stopping and waiting for his handler to catch up. andquot;He doesn't know how to hunt or what to do with himself,andquot; Ridenhour explained.
He reminded his audience that it was illegal to take the birds from the wild. Copper had been confiscated by the authorities and his abductor fined. Copper now lives at Ridenhour's office in Boise and is a frequent visitor at schools and institutions. Copper weights about 9 ounces but has a wing span of about two feet.
andquot;These are wild birds that should be living their natural lives in the wild,andquot; Ridenhour added. andquot;If we couldn't use them in our educational programs, they would probably have to be put down because they are not able to live on their own.andquot;
The commitment to the birds is a long one. Not only does a handler have to demonstrate a knowledge of the birds and the skill to take care of them to get a license, but some of these birds are rather long lived. A small kestrel or sparrowhawk may only live 5 to 6 years, but a golden eagle could live as long as 50 years, perhaps outliving his human handler.
All of the raptors have things in common. They are carnivores, equipped with a full set of knives at the ends of their feet. The talons can be very long and sharp and some of the birds have the ability to andquot;lockandquot; the talons in place so the bird can't be shaken off. While the smaller birds hunt voles, mice, gophers, squirrels and snakes, the larger birds, such as the greathorned owl, can hunt skunks, porcupines and larger prey.
Great horns are willing to attack even larger prey, and there is one confirmed death of a human from a greathorn's attack.
The raptors have a hooked beak for tearing their prey apart and superior eyesight.
If we had the eyesight of a hawk, we could read a typewritten page taped to the Interpretive Center window overlooking the Baker Valley from the Adler stage, according to Ridenhour.
The birds have far more rods than cones in their retinas, allowing them to see very clearly in low light at the expense of their color vision.
The owls are also very silent in their fight. Copper was willing to fan his wings vigorously for Ridenhour, but there was no flapping sound as he did so. andquot;They are like stealth bombers, with soft feathers to cushion the air, comb-like structures on the leading edges of the wings to reduce turbulence and a large wings-to-body ratio,andquot; he said. All this makes for silent and deadly flight.
The birds also have excellent hearing. Since their ears are asymmetrical, located in slightly different positions on either side of the head, the birds can locate prey by sound, even on pitch black nights.
Ridenhour's three other birds include a wise-looking great horned female, named Old Deuteronomy. She somehow over extended her wings at some point and injured the wing and shoulder joints. She is only able to travel in short hops.
His Swainson's hawk, a larger female given the name Dulcinea, has a badly damaged wing and will never fly again. She can barely balance herself on Ridenhour's gloved hand as he holds her and tells the audience that Swainson's hawks are constant migratory birds whose range extends to the tip of Chile in South America, more than 7,000 miles away. In its normal lifetime, a Swainson's hawk will fly 150,000 migratory miles. Dulcinea had a run in with an automobile and lost. She is named for Don Quixote's beloved and noble lady.
A tiny screech owl has an injured eye and perhaps some brain damage, also the victim of an automobile. The gray and white feathered screech was added to Ridenhour's flock last week so he doesn't have a name yet. Several of the young visitors suggested names for the friendly little chap.
Pam Petterson, an interpretive specialist at the center, volunteered to hold both Copper and the screech owl for Ridenhour after the program. She said it had always been her dearest wish to hold one of the beautiful birds. In moments the screech owl rested quietly on her hand while a number of humans spoke with Ridenhour about the birds' care.
She lightly tickled the small owl's head with her fingers and the owl closed his eyes in pleasure. It was hard to tell just who had charmed whom.
Ridenhour invited the audience to tour the Birds of Prey area, just off Interstate 84 near Meridian, Idaho. He suggested visitors plan to spend at least a half day to tour the extensive area and bring a good pair of binoculars and a field guide to birds.