Lively Young Audience at Refuge Raptor Program


By Kate White

Co-Editor, Wild Pony Tales

If the two members of the Maryland Conservation Corps who gave a presentation on raptors at the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge were looking for an enthusiastic audience they had to look no further than the first two rows of the auditorium.

It was the International Migratory Bird Day Festival at the Virginia refuge and two representatives from the Maryland Park Service had taken their Scales and Tales program on the road.

On the first two rows were members of the visiting O’Brian family from New Jersey. So when the presenters asked questions, such as what adaption meant and what was camouflage the hands of the younger spectators were ready and waiting. Their hands went up quickly followed by enthusiastic answers.

Erica McGrath told the audience the program she and her assistant, Samantha Ford, worked in was called Scales and Tales. Erica explained that what they do is take care of animals they find in captivity and mistreated or found unable to take care of themselves in the wild. Once in Sales and Tales  the animals and birds are treated for and taken care for until they die.

Sales and Tales is located at the Pocomoke River State Park, just north of the Virginia line.

The presenters were part of the program of events for the Bird Celebration held at the Virginia refuge. All of the events were held just outside or inside the Bateman Educational Center where visitors can buy gifts and find out what they can see on the Eastern Shore refuge which runs all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.

So on May 11, people crowded inside checking out the different exhibits. (See separate story on the exhibits and artists.)

 In the afternoon, people began carrying cages in one by one. Guests were very curious as to what they were soon going to be doing. As more tourists and familiar faces arrived, a sign pointed everyone to a showing that was to be held in the auditorium called “Raptors,” featuring animals of prey and reptiles from the wild.

The host, Ms. Mcgrath, first presented a small box turtle. She said the cold-blooded reptile was run over by accident and was left on the side of the road. She told how these animals, do not sweat. Just like a dog, they have their mouths open breathing heavily to regain normal temperature and feel a lot cooler. The shell of a box turtle and any other turtle , is a form of camouflage. This coloring is called scoot. The color from a bird’s eye view makes it look like leaves on the ground floor. After years though, the coloring begins to chip off. It is also a part of the body that grows from the time it was born. The shell is attached to their body and cannot be taken off. To a turtle, the shell also works as a human ribcage.  

To tell whether it’s a girl or a boy, the trick is to look at the eyes. Boy’s have the dark red eyes but very rarely girls do get them and that could make everything confusing. So the most accurate way is to examine the belly of it and notice the lower bottom part. If the imprint looks like a thumb was there and pressed hard, that’s a sign the turtle’s male. For girls, the shell is more straightened and not as caved in.

At the end of the turtle section, a child asked the name of it. But it turns out that animals in the Sales and Tales program aren’t named because they feel it shows respect that they are from the wild.

When Erica pulled an Eastern King Snake from the bag, most of the girls pushed back in their seats. The children down front were only a few feet away. The way to tell it’s a King Snake, is by the marks of white trailing from start of neck to the end.  Most of the time, these snakes live up to 20 years total in captivity which is much more than in the wild, seven years. In the wild, they eat almost anything their jaws can fit around. Rats, snakes, and other reptiles are the main sources of this snake’s diet. To find food, their forked tongue goes in and out and takes samples of smells that determine heat.

The way it traps its prey is by constricting it slowly tightening the grip every time the trapped animal breathes out which is basically suffocating it. The King Snake is also immune to other snake’s venom unless it goes directly into their bloodstream. The stomach is so airtight that if they were to swallow venom it wouldn’t touch anything else and would be completely harmless to their body.

Next, a small brown owl with a bit of dark brown and specks of white was shown. The Screech Owl is the second smallest owl. On average, the weight is about 7.3 oz. Humans have seven vertebras in their neck. Owls however, have 14. That means their necks can turn a lot more than ours ever would. But it’s not true they can turn it 360 degrees. The most an owl’s head may turn is 270 degrees which gives the illusion its head can spin all the way back. Something pointed out to us was that on any owl their ears are not even. This deals with hearing different levels of the forest. the lower one can hear what’s happening below or farther down as the upper ear hole hears noises that come from high above them.

Also, the tuffs on their head that are commonly mistaken for ears are actually the owl’s eyebrows. They change the expression based on mood just as we do. When they are up, the owl is definitely alert and on guard. When they push down and droop, it’s possible they are either angry or sad. An apple core was thrown out the window of a passing vehicle and a wild animal, specifically a mouse, began to eat it. When the owl saw it, it swooped down and was hit by a wind gust estimated around 55 mph. It was unable to fly correctly afterwards and the wing still hasn’t healed.

The broad winged hawk they showed us was hit by a car with such impact, that the hawk’s jaw dislocated, ruined the eyesight and damaged the car’s siding. The eyesight is very important for a hawk especially because they have what’s called “binocular vision.” It involves depth perception which includes how far things are and how wide. With one eye it makes everything a bit more challenging when that’s needed to survive.

To catch an animal, they use speed rather than stealth as an owl does. The pressure they use with their clawed talons is more than 100 pounds. Human fingers only need to be attacked by seven pounds to break. A hawk’s beak keeps growing. In the wild, that can mean they have to stop eating because the top part grows so hooked the bottom cannot open. In captivity they fix this to make sure such a problem is not possible.

The last animal that was shown to us was a huge, white owl with black eyes. The barred owl is one of two owl species that have full black eyes. The other being the barn owl. Just as turtles and dogs, they have no sweat glands so breathing heavily with their mouth open helps cool them off easily.

A barred owl’s diet ranges from snakes and chipmunks to raccoons, mice and even smaller owls. Their wings unlike a hawk’s, are meant to be stealthy and as quiet as possible. Wings of an owl have serrated edges to stay quiet and talons that have 250 pounds of pressure with feathering on their legs as well. One wing on this owl was actually amputated because of damage to a wing. Wildlife officials believe it was an accident involving a car hitting it.

Scales and Tales is part of the environmental education program of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Presentations can be seen at the Pocomoke River State Park. You can call 410-632-2566 for more information or email the park at