The birds have been in for 5 weeks now and are looking a lot less fluffy than when they went in. Duncan Orr-Ewing, Justin Grant (RSPB) & Roy Dennis have come along to help me and Andrew fit wing tags and radios. I’m just hoping that my painted efforts look a bit better from a distance!
It takes about 30 minutes to process each bird, including taking biometrics (measuring different parts of the eagles’ bodies), weighing, fitting wing tags and radios.
The first big problem is catching the birds, they haven’t been handled since they arrived and are none too pleased to be handled. We put falconers’ hoods on their heads, covering their eyes to calm them down, keeping a tight hold of the legs and keeping wings in they are then carried into an empty cage where we have a carpeted table set up to do all the fitting.
We measure the feet, legs, wings and bill and then weigh them in a bag on a spring balance, before fitting the wing tags. Its important to use this handling opportunity to get as much information as possible about the birds, pre-fledging weight is especially useful and the biometrics help tell us how precise our sexing of wild birds is, as we know the sexes of ours from DNA analyses.
Fitting a wing tag is a bit like ear piercing, you need to find the centre point of a flap of skin along the wing edge, then attached the tag to this with a piece of wire and some washers. It is a surprisingly quick and easy process. The radio ‘backpacks’ took a little longer, they are fixed on via Teflon ribbon running in front and behind the wings and being sewn and glued together at a central point in the birds’ breast. The birds soon preen in all the ribbon and radio once they are back in their cages, leaving only a couple of inches of aerial poking out.
We managed to get all the birds done in 1 day. The big revelation was that despite the fact that some birds had been gripping on the front of the cages and flapping to get out for a couple of weeks, we found that they all had a little bit more growing of their tail feathers to do. So, I have a couple more weeks lugging buckets of fish up the hill to go yet before they can be released.
The birds have been in their cages for nearly a month now and are all starting to look and act a lot more like small eagles rather than big chicks.For the first week the chicks spent all their time sitting on their artificial nests made of bark chippings and moss and then began venturing out onto their perches as they became stronger and more confident. The birds have a great view of the landscape out of the front of their cages and watch other wildlife with interest - in particular the many woodpigeons that frequent their woodland location. They have been alarm-calling at a nearby nesting green woodpecker and passing buzzards and ospreys as they fly overhead. They then began stretching and flapping their wings, whilst over the last 10 days two of the older birds have been jumping up and down while they flap making a heck of a racket! All of the other birds are also starting to have some practice flights and hops around their cages. All of the birds seem to be developing different personalities, they all reacted very alarmed at first whenever food appeared through the hatch. However, one bird has developed an aversion to the gloved hand, frequently stamping on it as we try and put food in as quickly as possible, not even being distracted by the food that's already in there.
Despite my reassurances to willing helpers that 'the chicks don't really use their beaks yet' one of my babysitters has nearly lost a glove and Andrew my assistant got a shock today when the chick ran down the perch towards the opening hatch and went straight for the offending glove!One pair of birds also took a couple of weeks to settle down to feeding 'normally'. At first I was worried about the (smaller) male as he would not eat directly from the food pile but only steal scraps from the female's beak, turning his head longingly on one side as he watched her eat. I tried to place the food in two piles to ensure he had access to it. However at the end of the first week I saw him pull both piles of food together and stand over them with his wings over his head so that she didn't get a look in! After a few more power struggles, this pair seem to have settled their differences now.I had a scare last weekend when one of the birds started making a small noise as it breathed, a visit from the vet confirmed that it and the other chick in the same cage had a chest infection. One bird was taken away for a chest x-ray but returned the next day and after a week-long course of antibiotics and fungicide tablets (inserted in food) both birds are happy and healthy once more.
Although I was very worried about them, it has been extremely damp since the birds went into the cages and raptors are susceptible to respiratory infections so it isn't too surprising that they got a bit sniffly.