The door opened and an older man stepped out, his hat was turned backwards and his heavily gloved hand held America’s smallest bird of prey. Small, lithe and beautiful the American kestrel sat perched on the man’s forefinger. With a large brush pen I began slashing at my sketch book trying the capture the likeness and gesture of the bird. Sitting next to me was my daughter, Samea, who was also busy drawing the bird. The man explained to the small crowd some of biology of this diminutive raptor; the dimorphic differences between males and females, diet and hunting strategies. This outing with my family was a research trip for a book I’m developing. It may not have been exotic but was extremely productive. Seeing an animal live and sketching it as it moves about informs the artist in ways photographs and film never can.
After the Kestrel had his moment on the stage several more animals were brought out one at a time. Next was a rosy boa (I didn’t know we had constrictors in California), followed by a shy Virginia possum (I didn’t know they only live three years), a tarantula (I didn’t know they can live for 12 years) and for the finale two owls were brought out one of the barn variety and the other a great horned.
As they owls were paraded around the room their handlers explained some of their biology; nocturnal habits, silent flight and eating which led to owl pellets. Owls swallow their food whole and in a special stomach the indigestible material is separated and wadded up into a ball and regurgitated. The Barn owl swiveled its head back and forth nervously even pivoting its head upside down. This behavior wasn’t normal but due to a neurological disorder and was the chief reason why the owl was never released into the wild. The same went for all the animals in the wildlife center. All of them had one way or another become injured orphans some with maimed wings or human imprinting unable to return to the wild.
As a parting gift from the wildlife center we bought three owl pellet kits for my kids (and me of course). While my wife was completely revolted by the entire idea my kids were more than eager to dissect the indigestible parts of an owl’s meal. As my 6 year old son began discovering rodent bones and skulls he yelled with excitement, “This is like a treasure hunt dad!” Indeed it was and a great way to spend a rainy day indoors. For about an hour we dissected, separated, organized and identified the remains of several rodents and shrews. The Placerita Nature Center is just minutes from the busy 14 freeway and is a great place to bring your family to hike explore and learn about the indigenous wildlife of Southern California.