Rebecca E. Hirsch Reflections
The Creek Journals, also known as the Long-term Ecological Reflections Project (LTERP), began in 2006 as Shaver’s Creek celebrated 25 years as Penn State’s nature center. At that time, Penn State’s Archaeological Field School was conducting a dig on the former Daniel Massey property near Shaver’s Creek, where they unearthed artifacts from the late 1800s — about 150 years before this project began. The archaeologists had to speculate about what happened at these locations and what the artifacts meant. Through the Creek Journals, we intend to record a piece of the next century’s history in some fashion so that future generations can better learn the story of this place.
The project is, according to conceiver Ian Marshall, a “study in place.” It seeks to record what happens at eight locations in and around Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center over the course of a full century — through the lens of authors and artists from a variety of disciplines. Below, we are happy to introduce writer Rebecca E. Hirsch’s reflections from her visitations to each site.
On a misty October morning, I hiked to Twin Bridges for my first official site visit for the Long-Term Ecological Reflections Project. Tiny pools of water glistened on the path. The air crackled with raindrops falling through trees. Spicebushes glowed in the understory. The woods seemed limitless.
When I reached the site, I found a pair of bridges. An interpretive sign talked of change, nurse logs, and long-ago beavers. I walked around and squinted to make out the tracings of nurse logs. A nurse log forms when a downed hemlock or white pine slowly rots on forest floor and becomes covered with moss. The moss-covered log makes a soft bed where seeds of shade-loving hemlocks can get a foothold in the forest. Although the nurse log eventually rots away, the row of hemlocks it helped raise reveal the forest’s lingering history.
I headed to the bridge over Shaver’s Creek, and my thoughts turned to beavers. The creek sat in sunlight, with trees on either bank that did not touch overhead. This break in the canopy is a remnant of a long-ago beaver pond. The pond has gone away, replaced by a wet meadow. From the bridge, I surveyed the meadow. It was full of goldenrod, Joe-Pye weed gone to seed, and blackberry brambles.
Under a pattering rain, I waded into the stream. The water felt pleasantly cool. I gently pried up rocks along the stream’s edge, to see what might be hiding. I found mayfly nymphs and a caddisfly larva in its case of pebbles. I marveled at a perfect spider web suspended over the water between blades of grass.
Over the next few months, I ended up returning to Twin Bridges many times. I was drawn by my growing awareness of present-day beavers and how they are remodeling this place. According to The World of the Beaver by Leonard Lee Rue III, which I read at the Shaver’s Creek’s library, beavers are especially busy in the autumn of the year, cutting down trees with their sharp teeth and storing food, twigs, and bark before the lake and streams freeze over. As beavers grow busier, their presence becomes easier to see.
Around Twin Bridges, their impact became impossible to miss. At the boardwalk a short distance downstream, they had dug watery canals, trampled grasses and reeds, removed trees and bushes. Here at Twin Bridges, they had built a dam and gnawed trees along the banks.
My final visit to Twin Bridges came on a brisk December day. On my walk there, my boots crunched on the frosted trail. My toes tingled in the cold. The leaves had fallen, which opened up the view. Where once the woods had seemed limitless, I could see all the way to the Environmental Center on the hill.
Shaver’s Creek wore a fringe of ice along its edge. I pushed through golden grasses on the banks to inspect the dam the beavers had built. It didn’t look like my idea of a beaver dam — more like leafy, twiggy debris washed onto rocks. On the nearby bank, the beavers had beaten down a pair of narrow paths through the grasses. One path led to their dam; the other made a beeline for the boardwalk. Along the narrow paths, many small trees and bushes had been chomped. On one bush I counted thirteen gnawed-off nubs — some fresh and orange, others older and pale.
In my time at Shaver’s Creek, and through repeated visits like these, I came to see more clearly how the parts are connected: the dam at Twin Bridges, the watery canals at the boardwalk, the beaver lodge across the water on the northern shore of Lake Perez. In returning again and again, the signs of change became visible, the linkages clearer. Links in space and time, connecting the past of this place to its present.
The Sawmill Site
On a sunny October morning, I followed a leaf-covered trail through a hemlock forest, above the banks of Shaver’s Creek. Back in July, I had visited the Sawmill Site with a crew that included Program Director Doug Wentzel and Ian Marshall, founder of the Long-Term Ecological Reflections Project. But three months had passed since that walk in the woods. I was nervous about finding the spot again. I kept watch as I walked, careful to follow the wooden signs of a water wheel that marked the trail.
And then I saw the sign that marked the Sawmill Site. The sign told the story of the Rudy family who had farmed nearby and, by the 1870s, had built a sawmill here. It explained that the four Rudy brothers had dug a channel to divert the stream, creating a millrace that powered the saw.
What was this place like, I wondered, in the late nineteenth century, back when the sawmill was in operation? The forest all around had probably been reduced to stubble then. The sound of the stream would have drowned out the noise of the mill — water rushing down millrace, water wheel creaking, cogwheels rattling, saw scraping its way into fresh wood. Clouds of sawdust would have hung in the air.
But by 1883, the mill had disappeared. Like most sawmills of its time, it probably shut down when the wood ran out. Then the land had regrown a forest. Nature is resilient, if given a chance.
On my visit, all that remained was the old millrace. Dead trees lay across it. Hemlocks and oaks grew inside it, evidence of the passage of time. Leathery green Christmas ferns sprouted among mossy rocks. The place smelled sweet and damp. The forest echoed with the chimes of water tumbling over rocks. The sun shone brightly, but barely any light reached the ground. The wind blew, and the hemlocks wiggled their fingers, catching the sun. Whatever light the hemlocks missed was caught by the ferns and the soft, damp mosses.
I walked downhill and stood beside the stream. A duck must have been swimming downstream, just out of view. At my presence, it took off with a splash and flapped away through the trees. I stood on the bank, listened to the stream bubbling, and thought about the passage of time. I watched the water slip through sunshine and shadows, glide under a downed tree, careen past moss-covered tree roots, round a bend, and tumble onward, out of sight.
The Chestnut Orchard
On a mild October day, I slipped my backpack over my shoulders and crossed the paved road near the Stone Valley Lodge, where a man was mowing. I entered the woods on the Old Faithful Trail and proceeded under towering hemlocks. There was a cathedral-like stillness here that even the whine of the mower could not entirely wipe away. I crossed a series of footbridges, which were leaf-splattered and slick.
I wondered what these woods were like before the blight stole the chestnut away. Chestnut trees wouldn’t have grown here exactly, not in the soggy bottomlands — crisscrossed with streams and shaded by hemlocks. But they would have dominated the drier hillsides and mountaintops.
I followed the trail upward. As hemlocks give way to hardwoods, I kept an eye out for chestnut trees. Not in the canopy, but in the understory. The Old Faithful Trail ended. I turned right onto the Mountainview Trail, and that was where I found my first chestnut.
It was a sapling, maybe fifteen feet tall. I recognized it by its canoe-shaped, toothy leaves, which were turning yellow. No other tree has leaves quite like these. I climbed higher along the trail and found more chestnuts. They were all saplings of a similar size and age. Up I climbed until finally the trail merged onto a gravel road. I saw the chestnut orchard ahead.
I had been here years before, on a visit with Sara Fitzsimmons. She manages this orchard for the American Chestnut Foundation. Back then, I was researching and writing about the chestnut blight, and Sara had shown me around, explaining how orchards like this one were helping to save the species. My research on the chestnut had taken me to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where I combed through their archives to learn about history of the tree; to the sprawling chestnut orchard in Meadowview, Virginia; to a national meeting on the tree in upstate New York. Alongside my fourteen-year-old daughter, I had planted chestnut trees at the Flight 93 Memorial in Shanksville. I had spoken to groups of schoolchildren about the tree. Something about the story of this species had bewitched me.
American chestnut trees had been giants of the Appalachian forest, towering up to a hundred feet tall. They had been giants of the ecosystem too, feeding everything from black bears to rabbits, wild turkey to white-tailed deer. The trees had been important to indigenous peoples of the Appalachians, as well as to Europeans settlers. People had used chestnuts for shelter, woodworking, medicine, food.
But the tree met its downfall when a fungus from Asia arrived in North American around the turn of the twentieth century. The fungus caused mild disease symptoms on Chinese and Japanese chestnut trees, but it killed the American species outright. By 1950 the chestnut blight had wiped out four billion American chestnut trees. The species might have gone extinct, except for the fact that the roots of blight-killed trees survived. Those roots have a tremendous ability to re-sprout. And so, the species hung on — not in the overstory, but as root sprouts in the understory. The sprouts never live long before the blight rears up and kills them.
I walked along the gravel road and reached the orchard, which was surrounded by a tall fence. I knew from my earlier visit with Sara that the fence was there to keep out marauders, both the ursine and the asinine kind. Being neither, I opened the gate and slipped inside.
Rows of chestnut trees rose over a weedy carpet of grasses and wildflowers. The orchard held a mix of chestnut trees — American, Chinese, Japanese, and hybrids. I fought my way through the underbrush to examine the trees. Some were lush and leafy, the approximate size and shape of apple trees. These were the Chinese and Japanese varieties — resistant to the blight, but not tall forest trees. Other trees were barely alive, just tangles of sticks, their leaves turned brown and crispy, their bark peeling. These were probably Americans, in the throes of being killed by blight.
Orchards like this one look scruffy, but as I had learned in my earlier research, they are critical to saving the species. In a series of steps, researchers have been cross-breeding Chinese and American chestnuts, then planting out the hybrid offspring. Their grand goal is to breed a blight-resistant hybrid that looks and grows like an American chestnut tree.
Even more difficult will be the next step: restoration. Restoring the chestnut to the forest will take a hundred years or more. It will require armies of volunteers to plant and nurture the hybrid trees across millions of acres, up and down the Appalachian Mountains. Restoration will be a mountain of work. But if the chestnut regains its place in the overstory, I think it will have been worth it.
The Dark Cliffy Spot
When I was eight years old, my family moved from the outskirts of a small city in Western Pennsylvania to an abandoned farm in the countryside. Transplanted to the country, my sister and I had entire fields and woods to call our own. We discovered many treasured places. Some of these places went unnamed: the bend in the creek where we caught crayfish; the flat boulder beside the stream where we held picnics; the overgrown orchard where we picked plums on warm September days after school. But other spots we stuck with a name: Dinosaur Back, Five Points, the Mossy Place. A name marks a place. It has staying power. Those names have remained in the family.
And so, when Ian Marshall, told me that the most remote reflection site was called the Dark Cliffy Spot, the name sparked my interest. I liked this name. It conjured up memories of my own childhood explorations. It called to mind a childlike sense of awe and a grasping for words in the face of that awe.
On a sunny November afternoon, I set out to find this treasured spot. Along the Shaver’s Creek Trail, I hiked past the dam and beside the creek as it flowed downhill. The water was wide and tranquil. Most of the trees had dropped their leaves, except the oaks and beeches. Sun shining through yellow beech leaves set the understory aglow.
Ian had told me that I would find two dark cliffy spots in the woods. When I came to the first one, he had told me to keep going, until I reached the darker, cliffier spot.
The trail split at a clearing, and I followed the right fork downhill. I stepped carefully over moss-covered tree roots that crisscrossed the path. The autumn woods echoed with the trickle of water and the rustle of oak leaves. A Hairy Woodpecker called pip-pip and a Black-Capped Chickadee sang see-see-see from the trees.
I crossed a tributary on a wooden footbridge and followed this small stream to my left. There I came upon the first dark cliffy spot. Water had worn away the hillside, exposing a low wall of dark rock. The stream reflected the sun’s light, creating bright patterns that danced and shimmered on the rock’s face.
I remembered Ian’s instructions and kept walking. Soon I experienced a small shock when I encountered the sign that marked the spot. It was startling to find a sign in a place that otherwise felt so secluded.
The cliff here rose maybe thirty feet above the stream. A hemlock with a bold curved trunk grew out of the cliff wall, its roots snaking over and under rock. Delicate maidenhair ferns blossomed from crevices. I stepped into the stream bed and touched the sheer face of the cliff. The rocks were striped like birch bark, and they crumbled into slivers in my fingers. The water danced and warbled on its way past the cliff. The place smelled damp and earthy.
On the opposite bank, I found a spot where I could sit with my back against a tree. I browsed my well-worn copy of Reading Shaver’s Creek. A chipmunk darted past, its black eyes watchful, its tail an exclamation mark. I read until the sun sank below the cliff wall, and the Dark Cliffy Spot grew darker. Remembering that days ended early at this time of year, I slid the book into my backpack and slipped the straps over my shoulders.
I took one last look around and pictured myself returning with a picnic of bread and cheese or maybe some watercolors. Then I hiked back the way I came. The shadows of trees stretched long, and I was lost in thought, remembering special places from my past and making plans to return to this one soon.
The Bluebird Trail
I hiked to the Bluebird Meadow on a gloomy afternoon in late October. The morning’s rain had stopped. Low clouds hung overhead. The gray sky cast a moody glow over the meadow. Walnut husks, slick with rain, littered the path, and I slipped on them as I walked. Most of the trees stood bare. Some had lost their leaves for the winter, while others were standing snags. More dead trees had fallen over, their bark peeling off bone-white wood. I heard the caws of Crows, the soft song of a Downy Woodpecker, and the chirr of crickets.
I passed an old cement foundation overrun with grasses, wildflowers, and raspberry canes. I peered up into the treetop of a white pine that was being strangled by an invasive Oriental bittersweet vine. The thick vine snaked all the way to the tree’s upper branches. I came upon another foundation. This one was made of stone. It too had been swallowed by underbrush.
Pairs of Bluebird houses dotted the path. Each house was painted celery green and sported a tiny round entrance. Beneath the houses, wildflowers had gone to seed, their leaves and stems turning black.
Although the trees stood bare, the understory remained green with autumn olive and multiflora rose, two more invaders. I recalled reading about the work of Penn State researchers who had discovered that invasive shrubs lose their leaves much later in the fall than native species. This delay gives them a photosynthetic advantage over native shrubs and wildflowers. Here in the meadow, the bare trees and lush understory combined to give the space a definite beauty — but it was a weird, unnatural kind of beauty.
The path twisted and turned, and I arrived at a clearing with an interpretive sign that was sepia-tinged with age. I read that Susquehannock and Shawnee people had once occupied the area, but by the 1800s European-American farmers had moved in, and much of the remaining forests were cut by 1845 to fuel the nearby Monroe Iron Ore furnace. By the early 1900s, the government had begun reforestation, and by the 1950s, Penn State had acquired the land and had designated the area for research and recreation. Now the meadow was mowed to keep the space open and park-like for the Bluebirds and to prevent invasive plants from clogging the habitat.
In 2016, Katie Fallon had walked this trail. In her reflection, she had written about “the ways in which we can affect and alter our environment” and “the part we play in an ongoing, unfolding story.” I thought about the remains of buildings and the farmers who had lived here. I thought about the weedy invasive plants those farmers had left behind, and how those weedy plants had become part of the unfolding story of this place.
I find it curious that Bluebirds can thrive here. Invasive plants present a cruel contradiction for them and other terrestrial birds. Although Bluebirds eat insects, they supplement their diet with berries. They readily eat the berries of invasive plants and spread the seeds in their droppings. In this way, Bluebirds can help foreign plants conquer a habitat. They can even contribute to the decline of their own population. Bluebirds raise their young on insects, which they pluck from native plants. But invasive plants support few insects. When invaders take over, habitats lose the high insect densities needed to sustain Bluebird populations.
Why could the Bluebirds be thriving in a meadow overrun with invasives? I wondered about this as I continued along the trail. I reached the woods that bordered the meadow on its eastern edge. Here I found a few invasives — barberries, autumn olives, Japanese stiltgrass. But the natives clearly outnumbered them. There were white pines, oaks, red maples, and cucumber trees in the canopy, and flowering dogwoods, striped maples, and spicebushes in the understory. This edge habitat was largely intact. It too was a part of this unfolding story of the meadow and a possible answer for why the Bluebirds were thriving here.
The Great Blue Heron was tall and grayish-blue. It walked with slow, deliberate steps along the water’s edge between the Civil Engineering Lodge and the lakeshore cabin where I was staying. Its long neck was folded in close to its body. It lifted one muddy foot above the water, curled its toes, swiveled its leg forward, uncurled the toes, and planted its foot in the muck. Step by step, quietly through the reeds, barely disturbing the water.
I sat on the porch of my cabin, sipping hot coffee and watching the heron pick its way along the shore. My husband Rick had joined me at the lake this morning so he could squeeze in a quick paddle before work. Although his kayak was out of sight around the bend, I could see its ripples fanning out across the glassy surface. The sky was clear, marked only by the contrail of a passing plane.
I watched as the heron stretched its long neck over the lily pads and stood still, inspecting the water. It stared and stared and then — crack! A lunge and a plunge of the head. The heron came up empty, shook its head to fling off drops of water, and resumed its slow, steady march.
When Rick returned to shore, we said goodbye, and he headed to work. Then I slipped the kayak into the water and paddled slowly toward the heron. I watched the bird through my binoculars. I could see its yellow eye watching me. I realized I had drifted in too close, and I back-paddled quietly. With more distance between us, the heron resumed its slow, stalking march.
I watched the heron for about an hour. In that span of time, the bird had surveyed half of the small cove between the lodge and the cabin. Finally, I decided it was time to paddle away when the heron froze. Its neck stretched out long and long. Its eyes watched the water. Then it lunged clumsily, one wing open for balance. It emerged with a dark, dripping fish clamped in its beak.
Carrying its prey, neck curved in close, the heron strode businesslike onto the shore and behind a stand of cattails. Maybe it had decided this part wasn’t for me to see. Through the reedy screen, I could just make out the heron bending its head low as it laid the fish on the ground.
I decided to leave the heron to its breakfast. I paddled along the northern shore of the lake and entered another cove. I let my kayak drift and trailed my fingers in the water. I could hear the flutter of small birds moving through bushes along the shore. A pair of mating dragonflies, two Ruby Meadowhawks with crimson bodies connected, hovered a few inches above the water. I watched as they landed on my bare arm. They were perfectly still for a moment, then lifted off.
I left the cove and paddled toward the boardwalk. The wind picked up. It scared away the stillness, rattled the trees, and sent showers of golden leaves onto the water. The wind kept pushing my kayak closer and closer toward the boardwalk. When I tried to turn the kayak, I came face to face with a painted turtle that was sunning itself on a log. The turtle’s tail was bobbing and a lily pad was plastered to its back. Clumsily, fighting the wind, I turned my kayak. The turtle craned its neck to watch the show. At last I had the kayak pointed toward the middle of the lake. But I had worn out my audience. The turtle crawled over the crest of the log and disappeared into the water.
Across the lake, I paddled. This time I was fighting the wind and my wrists ached. Drawing near the shore by my cabin, I stopped paddling and looked for the heron. I spied it walking on the grassy bank, just below the cabin. It had finished its slow survey of the cove and was crossing the grass at a brisk pace. It was headed for better fishing waters closer to the dam. I drifted until the heron passed out of sight around the bend. Then I brought the kayak to shore and headed indoors to find my own lunch.
The Lake Trail
In November, one month after my stay at the lakeshore cabin, I decided to retrace my steps along the Lake Trail. I had walked the trail often during my week at the cabin. Often I had completed the circuit twice in one day. But each time I had been intent on my destination, wherever I happened to be headed that day — the Sawmill Trail, or the Bluebird Meadow, or the Raptor Center. Later, as I was writing up my reflections, I realized the Lake Trail itself was missing. So, I pulled out my journal and poured a thermos of tea and returned to walk the Lake Trail again.
On the drive there I wondered how a month would have changed the trail, the views, the trees. I remembered the golden leaves of autumn and the sun shining on blue water. I remembered the sounds of birds: the warbling of White-Throated Sparrows, the see-ooo of Bluebirds. I remembered sitting one day on a bench at the boardwalk, pulling off my boots and socks, and feeling underfoot the warmth where the wood had soaked up the sun.
This day was colder, sharper. I parked in the Stone Valley lot. I zipped my coat to my chin and pulled a blaze orange ski cap over my ears. Except for a pickup truck in the lot, and one bundled couple walking beside Lake Perez, I had the place to myself. Under a gray sky, I set out along the Lake Trail toward the dam. The wind rattled oak leaves and stirred cattails near the shore. Dark water lapped against the bank.
When I reached the dam, I stopped and lifted my binoculars to peer at a flock of geese floating in the middle of the lake. But I didn’t linger; the wind was bitter. Soon I was across the dam and heading uphill, past bare trees draped with bittersweet vines.
At the top of the hill, where the woods met the road, I found a sign and read Mike Branch’s words: “To be on the trail is to be on a trip, a journey, an adventure.” I felt as if I were on a journey back in time, walking these woods again. I paused at the power line to take in the view: the gray lake, the green pines, the coppery oaks. I continued along as the path zigzagged up the hill. Black-Capped Chickadees flitted and whistled in the underbrush.
As I ambled along the spine of the hill, I thought back to these woods as they had been a month ago. Those woods carried the sweet smell of autumn, the rattle-tap of woodpeckers, and the cheery cheep of robins. These woods were quieter. I passed pine snags with branchless tops and thick, dusky bark. I passed living white pines that stood thin and tall. I could hear them creaking as they swayed in the wind.
I headed downhill, where the path was muddy and rains had swept leaves and twigs down the steep slope. At Hawk’s View Meadow, I took a short detour to the Troll Bridge, where beavers had built a pond. Pine needles, leaves, and twigs floated on the pond’s surface. Leafless shrubs and beaver-gnawed stumps rose out of gray water.
I passed by the Environmental Center, crossed the parking lot, and headed to the boardwalk. There I stopped and sat on the same bench where a month ago I had basked in the sun. This time the wind stung my cheeks. The clouds were breaking, and blue sky had appeared over the lake. The clouds glowed, lit underneath from the setting sun. The afternoon was growing old.
I followed the Lake Trail back to my car, and my thoughts turned to the warm fire that would greet me at home. I stopped to look over Lake Perez once more, and again I saw the geese. I counted three dozen of them. They all faced into the wind. And then all at once they billowed off the water. Splashing and honking, they flew higher and higher. They passed over the dam in broken V formation, circled back over the lake, then disappeared from sight. As I fumbled in my pocket for my car keys, I could still hear them honking.
The Raptor Center
On an overcast October morning, I climbed the stairs to the Klingsburg Aviary. A sleek, dark sculpture of a Passenger Pigeon roosted there. A sign explained that the giant pigeon, perched with its beak pointing skyward, was part of the Lost Bird Project, which immortalized five extinct North American birds.
With extinction echoing in my thoughts, I crossed the space to the aviary entrance. There I found another figure and another grim reminder. This figure was a wooden vulture. Its wings were spread six feet wide, reminding visitors to stay “one ‘Turkey Vulture’ apart at all times.” This was a safety measure to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. It was also a reminder that all of us were still grinding our way through a terrible pandemic.
But those somber thoughts faded away when I stepped inside the Aviary, into a world of birds. From one side of the entrance, a Golden Eagle watched me. It wore a punk-like sprout of feathers on its head. Its beak bore a frightening hook. Across the entrance, a Bald Eagle cleaned its feathers with a liquid movement, then it fixed me with its black eyes. I looked away, trying — as a sign advised — not to stare. The Bald Eagle gave a chirping cry. The Golden Eagle answered with a series of puppy-like yips.
The Aviary was home to raptors — owls, eagles, hawks, vultures — as well as the newest resident, a crow. The birds are all permanent residents, unable to survive in the wild. I walked around and basked in their presence. Most of the owls were asleep, including two Barred Owls, striped and round, their closed eyes dark slits. A Great Horned Owl slept like an old man, head nodding down… down… down…. Then it smacked its beak and lifted its head without waking, and started nodding all over again. A Peregrine Falcon was perched with its back to me, but when I approached, it turned and fixed me with its fearless gaze.
After looping through the aviary, I head back downhill, past the giant Passenger Pigeon, into the Environmental Center. There I hoped to find someone who could tell me more about these birds. A new staff member, Alex Suleski, accompanied me back up the hill. As we walked around the Aviary, he told me each bird’s name and a little of its story. I learned that Rosalie, the Bald Eagle, had fallen out of a nest and was being rehabilitated for possible release. But then tests showed she had contracted West Nile Virus. The virus had caused her tail feathers to grow in misshapen, giving her poor flight control. Tussey, the Golden Eagle, had hit a powerline as a youngster and was electrocuted. She sustained multiple injuries, including a crooked beak. She sometimes drops her food. Jerudi and Cook, the Barred Owls, were both partial amputees. Susquehanna, the Peregrine Falcon, had a damaged wing. So did Cere, the Great Horned Owl, the one that had been nodding off earlier.
Alex invited me to return in the afternoon and watch the trainers work with the birds. I showed up at three o’clock. A few other visitors were already strolling around and training was in session. Training, I learned, is essential for resident birds. It keeps them healthy by exercising their brains and ensuring that their muscles don’t atrophy. I watched as a trainer named Joe worked with the owls. He explained that owls are particularly difficult to train. This is partly because these nocturnal birds are focused on sound, which means they pay attention to entirely different stimuli than their trainers do. Joe told me about the time Cook, the Barred Owl, wouldn’t focus on his lesson. The trainer later realized that the bird had been listening to a bee in the wall.
What’s more, Joe said, owls are deliberate creatures. They will listen for a mouse and carefully commit to a spot before diving. This cautious nature makes them difficult to train. An owl will wait, unsure, when given a task. A trainer can easily grow impatient. But, as Joe told me, “It’s a big ask to get them to take chances.”
I watched as he coaxed Cosmo, a Barn Owl, to spin in a circle. Joe rewarded him with bits of rat. Another trainer offered Cere some quail. She flew to retrieve it, holding the food with her foot and surprising me by giving a squeak like a dog’s toy.
On a visit here in 2014, Hannah Inglesby had mused “about the intersection of people and wildlife” in this space. I am struck by that, too. I find myself thinking about how nearly all of these birds had been harmed by humans or human structures. They had been electrocuted, hit by cars, poisoned, shot. But that was just part of their story. They were here at the Aviary because people had rescued and rehabilitated them. They have remained healthy because trainers have worked with them repeatedly. And in turn, the birds have served as ambassadors for their species.
Not that long ago, raptors were reviled and persecuted — killed by farmers and hunted for sport. They were poisoned by pollutants in the environment. Their numbers had plummeted. Many species seemed to be headed the way of the Passenger Pigeon. But then people acted. They passed laws to protect birds of prey. They cleaned up the environment. They began captive breeding programs to replenish lost populations.
Places like the Aviary, with its ambassador birds, have continued that necessary work. Places like this build support for raptors among the general public. We are all, I think, healed and made a little more whole when we can stand face to face with wildness.
Rebecca E. Hirsch has written more than 80 books on science and nature for children. Her books include Plants Can’t Sit Still (Riverby Award for Excellence in Nature Writing) and Where Have All the Bees Gone? Pollinators in Crisis (one of Booklist’s Top 10 Books on the Environment & Sustainability for Youth). She holds degrees in the life sciences from the University of Massachusetts and the University of Wisconsin. She lives with her family in State College, just over the mountain from Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center.
For more information, visit Rebecca’s website.