The scent of research

I have utilized many of my senses during my research of Ferruginous Hawks: vision to identify the hawks as they appear from tiny pinpoints in the sky or perch cryptically on dirt mounds, sound to identify incoming adults as they scream their piteous cries as we approach their nests for monitoring, touch when grasping the hawk legs with enough power to restrain, but not enough to crush fragile bones (I also often experienced touch when the hawks touched me with their talons that sunk deep into the flesh of my hands).

During my first day banding chicks, I was immediately impressed by the smell of the Ferruginous Hawks and their nest. And I cannot say that I was smitten. It was putrid, with equal parts decay, ripe feces and an underlying oiliness. “That’s the smell of rotting ground squirrel guts mixed with excrement” my advisor informed me. I mentally retched.

My mantra during thatMelynda_1 first day Melynda_2was breathe through my mouth and let my fascination with the species over ride my protesting senses. Over the course of my field work, the Ferruginous Hawk aroma changed, or at least my perception of it did. As I worked with the nestlings (banding them and marking their downy heads and legs with color) and then the fledglings (when the chicks are as big as adults, with a few bristles of down sticking up through contour feathers, giving the impression of gawky teenagers with bad bedhead), I noticed I started appreciating the scent of these large prairie hawks. Their scent changed to a musky odour that was clean, earthy and sharp. I started to take pleasure in the redolent

Unwittingly, I became expert at detecting this scent, and once when opening a technicians field truck, I exclaimed in surprise “There’s been a Ferruginous Hawk in here!” The field tech assured me that she wasn’t hiding baby Ferruginous Hawks, but had retrieved a chick that had been accidentally force fledged (when a nestling decides to bail from the nest before it can fly ade  ptly). She had Melynda_3returned the chick to the nest and the gloves that she had been wearing were in the truck. I inhaled deeply.

Our sense of smell is a powerful evoker of memories and conjurer of emotions.   To me, the thought of Ferruginous Hawk scent will always be linked with expansive prairies, endless driving of questionable range roads in relentless search of radio-telemetered hawks, and the elation of watching young Ferruginous Hawks, who have survived the risky period post-fledging period, finding their coordination and soaring strongly, yet effortlessly, on thermals as they prepare to begin their first migration south.

Written by Melynda Johnson

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