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In The Country

Where the Wild Things Are

Ranger Jen Miller
Cunningham Falls State Park

(Feb, 2011) Most people have never looked directly into the large yellow eyes of a Great Horned Owl or heard its tell-tale warning hiss and beak clack! If we are observant and lucky, birds of prey may be seen from afar or in a flash of feathers that may leave one wondering," What was that?".

It is a fleeting gift to see a hawk perched alongside the road on a telephone pole; to know that wildness still exists among housing developments and speeding traffic.

There are also signs of literal and figurative collisions between the wild world and human beings. While most of these "collisions" end in tragedy, sometimes an opportunity is created. One such opportunity is a program created by the Maryland Park Service called Scales & Tales.

Scales & Tales was started in the 1980ís as an interpretative program that uses birds and reptiles to teach park visitors about important natural resource management topics of Maryland state lands and environmental issues. The Scales & Tales program has grown from a few creatures kept at a park ranger house to seven aviaries across the state of Maryland that house roughly 90 birds of prey and 150 reptiles. Aviary means house of birds and is typically composed of mews or enclosures and a general workspace. Aviaries are located at the following Maryland State Parks: Deep Creek Lake, Rocky Gap, Cunningham Falls, Soldierís Delight Natural Enforcement Area, Tuckahoe, Pocomoke River, and Assateague Island. The Aviaries at Deep Creek Lake, Rocky Gap, and Cunningham Falls are open to the public to view the birds in their mews year round.

All the Scales & Tales animals are unable to be released back into the wild due to injury or imprinting. Most of the birds have been hit by cars and are not able to fly well enough to hunt effectively. Injuries can be obvious like an amputated wing or hidden like head trauma. Imprinting usually occurs when a young bird comes into contact with a human being who provides them food. The mechanism behind imprinting is not fully understood but the effects are evident. Imprinted birds are typically aggressive and not able to secure natural food sources on their own. This makes being in the wild dangerous for them and for people. Whatever the reason for captivity, once the animal comes into the Scales & Tales program, it has a home for life. Park staff work diligently to provide all the necessary food, medication, housing, enrichment, and training to ensure that all the birds and reptiles have a healthy and stress-free existence. Financial support for the program comes from donations and funds generated through programming.

So while it is a rare thing to look into the eyes of Great Horned Owl such an opportunity does exists for visitors to Cunningham Falls State Park in Thurmont, Maryland. The Scales & Tales Aviary is located in the Manor Area of the park directly off of Rt. 15 South, across form the Catoctin Zoo. The outside of the Aviary is open to the public to view eight species of birds of prey free of charge. From the first of April to the end of October the daily hours for the aviary are 10am - 4pm. The animals are cared for every day year round and the gates are typically open throughout the day but call (301) 271-7574 to confirm that the aviary is open in the off season, November Ė April.

Turtles, such as a 50 pound common snapping turtle, are on display outside during the warm months. Scales & Tales programming, which is educational and fun for all ages, is offered year round.

The Scales & Tales animals all have stories to tell about how they came into live at the aviary. Over the next year, tales about individual creatures living at the Cunningham Falls State Park aviary will be shared in this publication each month. I hope that it will encourage readers and their families to visit Cunningham Falls and become familiar with their wild brethren.

When visiting the Aviary, the first birds you will notice are the Great Horned Owls. A male owl and female owl reside together in a mew at the front on the build. The male flew into a power line, which caused extensive damage to his right wing. The wing is now "frozen" in place. The female also has a wing damaged from an unknown cause and is unable to fly. All the animals living at the Aviary receive routine health checks by staff and veterinarians.

Both owls have been assessed for arthritis and pain responses at their injury sites and have been found to be pain-free with a good quality of life. Ramps and shelves have been constructed in the mew so that the owls can move freely around their enclosure. Great Horned Owls are very territorial and protective of their nests. This behavior carries over into captivity. The owls hiss and click their beaks to let their displeasure be known! A white patch located just beneath their beak is flashed as a warning to visitors. Great Horned Owls teach us that wildlife must to be respected. A flash of white often is a warning in nature that we are getting too close. Think of the white strips on a skunkís tail or the white tail of a deer before it runs to a more secluded space. Seeing a wild animal is exciting and special but it is important to keep a safe distance as to not frighten or upset the animal being observed.

Great Horned Owls begin mating and laying eggs in January. A great activity to get kids outside to experience the natural world is to go owling. The lack of foliage during the winter makes it much easier to spot an owl in the trees, especially an owl as large as a Great Horned Owl! Great Horned Owls are crepuscular, meaning they are most active during twilight hours. You can purchase a CD of owl sounds at to use to call in an owl or practice your own vocalizations with recorded Great Horned sounds at Great Horned Owls often nest in old crow nests or in the cavities of trees. Looks for owl pellets and droppings as clues to where owls may be nesting. What is an owl pellet? Look for the Scales & Tales article next month on Barred Owls for the answer! If you do not find owls on your first owling adventure, keep trying. Or visit the Aviary at Cunningham Falls, where the owls always are.

Read other articles by Ranger Jen Miller