By Jennifer Randell and Bree Dunham, CPN Eagle Aviary Managers
While many bears up north go into their dens as early as mid-December, Kchemko gises usually marks the first full month of bears being in their dens while hibernating through the long winter. Many cubs are born during this time as well. For us much further south in Oklahoma, extreme winter weather still hasn’t arrived, and its visit will be brief. Even with milder, shorter winters, we are still faced with challenges and changes that see some overlap from our previous territory up north.
Winter, for all of us, is a time of rest and recharging before life reawakens during mnokme (spring). While in their dens, bears live off the fat reserves they worked so hard to acquire over the late summer and fall. We as Potawatomi traditionally survived the season as a result of the work put in to harvest menomen (wild rice), and dry mdamen (corn), kojesek (beans) and even kwesmen (winter squash), among other things, to support us when food became scarce. Even today, we stock up between storms and prepare to stay at home.
Hibernating mothers-to-be bears give birth in their dens, nurse their cubs and even clean up after the youngsters while they are “asleep” — something that many human mothers can probably relate to as well. Bears can actually heal injuries they may have sustained before turning into their dens for winter. Even here, we spend more time indoors and with our families, passing time with crafts and telling Nanabozho or Wiske stories, which we share only during this time of year while the earth and spirits are asleep.
Each season presents its unique set of challenges but prepares us for the next. Like the bear, we take this time, sheltering from the winter to rest, recharge and prepare for the arrival of mnokme.
Kchemko gises activities
During this time, many of our eagles are building nests, and the pairs that we have become more territorial and vocal while defending their space. Everyone’s appetite has increased. Many times, they forecast the weather better than our local meteorologists. They will often double their intake before a significant storm, much like they would in the wild so that they could sit through inclement weather to preserve energy when hunting would be difficult otherwise.
Summer months require more intensive cleaning and site work as well as a lot more time outdoors for site maintenance. Winter shifts toward observation and record keeping of our egg-laying pairs both here and nests in the wild. Nest studies include reviewing and comparing previous dates of nesting behaviors, egg laying and hopefully, hatching chicks.
Nest studies are ongoing, and locating Wadasé’s nest is something we hope to do this winter as well. We plan to expand our studies in the future to encompass a wider areas and greater number of species with the help of volunteers and create a database to study long-term trends. All raptors are considered indicator species, and their presence or absence can tell us a lot about the health of the environment. While we have only been cataloging that data since 2010, over time, that information will become a vital tool to help direct our conservation efforts in the future.
Since the daylight hours are shorter, we also use this time to bring glove-trained birds inside and work with them. It’s a great time to regroup and take stock of where we are with goals and projects and plan for the coming year so that we are ready when spring arrives. We have a small window to do large projects around the eagles. We have to get those completed before it gets too hot to prevent any undue stress on them.
Traversing weather and “baby proofing”
Being attentive to the weather is a year-round activity. We have to know when to install wind breaks and cover in the winter, the same as we need to know when to provide extra mist and shade for the summer heat. So, preparing for inclement weather and having the materials and items needed to winterize the enclosures during bad weather is one thing we are prepared to undertake.
Oklahoma is challenging during Kchemko gises because it may be 70 degrees today, and the next 24 hours might mean snow. Enclosures are inspected to ensure the structure is safe and in good repair. Snow and ice can add extra weight to netting and walls, and even cedar slats can weaken over time. So, everything is double-checked this time of year so that repairs, if needed, can be done in the milder weather. We may even add more perching in areas where the north wind is blocked to offer them shelter if they choose.
Kyla and Charlie’s enclosure will get one last extensive deep cleaning. We need to prepare her nest ring and “baby proof” the space, and perching needs to be adjusted just in case an egg hatches. Once Kyla lays eggs, we limit access to their enclosure because they become territorial, and any excessive disruption could cause her to break her eggs or injure an eaglet. We also gather excess nest material, like dried grass, pine boughs and cottonwood, while it is still abundant, even though she doesn’t typically lay until mid-February.
We must check tethered birds’ jesses and anklets, which are essential pieces of equipment for handling our education ambassadors. However, during Kchemko gises and throughout winter, leather can become dry and brittle and crack. We replace those that may be worn out, and all receive extra conditioning.
We also have a short window to work with and train any new education birds. This is a time to fly birds while the weather is mild, and we don’t have to worry about overheating them when we are outdoors. During winter months, we also supplement the eagles’ diets with vitamins as well as a variety of food. We provide them with live fish in the streams and deer meat a few times a month, which they don’t get during the rest of the year. It’s important to try and provide a well-rounded, whole food diet. Winter brings a lot of migrants into the state, and we typically receive an influx of calls for injured wildlife, especially during storms.
In the wild
While Kchemko gises is a time to take advantage cooler temperatures at the CPN Aviary, it serves as a key time for birds in the wild as well. Oklahoma is an important wintering area for migrating raptors, consistently ranking among the top 10 states for numbers of bald eagles. By this time, thousands of eagles have migrated south from their nesting range and take up residence wherever they encounter open water and plentiful food. An abundance of lakes and rivers and milder winter temperatures make Oklahoma a great place for many to stop. The bald eagles that nest here will have laid their eggs during Kchemko gises and are well into incubation. Mid-February is the latest date recorded for bald eagle eggs laid in Oklahoma. Wintering raptors, from Red-tailed hawks to American Kestrels, can be seen hunting in open fields and sitting on power poles and highline wires. Owls will begin courting and will lay in late winter. Smaller raptors, like Red-tailed hawks and most other hawks, will begin courting in Kchemko gises but won’t lay eggs until early spring.
Just like many others begin each new year by setting intentions and goals, the CPN Eagle Aviary staff do the same. We hope to complete the site work at the aviary grounds that will enclose the area and create a courtyard where the temporary aviary house used to be. This will allow us to share other residents with the public and offer a space to move eagles into different spaces and begin limited rehab. We are also working to plant trees to create noise breaks along the property that will help compensate for the loss of trees due to the widening of Hardesty Road. Another goal we have is to complete the training of another education ambassador so that we can get back out into the schools and share about our culture and wildlife conservation. With a little luck and good energy, we also hope to have another eaglet to release here. We are prepared and hope to have the opportunity to place telemetry and begin monitoring another eaglet. The dream goal would be locating Wadasé’s nest and placing telemetry on one of her fledglings.