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Episode 2: How Can Humans Help Wildlife Stay Safe?

Kids Ask Why
Kids Ask Why
Episode 2: How Can Humans Help Wildlife Stay Safe?

Kelly School

This season’s podcast follows Mrs. Lowenfel’s 4th and 5th Grade Class at Kelly School in Teton County Wyoming. The kids had many questions for our experts and lots to share about the American West. This episode features Scarlett Fessler, Easton Burcham, Peter Mayer, and Ella Eggers.

Arthur Middleton

Arthur Middleton is a wildlife ecologist who is currently an associate professor of wildlife management and policy at UC Berkeley. Arthur and his students study the effects of environmental changes on wide-ranging wildlife, with emphasis on helping find solutions to habitat loss and human-wildlife conflict. They have active field projects in the Northern Rocky mountains, including Wyoming, and in the Southern Andes. Arthur is currently serving as a Senior Advisor for Wildlife Conservation at the US Department of Agriculture.

Melissa Hill

While earning her Bachelor’s Degree in Wildlife Management at the University of Wyoming, Melissa began volunteering at Laramie Raptor Refuge and was instantly hooked on birds of prey. She is now the Live Raptor Program Manager for the Draper Museum Raptor Experience, which she helped create in 2011. Since those early days in college, she has worked with nearly 70 different raptors at four different raptor education organizations. 

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What is the biggest and smallest bird that you have? 

Why, why, why, why, why? 

What animal’s most likely to get hurt during migration?

Why, why, why, why?

Welcome to the Kids Ask WhY podcast, where kids ask the question. 

Kids Ask WhY is a production by Wyoming Public Media and the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. 

This season this podcast is following my fourth and fifth grade class from the Kelly School in Teton County, Wyoming. We have lots of questions and lots to share about the American West. 

We have been learning about human impacts to wildlife in our class. Sometimes people hurt wildlife, but we can also help wildlife, too. In this episode, we’re learning more about humans and animals in Wyoming. 

ELLA EGGERS: My name is Ella. I am nine, almost 10. I’m in fourth grade, and I live in Kelly, Wyoming. 

PETER MAYER: I’m Peter, and I’m 10 years old. I’m in fifth grade and I live in Kelly, Wyoming. 

SCARLETT FESSLER: I’m Scarlett. I’m in fourth grade. I’m 10 years old. And I live in Jackson, Wyoming. 

EASTON BURCHAM: My name is Easton. I’m in fifth grade. And I’m 11. And I live in Jackson, Wyoming. 

EASTON: Today we’re talking to Arthur Middleton. He is a professor teaching wildlife management at University of California, Berkeley. 

SCARLETT: We have questions about animal migration for him, because we understood that he does research about deer, elk, and other animal migration in Wyoming. 

EASTON: I was wondering, what is the safest path for animal migration? Like, what way can it be? What does it have to have to be safe?

ARTHUR MIDDLETON: The thing about migration is it’s just not safe to begin with, right? It’s like it’s something that these animals are doing because it’s so important for them to get to where they need to go to get the food, you know, up in the high country, that they need to be able to nurse their, you know, calves and their fawns, and also to be able to get fat to survive the next winter. And so they’re willing to do things that aren’t safe if they can get, you know, to where they can get that good food. And so that’s, along their migrations, they’re trying to be as safe as they can. But if they have to take a risk, like I’ve seen elk, you know, going over, you know, 11,000-foot mountaintops and deep snow, where there’s grizzly bears that are hoping that they’ll get stuck in the snow and might make an easy meal, or elk and deer making river crossings that seem really dangerous. And so they’re willing to not be safe and to take those risks, because they’ve got their eye on the prize of getting to where that good food is.

SCARLETT: What animal’s most likely to get hurt during migration?

ARTHUR: One of the things that your question makes me think about is actually birds that I haven’t studied as much. Now, because of a lot of the things we’ve built—cities with tall skyscrapers, wind turbines—you know, out there, it’s important to build, you know, new ways of gathering energy, but sometimes they’re a barrier for animals, right? And birds are running into those. And that can be, you know, dangerous and cause some of them to die. And so people are trying to figure out, you know, how to reduce those dangers.

EASTON: What time usually do animals migrate?

Bull elk bugling in front of Administration building in Mammoth Hot Springs; Jim Peaco; October 2011; Catalog #18948d; Original #275I0441

ARTHUR: The time of year is one way I can answer that, and the time of day is another way I can answer that. And I’m going to try to do both. For the time of year, they’re migrating in the spring when that snow is coming off the mountains and there’s grass coming up where the snow used to be. And they could see it and they’re following it up the slopes and into the backcountry. And so that can happen at different times every year, right? I mean, you’ve probably noticed that how much snow there is and how quickly it melts is different between years. So, like with elk, we’ve seen that sometimes they might leave for migration in early May, and other years, there might be in early July, and everything in between. So it could be really different between years. Time of day is a really interesting one, because it seems pretty scattered, except, you know, it seems to be throughout the day and even the night, except with bull elk in some places in the fall. Do you have a guess what they might do? Since people are out hunting them?

EASTON: Probably go late in the middle of the night?

ARTHUR: That’s exactly right. I mean, we see when we have camera traps or collars, we can see sometimes the part of the population, like bull elk, or even sometimes the females, will travel at night. And we think that’s because that’s when they can stay the safest. Which goes back to your other question that you asked about the dangers of migration, people create some of the dangers.

SCARLETT: Have humans done any good things to help migration?

ARTHUR: You know, people have done both bad things and good things. And I think a lot of the bad things we did, there still are some, but the worst of them hopefully are in the past where we know we’ve lost a lot of migrations. And we’ve lost populations of migratory animals, because of all the habitat that we’ve taken away, and the barriers that we’ve put in the way, and sometimes over-hunting, you know, going back 100 years, or really back into history. So we’ve already lost some. And now we’re saying, “We still have so much, how can we protect it? And how can we make sure that you younger people, and your kids get to enjoy these into the future?” And there are good things, I think there’s a lot of good things people are doing now. I mean, one is they’re just starting to see how important this is and talk about it with each other. Then they’re saying, “How can we protect, you know, habitat? How could I—I’m a landowner, I’ve got land—how can I make a promise not to build too many more houses or too much else that’s going to get in the way of these animals using this habitat?” Or they’re saying, you know, “How could I change the way I have fences on my property?” Or, you know, the federal, the land managers on like, the Forest or the Bureau of Land Management are saying, “How can we change the fencing, or make sure that the grass isn’t, you know, so full of cheatgrass or other weeds that it’s not, you know, good to eat anymore?” And I could, I mean, go on and on. Like, you’ve probably seen, have you ever seen the overpasses that people are building? 


ARTHUR: To allow migrations to cross the roads? I think there’s a lot of those being designed and built right now, and there’s going to be more in the future. And so I think there’s a lot of exciting things going on. There’s also some Native American tribes that are reintroducing and restoring populations of bison, and maybe eventually being able to actually encourage their migrations again. So I could say so many things, but yeah, Scarlett, I think there’s a lot of exciting good things people are doing for migrations these days.

EASTON: Are overpasses or underpasses better?

Elk migrate to lower elevations in search of food. National Elk Refuge, Jackson Hole. Wyoming, USA

ARTHUR: You should really be asking the animals, because they’re the ones that have to decide, right? But it seems like different species will prefer sometimes overpasses or underpasses. And so like pronghorn seem more comfortable with an overpass, maybe because it, you know, that allows them to be able to see everything around them and not feel like they’re getting squeezed into a small space. And then, you know, deer might be okay with an underpass. You know, more than the other. So, what you need to do when you’re thinking about how to build a road crossing is talk to biologists who study those different animals that might use that and get their knowledge about what the behaviors are of those animals, and why that might point more to an overpass or an underpass or whatever.

SCARLETT: Can I do anything to help as a kid?

ARTHUR: Can you do anything to help as a kid? Yes, you can do I think lots of things. You could talk to grownups about what your opinions are. And if you think there might be things they could be doing, you know, to help wildlife, you should say that and ask questions about it and talk about it. You could just keep educating yourself, you know, as you grow up about the needs that wildlife have, and how you can help with those. Like you could keep asking that question, not just to me right now, but over the years. And you could, maybe you’ll be one of the next great biologists, you know, working on these kinds of questions. Or maybe Easton will, I mean, we need good, caring, thoughtful, smart, young people to come, you know, work in our field and bring new ideas and help us do better. I think, specifically, you know, there’s sometimes local groups doing days, like a weekend day, you could go out and help take down a fence that’s in the way of a wildlife migration.

PETER: Today, we are talking with Melissa Hill, who is the director of the Raptor Program of the Draper Natural History Museum. 

ELLA: We have lots of questions for her about raptors and how they’re harmed and helped by people. 

PETER: How many percent of the birds you get are lead poisoned or have something to do as lead?

MELISSA HILL: We don’t actually do rehabilitation here at the Center. So the birds that we take in, and we have 12 birds that live here permanently, so of our 12 birds, only one of them has been affected by lead, and it is probably what led him to being hit by a car.

ELLA: What’s the most common bird if there is one? 

Teasdale the great-horned owl

MELISSA: So realistically, depending on where you are, the most common bird that is injured is going to vary. So here in our area of Wyoming, the most common raptors that are going to end up at rehabilitation centers are probably going to be great horned owls and red-tailed hawks. And the reason that they’re going to be the most common ones that are seen, is they’re the most common raptors in the area. So because there’s so many great horned owls, there’s so many red-tailed hawks, there’s a higher chance that something might happen to them, that leads them to needing care. And also like if you just kind of look at programs like ours across the country, folks that use non releasable raptors to do education programs, pretty much every one of those programs is going to have a great horned owl and a red-tailed hawk, because they are found all over the country. They’re both really common birds everywhere.

ELLA: What is the most common injury?

MELISSA: So typically, you see things happen to their wings, anything can happen. I mean, we have we have two birds that have problems with vision, we have one bird that has a problem with his tail, but the rest of them all have had some kind of injury to a wing, whether… it’s usually that one of their wing bones breaks pretty badly and it doesn’t heal very well. Or another thing that we see is if they have a fracture or a break in that wing that’s near a joint. So if it’s near the elbow, or the wrist joint, those are a lot harder to get to heal really well so that they can regain full flight to go back into the wild.

ELLA: How do I birds get tamed enough so that they know not to attack, but not too much that they don’t go back into the wild and like know the skills?

MELISSA: Well, so the big thing on that one is, if they grow up in the wild, they are always going to know that they are a wild bird. And they’re always going to have that instinct to want to return to the wild. So for instance, with falconers, who often will will trap a bird in the wild and they’ll work with it. Every time they let that bird go to go hunting, there’s a good chance that bird won’t come back because they kind of have that option. So when you work with birds, what we try to do is we try to get them to understand that we’re the safe place, so we give them everything they want. So they get food, they get shelter, they have safety. And we try to make them as comfortable and as happy as we can, so that they know that where they live now is a much safer and a much easier place to live than it is in the wild. Now we wish our birds could go back into the wild, that would be the ultimate goal. But since they can’t, the best way to make them happy is to give them all of the things that they need, and to work slowly with them, to let them understand that we aren’t going to hurt them. If you have a bird that’s kind of a piggy and they love, love, love food, like falcons are really, really big pigs, they love food, you can win them over a lot faster than you can, say, a great horned owl, because if you’ve got the food, they’re gonna be happier with you.

PETER: What and how do you feed them?

Isham the red-tailed hawk with Melissa

MELISSA: Ah, so what and how do we feed them. So all of the birds that we take care of are members of the raptor family, and raptors are carnivores. And to keep them as happy and healthy as possible, we want to feed them as close to what they would get in the wild as we can. So because we have 12 birds, we have a lot of different dietary needs. Some birds would eat only other birds, some birds, like our bald eagle in the wild eats mostly fish. Our red-tailed hawk in the wild eats all kinds of things, birds, small rodents, reptiles. So it kind of varies on which animal we’re talking about. But we pick something that we can buy from a commercial facilities, and we feed them dead stuff. So even though not all raptors are going to be scavenging, so they don’t all want to eat things that are already dead when they find it, they do pretty well at eating that in captivity. So we order our food, we order lots of mice, rats, we get some chickens, rabbits, we get fish. And then we’ll also get quail, which is a little game bird. They all come shipped to us frozen. And then we figure out what we’re going to feed for the next day. We pull all that out of the freezer, we let it thaw overnight, and then we’ll feed the birds the next day. So nobody ever eats anything that’s alive. And the reason that we do that, because most of our birds do have wing problems, or they might have vision problems, and that means it’s just too hard for them to try to catch something without hurting themselves worse.

ELLA: How can we, just not the people in the Raptor Center, how can normal people help the raptors stay safe?

Salem the American kestrel

MELISSA: Excellent! There’s all kinds of things that folks can do to help not just raptors, but all kinds of wild animals. Raptors, a lot of time, just get a bad reputation. I’ve seen that change over the last 20 years, which is wonderful. People used to think that they were really problematic birds, they used to be shot or poisoned on purpose. Fortunately, nowadays, people understand why they’re really valuable, why they’re really important in the ecosystem, and they’re just out there trying to get rid of pest animals. I’d like to say they’re doing it for us, but they’re just doing it to save themselves, feed themselves. But things that we can do to help them—simple things like keeping our environment safe for them. So number one, let’s make sure that they still have habitat. So we can plant native plants for them. Make sure we’re not introducing invasive species, things like that. We can put up nest boxes for certain species. The little birds like American kestrels, or screech owls, they like to nest inside cavities. So if you have those kinds of birds that you see naturally in your area anyway, you can put up a nest box for them, and that will give them a safe place to raise their young if they choose to do so. And we can also make sure that their food is safe. And that might sound kind of weird, but things like not using pesticides. So if we go out we want to kill all those grasshoppers that are eating our plants, we might not remember that there are a lot of animals that eat those grasshoppers. And so if we poison the grasshoppers, anything that eats them is going to eat the poison, too. And other little things picking up garbage that you see, even if it’s not yours. Let’s keep the landscape nice and clean for them. If you’d like to walk along rivers or lakes, and you notice some fishing line laying about, pick it up. Lots of animals can get tangled up in things like fishing line. If you are a hunter, you can make sure you’re using safe ammunition, not just safe for birds, but safe for you, too. So we recommend using steel or copper ammunition instead of lead poisoning because as you mentioned, Peter, lead poisoning is a huge problem for those scavengers, so we can make sure we can get that out of their environment, too. And this is what I used to do all the time—when I was a kid, I’d be eating an apple in the car, and then I throw my car out the window because I thought, “Hey, at least there’s a mouse or a rabbit or somebody out there that will get a little extra food tonight.” But what I never thought of was I also am bringing them closer to the road, which is a bad thing. So if you do have anything that you need to throw out in your car, even if it’s organic stuff that might be okay for animals to eat, we want to dispose of it properly so it’s not drawing them closer to hazardous areas like roads or fences, because they can both be very very dangerous for lots and lots of wildlife.

EASTON: I learned migration isn’t safe in any way. What did you learn Scarlett?

SCARLETT: I learned that the animal that’s most likely to get killed during migration is elk. What did you learn Ella? 

ELLA: I learned that the most common injury is wing injuries for most raptors. 

ALL: That’s why we ask why!