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Bad-Ass Birds

An exhibit gives the rap on raptors


Published May 19, 2004 at 4:00 a.m.

"Hunters of the Sky," ECHO Center, Burlington. Through September 6.

Though I like to watch birds, I'm not the birding type -- I always get flummoxed by the focus dial on the binoculars. Until last Saturday, Jacques Perrin's 2001 film Winged Migration was the most satisfying look I'd had at birds. The in-the-air footage came dizzyingly close to my adolescent dreams of flying, and the "bird's-eye" cinematography brought customarily quicksilver specimens practically into my lap.

But Winged Migration focused on the social birds, the good neighbors of the nesting world, with scant mention of their predators. I knew little about the solitary birds of prey, and so, with a hot surge of curiosity, I checked out "Hunters of the Sky" in the exhibition room at ECHO, the Leahy Center for Lake Champlain. The traveling show from the Science Museum of Minnesota opened its doors -- or should I say wings? -- in Burlington last Friday.

Birds of prey, like big cats, exude both regality and savagery; the ECHO exhibit delivers on both counts. First off, the taxidermy is riveting. No decaying, cobwebbed, Bates-Motel-lobby fixtures here. Even in cases, the birds seem active: muscles tense under thick, glossy plumage, eyes glare fiercely through the glass. Even without the exhibit's educational component -- ECHO relentlessly pursues its acronymic mission to deliver Ecology, Culture, History and Opportunity at every show -- just going nose-to-beak with the specimens is entirely worthwhile.

Moreover, the birds' savage aspect is rarely understated. In 1784 Ben Franklin famously debunked the worthiness of the bald eagle as a national symbol, calling it a "bird of bad moral character" with a penchant for hijacking the meals of smaller birds. This exhibit makes no such judgments on foul habits. If anything, the occasional off-color tidbit enhances the birds' appeal. For example, turkey vultures, North American carrion-eaters, poop on their legs instead of sweating -- a process the scientific community calls "urohidrosis."

I found myself mesmerized by the turkey vulture display, where three birds hunker down on a bit of asphalt over some road kill. You have to squat a little -- or be about as tall as a 10-year-old -- to take in all the poignant little details in this case. The vultures dine on highway haute cuisine: a painstakingly stuffed opossum lying belly to the blacktop with the pink soles of its hind feet upturned in a piquant, vulnerable gesture. A young vulture tugs delicately on a shimmering bit of intestine while its elders look on.

Lest anyone forget that the birds on display are predators, many of them are accompanied by a little snack. A barred owl is mounted mid-gorge; its bear-claw beak digging into a small rodent's rear end. The tail of said rodent extends several tense inches from the owl's rapacious maw. The bird looks smug; his arrogant, glassy stare reminds me of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

A bit deeper in the exhibit, a bristling bald eagle hunkers jealously over a plastic fish. His talons are the size of my pinkie finger, his beak the approximate color and shape of a four-inch, extremely lethal banana. One case shows a peregrine falcon in flight, dropping on a wide-eyed pigeon -- in life, a falcon wallops its prey at 180 miles per hour. Smaller fowl often die at the moment of impact, but the falcon deals with larger prey by severing their spinal cords with its sharp, hooked beak.

There's a great and gory case of "leftovers" from raptors' meals: 10 savaged body parts from birds lower on the food chain. I found the gruesome display pathetic but somehow endearing. I especially enjoyed the strikingly abbreviated remains of such familiar fowl as the redheaded woodpecker, blue jay and red-winged blackbird. Most were heads, or barely recognizable parts of heads. The rose-breasted grosbeak must have been tasty -- only the beak remains. Each savaged remnant is posed alongside a photo of a whole bird. It's a bit creepy, like portraits of the deceased on tombstones.

A sharp-shinned hawk mounted on a bird feeder makes a point that the exhibit repeats in many places: that birds of prey and people live in the same modern world, sharing asphalt (where carrion feeders help themselves to highway hamburger), architecture (peregrine falcons have made skyscrapers their urban aeries), birdhouses, breeding boxes, bullets and DDT.

Though the exhibit offers assurance at the onset that no birds were killed for use in the show, humans nevertheless were often the architects of their demise, whether inadvertently (bird meets power line, bird meets automobile) or deliberately (poachers).

After an hour of rapturous rapport with the thickly feathered fowl, the fleshless specimens in the show are a bit shocking. One clean-picked skeleton demonstrates the sparse underlying structure of a peregrine falcon. It's like a shaved cat, or a parent glimpsed naked -- surprisingly small, and inexplicably deflating.