An American Kestrel named Ferrisburgh has found a new calling as an artist after an unexpected wing injury took away his ability to fly. The falcon led his first art class this fall at the Vermont Institute of Natural Science (VINS), a nature center and wildlife rehabilitation facility in Quechee, Vermont, where he is now an educational ambassador.
In exchange for a tasty mealworm snack, the bird ran across canvases with his feet covered in nontoxic paint, creating colorful tracks behind him as visitors watched. Meanwhile, wildlife educators told Ferrisburgh’s story to participants and shared what members of the public can do to help falcons in the wild, reports USA Today’s Camille Fine.
The painting kestrel found his way into human care about four years ago, after he landed on the head of a man walking outside near his home in Ferrisburgh, Vermont. The bird was loudly chattering, perhaps in search of food.
After this incident, the man brought the raptor to a local rehabilitator, who concluded the kestrel had likely imprinted on humans. This means that as a young bird, he bonded to people rather than to his own species. The condition prevents him from ever being released into the wild, so the rehabilitator wanted to place him with an educational organization. Ferrisburgh, named for the location where he was found, was transferred to VINS in the fall of 2019.
“We don’t really know a lot about his early life, but we can assume from his friendly behavior toward humans that he was raised by humans from a young age,” Anna Morris, director of on-site and outreach programs at VINS, tells Smithsonian magazine. “This is, of course, illegal in the United States. You can’t just take a wild bird as a pet.”
Roughly the size and shape of a mourning dove, American kestrels (Falco sparverius) are the smallest and most colorful falcon species in North America. The little birds have reddish-brown backs and tails, blue-gray heads (in the case of the males) and pale bellies with black spots. Two dark patches on the back of a kestrel’s head, known as ocelli (or “little eyes” in Latin), may help ward off predators or protect them from songbirds, which might defend their nests by dive-bombing, or “mobbing,” raptors.
At VINS, rescued kestrels and other raptors serve as bird ambassadors that help teach members of the public about their ecology and the plights they face in the wild. Ferrisburgh became one of these ambassadors years ago, but this summer, his career in education took a turn. In June, keepers found him on the ground in his enclosure with a fractured wing, reports the Washington Post’s Cathy Free. They still don’t know what caused the injury.
Ferrisburgh’s accident took away his ability to fly during educational demonstrations. Still, the institute staff wanted to keep him engaged after he healed, so they began thinking creatively about new activities for the bird.
While working at a different facility as a teen, VINS environmental educator Malerie Muratori trained a crow to paint by holding a paintbrush in its beak. (They aptly named the bird “Vincent van Crow.”) And another VINS educator, AmeriCorps member Lexie Smith, had also previously worked with birds that created art with paint and a canvas.
With these other avian artists in mind, the team wondered whether Ferrisburgh would be interested in painting. So, in an airy part of the VINS building, they spread out newspaper and some nontoxic paint, per the Post. Using hand signals the kestrel already knew, the team taught him to run through the paint in exchange for a snack. Ferrisburgh seemed to enjoy the experience—though Muratori and Morris admit he probably doesn’t recognize that he’s creating artwork. Mostly, they say, he’s focused on the food.
“He does have one of his little paintings up behind him in his living space so he can see the art he’s created. I just don’t think he understands the implications of it,” Muratori says, laughing, to Smithsonian magazine. “He’s certainly unaware that he’s an international superstar.”
Because captive animals don’t face the same challenges as their wild counterparts—such as escaping from predators, working for their food or having many sensory inputs from a changing environment—trainers need to create physical and mental experiences that keep them engaged, Allison Martin, the director of Kennesaw State University’s applied animal behavior lab, tells Smithsonian magazine. Art, she says, can be a good enrichment activity, even though it’s not necessarily a “natural” behavior.
Zoos across the United States have painting enrichment available for a variety of animals, including sea lions, elephants, giraffes and macaws.
“It’s a nice cognitive challenge for them to learn a new behavior,” Martin says. “They’re not going to encounter paint in their natural environment, but it is something that is stimulating, or could be, at least.”
But she says those working with animals should be mindful of the creatures’ needs and make sure they’re doing the activity correctly. Like Ferrisburgh, animals creating art should have a choice in whether they participate, she adds. Trainers should use positive reinforcement, such as rewards with a special treat, rather than aversive methods. They also should use nontoxic paint to keep the animals safe and monitor them closely for signs of stress.
Morris says the institute offers daily enrichment activities for all the ambassador birds. But the VINS team thought members of the public would enjoy seeing Ferrisburgh’s enrichment, too, so they held a family program called “Coloring with Kestrels” in September. Participants could watch Ferrisburgh paint while creating artwork alongside him and learning about the natural history of the species.
“Communicating science to people isn’t always an easy task, but art kind of speaks to everybody in its own way,” Muratori says. “People are there. They’re getting creative. They’re opening up those neurological pathways in their brains, and they’re also seeing a very adorable little kestrel also making art. And they’re becoming endeared to him, while also learning about his species and how this species right now is in decline.”
While kestrels are the most common of all falcons in North America, they are disappearing. The continent has lost an estimated two million kestrels since 1970—or about half the total population, as Chris McClure, executive vice president of science and conservation at The Peregrine Fund, tells Audubon magazine’s Jillian Mock. In the northeast, the birds have fared worse: There, kestrel numbers have dropped about 80 percent in the past 50 years, Muratori says.
Researchers aren’t sure exactly what’s behind the population decline, though some suspect it’s a combination of factors, including habitat loss and a drop in their insect food sources due to climate change and pesticides. Muratori says programs like “Coloring with Kestrels” give the institution an opportunity to talk to people about conservation actions they can take, such as building nesting boxes for the birds and not using pesticides on their properties.
In the future, VINS plans to hold a painting event twice a year, says Morris. And Muratori is already eyeing a resident raven that could prove to be a willing artist after he completes his educational ambassador training.
“The role of the birds here, as educators, is building connections and empathy… motivating people to make little changes in how they live their lives that have huge beneficial impacts on the natural world,” Morris says. “That’s what we’re all about.”