About four years ago, the young male kestrel was brought to the bird rescue at the Vermont Institute of Natural Science in Quechee, Vt., after he was discovered in the nearby town of Ferrisburgh, a place known for its early art colonies, as well as being a stop on the Underground Railroad in the 1800s.
The bird had landed on the shoulder of an unsuspecting person who was out for a walk near his home. The kestrel was loud and chattering away as he perched on the man, and was probably looking to be fed, said Anna Morris, director of on-site and outreach programs at the institute.
“The person who brought him in rightly assumed that this was not normal behavior for a kestrel,” she said.
Morris and her colleagues figured that his willingness to approach humans was because he had been kept illegally in captivity. Vermont law requires a person have a permit, along with proper housing and equipment to keep a falcon.
Employees at the rescue center decided to name the kestrel Ferrisburgh after the town where he was found.
The raptor conducted himself as if he had imprinted on humans as a baby, Morris said, so the bird didn’t know how to behave in the wild, and probably wouldn’t survive there. Workers at the institute thought the kestrel would make an excellent educational flight ambassador.
For several years, Ferrisburgh’s keepers brought him out during field trips and classes so he could fly back and forth and people could get a close-up look at the smallest member of the falcon family.
They also used the little raptor to teach visitors how to help kestrels in the wild by avoiding pesticides and building kestrel nesting boxes to boost population numbers that have declined by about 50 percent since the 1970s.
In June, Ferrisburgh’s role at the bird rescue took a turn when he fractured one of his wings and could no longer fly. Mal Muratori, an environmental educator and family programs director at the institute, found the injured bird on the ground one morning in the kestrel’s enclosure, and said it was unclear how he became hurt.
A veterinarian determined that Ferrisburgh had an old fracture and a new fracture in his right wing, Muratori said, adding that the kestrel had metabolic bone disease probably caused by poor nutrition as a young bird.
“In the wild, 80 percent of Ferrisburgh’s diet would have been insects, supplemented with mice and small birds,” Muratori explained. “But if he was raised in captivity, we have no idea what he might have been fed. His bones were very brittle.”
The kestrel’s keepers wanted to keep him engaged with the public after his injury.
Lexie Smith, an AmeriCorps environmental educator at the institute, had recently watched a friend paint with a crow named Tuck in Tennessee. The crow painted with its beak, using a small sponge that had been dipped into paint. Before coming to the Vermont Institute of Natural Science, Muratori had also watched a crow paint with a brush.
They wondered if Ferrisburgh might also give painting a try as a form of stimulation and exercise.
“I thought it was a cute idea that could also help to educate people about kestrels,” said Smith, 22. “Ferrisburgh could no longer do what he used to do as an ambassador, but maybe he could do art instead.”
She and Muratori said they found an airy space in the building and put down some newspaper and sheets of white paper dabbed with nontoxic blue, teal and pink paint, then they brought Ferrisburgh out of his enclosure. They used hand signals that he recognized — two fingers tapping on a spot — to get him to run through the paint in exchange for his favorite snack of meal worms.
Soon the bird was running back and forth across the paper, leaving colorful tracks in exchange for treats, Smith said.
She and Muratori saw that Ferrisburgh seemed to enjoy running across paper and canvasses with paint on his talons, so they came up with the idea of having him lead a “Coloring With Kestrels” class.
More than a dozen people paid $10 and showed up for the first class last month, spending an evening coloring pictures with crayons or doing free-form paintings of Ferrisburgh as the raptor created his own art work at the front of the classroom.
Smith and Muratori placed 14 small white canvases next to each other in a square, then Ferrisburgh walked around through blue, yellow and fuchsia paint. His bright tracks were transferred to the canvas as he scurried around to get his meal worm treats.
“He took to it right away — he was a natural,” Smith said of Ferrisburgh’s class demonstration, which was first reported by USA Today. “Everyone in the class had a lot of fun painting and coloring artworks of Ferrisburgh while he made his own little paintings.”
While Ferrisburgh created his mini action painting, Smith and Muratori gave the class a lesson about kestrels. Another American kestrel, Westford, flew in and went back and forth between the instructors’ thick gloves as they talked about the importance of helping raptors in the wild.
“If you ever find a baby bird outside and you think it needs help, call a wildlife rehabilitator,” said Muratori, 24. “Don’t ever try to raise these birds alone, or they’ll end up like Ferrisburgh. He’s a little bird who think he’s a human.”
As Smith and Muratori figure out if Ferrisburgh is up for leading another class, they are looking into whether some of the institute’s other birds might enjoy making art.
“We’re thinking we’ll try to take up painting with some of them and see what happens,” Smith said, noting that staffers are now training a peregrine falcon named Hawaii to channel his inner artist in the same way as Ferrisburgh.
Instructors had previously tried creating art with one of their Harris’s hawks, but it didn’t work out.
“It was a failure — the hawk loves shredding paper,” Muratori said. “But there are all kinds of art mediums. Maybe we’ll have a poetry event next month and let the birds pick different words.”
Muratori said that could work for Ferrisburgh because he is a vocal and curious bird.
“I think he might also be a natural at that,” Smith added.