'Critters' is no mere piece of fluff


Many a parent has met a child at the door who says, "Look what I found!" and produces a bedraggled cat, a stray puppy or maybe even an injured sparrow.

When Luke and Hanna Stouffer came home one day, however, their foundlings were a pair of kestrel falcon chicks. And the saving, training and eventual return of the birds (also known as sparrow hawks) to the wild makes a sweetly instructive show on Maryland Public Television tonight.

The Stouffer kids are the children of Marty Stouffer, host of the PBS series "Wild America." In "Kids 'n' Critters" (at 8 o'clock), young viewers may learn a lot about the lives of wild raptors, as well as gain sensitivity in the ethics of wildlife preservation.

Early on, for example, we see a variety of young animals in the intimate photography that distinguishes "Wild America." Soon, as Luke, 4, and Hanna, 10, walk home from school in Aspen, Colo., they spy a Bambi-like fawn frolicking in the brush. The young boy wants to take it home.

"Dad says we can't take anything home unless we buy it," says Hanna, and Luke replies, "Let's buy it."

When they find the fuzzy falcon chicks nestled in a knothole of a fallen tree, they must decide whether to violate the rules. Seeing no sign of the parents and fearing predators will quickly capture the birds, the kids scoop them up.

"You know when they're big we have to let them loose," cautions Dad, after a call to a wildlife official gains permission to raise the wild birds to an age that they can survive.

Baltimore viewers may be reminded of prominent local coverage in recent years of employees at the USF&G; building downtown, who have tended the birth of endangered rare peregrine falcons in this unusual urban aerie.

We learn something of the ancient sport of falconry, too, as the Stouffer youngsters train the birds to fly to gloved hands in search of meat scraps. Initially, a spool of kite string is affixed to the birds' legs, but soon they are on their own, returning for the sure food supply the humans provide.

Stunning slow motion photography captures their graceful flights as they learn to capture their own prey, snagging butterflies from the air. The word "raptor" for all carnivorous birds actually means "to snatch or to seize, as with talons," narrator Stouffer notes.

The eventual release of the birds to the wild is touchingly shown. Further, while obviously saddened to be losing young friends, the youngsters seem to accept it as the right thing to do -- in spite of the knowledge which Stouffer supplies: that perhaps half of all young falcons in the wild never survive their first year.


On The Weekend Watch:

DREAMING -- Now several weeks into a spring run, "Nightmare Cafe" has proven a nice escapist hour (10 p.m. Friday, Channel 2). The series from director Wes Craven ("Nightmare on Elm Street") combines clever supernatural stories with a nice atmospheric touch, including an effective technique last week when flashback characters were in black-and-white while present-day figures were in color. This week's episode focuses on Frank (Jack Coleman). Trivia test: Has this actor seemed familiar but you just can't place him? He was Stephen, the gay son of Blake Carrington (John Forsythe) on "Dynasty."

WHERE IN THE WORLD? -- Who says youngsters do not learn their geography anymore? At least the competitors in the "Maryland State Geography Bee" make an exception to that notion. The annual competition takes place Friday in Annapolis, and Maryland Public Television will televise an hour's taped coverage at 8 p.m. Saturday (plus a 5 p.m. repeat on Monday), with host Mac McGarry.

WHO WILL WIN? -- Dueling film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert offer their annual predictions of winners in the Academy Awards (due Monday on ABC) with a one-hour special, "If We Picked the Winners" at 1 p.m. Saturday (Channel 13). A viewer poll is also part of this year's show.

THE SPORTS SCENE -- They are down to 16 teams in the NCAA Tournament, and CBS (Channel 11) has prime-time regional doubleheaders tonight and Friday, and doubleheaders Saturday and Sunday which begin in the afternoon. The 1992 World Championships in figure skating, from Oakland, Calif., are on NBC (Channel 2), including prime-time coverage Friday of the climactic men's long program routines and similar coverage Sunday of the ladies finals. And Channel 2 has pre-season Orioles action at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, with the Birds taking on the Toronto Blue Jays.

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