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Vultures, snakes and mice dine for show at Piney Run Park SOUTHEAST -- Sykesville * Eldersburg * Gamber


Mice like dog biscuits. Snakes go fishing, and toads have bony bumpers.

These facts were gleaned at Piney Run Park during a "watch the animals eat" program. Naturalist Elaine Schweitzer makes what could be a mundane chore into a delightful adventure for her audience.

It was hard to tell who was more eager for the fun to begin, the children or the animals waiting for their dinner. To the cries of "He looks COOL!" from the Cub Scouts, Ms. Schweitzer tossed the small snapping turtle an earthworm.

"He's going to eat him right down -- gulp, gulp, gulp -- he's got such a strong mouth that he's going to suck him right in," said Ms. Schweitzer.

He did, too.

"Whoa!" said Ms. Schweitzer, "just look at him go! All he's got now is a little cigar. That's the end of that worm!"

Moving on from the happy turtle, Ms. Schweitzer delivered goldfish to the milk snakes, a dog biscuit to the mice, and a mouse to the black rat snake.

The toad was nowhere to be seen.

Ms. Schweitzer searched the toad's aquarium, delivering a non-stop account of the animal's feeding and other habits. The children pressed close to the glass, determined to be the first to spot the missing toad.

"Maybe a snake snuck in and ate him," suggested a child, anxiously.

"No," said Ms. Schweitzer. "We don't have any sneaky snakes. He just knows that it's fall and he's buried himself. We're going to wake him up and tell him it's time to eat."

She quickly dug up the toad and showed him his worm. The toad wouldn't eat it.

Undaunted, Ms. Schweitzer scooped him up and brought him forth for some hands-on learning.

Toads have bony derrieres, she explained, because they use the rear end to dig themselves into the dirt in the fall. The toads can survive the winter deep in the soil because only the surface freezes, and they wiggle out again in the spring.

The toad continued to refuse his worm, despite Ms. Schweitzer's vow to feed him whether he wanted to eat or not.

The children didn't seem to care whether he ate, as long as they had a chance to hold him and feel his bumpy skin.

Next out was the hog-nosed snake, who wiggled and slithered on cue.

"Don't ever wave your fingers in a snake's face," warned Ms. Schweitzer. "They might decide to taste one."

No one waved any fingers, and all the children held the snake. Their parents refrained, smiling ruefully as the kids argued about who had held the snake too long.

The milk snakes enjoyed their goldfish, weaving as though mesmerized by a swami as they targeted their prey. Striking quickly once they made their choice, they proceeded to swallow the fish in a succession of large gulps.

The grand finale was the feeding of the raptors, or birds of prey.

The group left the center and walked to the newly constructed cages to view the birds. The crowd pressed close to the vultures' cage, then drew back as the wind changed.

"Vultures like really stinky food," Ms. Schweitzer explained. "They eat the dead things, like squirrels that have been hit by a car."

She added that it's a poor idea to get too close to a vulture anyway, as they have a tendency to vomit when frightened, with very nasty consequences to the unwary.

The vultures are two of the four raptors that recently established their home at Piney Run Park.

"These birds are from the Chesapeake Wildlife Center," said Ms. Schweitzer, "and all of them were hurt. Most of them have broken wings, but one of the barn owls is blind."

The wildlife center normally returns the animals it heals to their natural habitat, but makes exceptions, as it did for these vultures and barn owls, for those that could not survive in the wild because of their injuries.

The new birds aren't used to people yet, Ms. Schweitzer explained, so they're shy.

Not so Mr. Hoots, the great horned owl who has resided at Piney Run for several years.

"Mr. Hoots sometimes talks to us," Ms. Schweitzer said, hooting hopefully at the owl. Mr. Hoots didn't respond, but he watched closely, turning his head virtually in a circle to keep track of the crowd.

Sadie Hawkins, a red-shouldered hawk, is another "old timer" in the collection of injured birds. She shares a cage with Tomahawk, a red-tailed hawk. Sadie is a true performer. She caught meat Ms. Schweitzer tossed to her without moving from her perch. Better than some baseball players, she never even moved for a bad pitch.

"Tom [Tomahawk] just won't play the game," Ms. Schweitzer said sadly, in response to a query about his participation. He just tears into his food -- literally.

What did the audience like best?

Webelos Cub Scouts John Dunn, David Unglesbee and Lenny Yagatich thought the copperhead snake was "cool." Fellow scouts Greg Kohr, Jason Vaszil and Doug Helm liked Sadie Hawkins' performance, but agreed that the shakes were great.

Michelle Clementi, who is 4, thought holding the hog-nosed snake was the best. "The tongue tickled me and it felt funny," she reported.

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