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Falconer, fowl become fast friends

Placerita Canyon Nature Center falconer, vulture enjoy their celebrity

Posted: March 11, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Updated: March 11, 2013 2:00 a.m.

Park Animal Keeper Dave Stives and 10-year-old female turkey vulture Apollo at Placerita Canyon Nature Center on Thursday. (Dan Watson/The Signal)

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Animal keeper David Stives wears his heart on his sleeve, and his heart belongs to Apollo — a five-pound turkey vulture.

On a drizzly day at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center last week, as she sat quietly perched on Stives’ arm tethered to his wrist, he reflected on a compelling seven-year relationship between man and bird.

As he talked, he turned his head to look at her, and she turned her head as if listening. Beak faced lips.

Stives and his unlikely feathered friend became celebrities of a sort recently when Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky posted a video of the pair on his website.

Thousands visited the website to learn about the silent, massive and mysterious bird with the six-foot wing span. Some TV news vans flocked to the center for the story.

Apollo is all a-flutter with her sudden celebrity status, Stives says.

“She likes the attention,” he adds with a smile.

Nearly killed

Seven years ago, on an isolated highway in Virginia, Apollo was doing what vultures do best — eating roadkill. She was hit by a vehicle and almost killed, Stives said.

Animal caregivers nursed her back to life. One of them named her Apollo, and the name stuck.

Due to injuries, Apollo would never fly again. The crash shattered bones in her wings and left her with irreparable tendon damage, Stives said. When the healing was complete, there were no hollow bone joints left by which to anchor the tendons required for flying.

“And, even if it could be repaired, she wouldn’t able to handle the anesthesia it would take for the surgery,” Stives said.

The crash bound Apollo to the ground. She found a home, however, at an educational facility in Virginia.

She was transferred to a similar facility in California, but when that firm went out of business, officials with the Placerita Nature Center stepped up to adopt her. After all, the turkey vulture is California’s second-biggest bird, behind only the California condor.

When she came to the Santa Clarita Valley, Apollo found Dave, climbed onto his arm and has stuck with her human friend ever since.

Master falconer

David Stives is a master falconer, practicing the ancient art of training hawks to come and go from a leather-protected forearm.

As a nature area animal keeper for the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation, he starts work at Placerita Canyon at 5:30 a.m. every work day. He has a lot of animals to attend to and visits them all daily at seven county parks.

Closest to his heart, however, is Apollo.

When other center workers feed her, Apollo cowers if she does not know them. She remains attached to Stives.

“There are only two or three people we have for backup (care giving) who she accepts,” Stives said.

“They can sense a person,” he said. “They get a vibe and they know if the person is going to hurt them.”

Myths disspelled

One of the myths Stives likes to dispel about turkey vultures is that they eat only rancid, decaying meat.

Apollo eats one-and-a-half dead rats — fresh, not rotten meat — every day on average. Her diet includes rabbits and squirrels and is augmented by multi-vitamins pushed into the meat, Stives said.

Before her life-altering accident, Apollo would join a group — called a “kettle” — of vultures soaring 1,000 feet above the ground, sniffing out methane emitted from decomposing flesh.

The hollowed-out portions on top of her nose equip her with super-sniffing abilities.

She would descend on an animal’s carcass with other turkey vultures and begin sharing in the feast as a “safety in numbers” way of protection.

Turkey vultures have no voice box and make no sound. They communicate with body language.

“Those old Westerns where you see the vultures circling in the sky and they do that sound,” Stives said, making a soft whistling sound with his teeth, “that’s the sound of a red-tailed hawk. Vultures don’t make a sound.”


Once turkey vultures start feeding, they gulp down food quickly and store it in their “crop” — a thin-walled, expanded portion of the bird’s throat used for the storage of food prior to digestion.

“They have to eat really fast when they’re on the ground,” Stives says. “They eat as much as they can, filling their crop, because a coyote or bobcat or domestic dog could attack them.

“They have a defense mechanism,” Stives says. “They will actually regurgitate all the undigested food — and that smells very, very terrible — so that when a dog gets close, it would just go ‘Whoa’ and leave.”

Has Stives smelled that defensive scent?

“It’s been on me,” he said. “It’s very intense.”

But it’s all part of being together, day after day.


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