Raptor Research at VINS

One of the ways VINS motivates people to care about the environment is through research. Recently, Tufts grad student Jana Thomas came to VINS’ Wildlife Services Department to record data on raptors for her Master’s thesis. Below, she summarizes her project. In the photos, VINS intern Katie Christman (right) assists Thomas in handling our red-tailed hawks.

By Jana Thomas
Tufts graduate student

I’m working on a Masters project with veterinary medicine program at Tufts University, trying to improve the options available to us for pain management in birds. Our project investigates pain management from both the behavioral and the neurological angle, with a special focus on red-tailed hawks.

The behavioral component is what we came to VINS to work on. We are using a holistic model of testing that first looks at normal behavior and then at how that behavior changes in painful or non-painful states. This includes behaviors like grooming, normal motion, vocalization, etc. There are differences in what a normal behavior is between species: for some animals, being healthy and comfortable means being calm and not moving much, while for other animals, a healthy individual will be more active. In a crow, for example, you might expect a healthy bird to be curious and constantly in motion, while we think of healthy red-tailed hawks as being more tranquil. We need to quantify these behaviors, however, to actually have any grounds for investigation.

To obtain a control animal for normal behavior of birds in a non-painful state, I went to VINS. I spent two days there videotaping normal behavior of two resident red-tailed hawks. Because these red-tails experience human handling and changes in their environment on a regular basis, we would expect them to be relatively unstressed by these events. My video recordings therefore show the normal behavior of a healthy red-tail in captivity. We’ll compare this data from VINS to recordings of injured and recovering birds at the Tufts Wildlife Clinic, and are hoping to ultimately construct a system where we can use behavioral scoring to assess pain status. This would also allow us to quantify relief from pain, since effective pain management typically restores pain-related behaviors to normal behaviors. It’s an ambitious project and may not be completed this year, but we are grateful to VINS for letting us use their red-tails for our research!


  1. Hilke Breder on December 9, 2010 at 6:57 pm

    Interesting! Please keep us informed about the results of the study.

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