The barred owl swiveled its head about, gripped Ranger John Wales' leather-gloved hand securely with its sharp talons and peered intently at his face.
"This is the first time I've ever held a bird of prey," said Ranger Wales, one of 17 students who learned to handle owls, falcons, hawks, ducks and snakes last week at the Maryland State Forest and Park Service's annual Ranger School at Elk Neck State Park in Cecil County.
Wildlife handling is but one aspect of the four-week training program, which the recruits and rangers seeking additional education will finish this week. Before Friday's graduation, they will have studied general administrative duties, public speaking, programming, and park operations and maintenance, said Daniel Spedden of the South Mountain Recreation Area. He is dean of the Ranger School.
Most of the rangers and trainees in the class represent parks and counties throughout Maryland. Two recruits already have been assigned to Gunpowder State Park on the Harford-Baltimore County border, another will go to Rocks State Park in northern Harford and yet another to Patapsco Valley State Park, which spreads from Carroll County south to Anne Arundel. Others will be assigned to parks in Western and Southern Maryland and on the Eastern Shore.
As Ranger Wales held the lushly feathered brown and white owl, it fidgeted before settling on his hand, occasionally reaching down to peck the glove with its fiercely hooked yellow beak.
"I wasn't sure exactly how tight he was going to grip," said Ranger Wales, who works in Delaware's Lums Pond State Park. "And he weighs more than I thought he would weigh. But it's real fascinating to be able to look at details that I wouldn't be able to see from a distance."
Watching the owl's eyes, it becomes clear that the bird is blind -- possibly it was struck by a car, the school's handlers said.
The owl never will be able to return to the wild. So, like the one-winged eagle and other injured creatures that have been taken in by park rangers, it is filling an environmental education role in the Scales and Tales program of the Maryland State Park Foundation and the Department of Natural Resources.
Last week, the owl was instrumental as the ranger trainees learned to handle such animals safely and to "interweave" environmental messages with natural history in nature talks, said Bill Trautman, founder of the Scales and Tales program.
"I love animals, and this is a great opportunity for me to handle them," said student Debbie Marsh of Allegany County.
The ranger training also covers accessibility issues. One day last week, the students were assigned to maneuver in wheelchairs through mulch, sand and gravel, and up and down ramps, to increase their awareness of the barriers disabled visitors may experience in a state park.
Bob Graham, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, estimated that at least 1 million of the Maryland state park system's 9 million annual visitors have some physical disability.
Trainee Brian Friend, destined to become a ranger at Rocks State Park, said he is looking forward to the opportunity to work with people, as well as animals.
"The more you work with the animals, the more comfortable you become," he said. "But you have to be careful to convey to the general public that they [the animals and birds in the parks] aren't pets. You can't name them and you don't pet them."
"The most important thing is the audience's safety, your safety and the animals' safety," added student Donnie Clime, a park ranger in Anne Arundel county. "You have to approach the birds with confidence. The red-tailed hawk was difficult to get out of the cage at first but . . . the longer it sat [on her hand], the more confidence it gave me."
Instructor Shelley Miller, a park naturalist, cautioned students to always hook the lead line to the handling glove to keep the birds secure.
"Never wave your hands about or they might make a snack of your fingers," she said. "Hold your hand high, or they'll march up your unprotected arm to a higher perch. And keep the birds facing the audience to avoid sprayed droppings.
"If the animal is agitated, aggravated or aggressive, put it away," she said. "Show people you respect the animal. Our whole goal is to teach respect."