We are saddened to announce the recent passing of Thistle, an ambassador American kestrel in the Wildlife Medical Clinic’s Ambassador Program. She passed away on Tuesday, October 17, 2023. Thistle was a well-known animal to the community and was enjoyed by all when she attended various outreach events throughout her time in our program. As a cornerstone of the Ambassador program, the loss of Thistle was difficult for the program’s many volunteers and faculty members. We are glad, however, to have cared for Thistle for the last eleven years.
In 2012, Thistle was admitted to the Wildlife Medical Clinic with an injury to her left eye. Unfortunately, there was not much that could be done to save the eye, so Thistle was given supportive care until the infection subsided and she recovered from the injury. Without this eye, Thistle’s future in the wild would not be successful as she would not have the proper depth perception to hunt and find prey. Luckily, Thistle was quite friendly and was not showing signs of aggression towards humans. This personality and amiability prompted clinic faculty at the time to keep Thistle at our facility as an ambassador animal. As she began to train with volunteers, it became clear that Thistle was very eager to participate in training and learn how to step onto a glove for educational purposes. Over the next year, Thistle began to feel comfortable in front of the community and grew to be a curious, attentive, well-versed ambassador.
During Thistle’s time in the program, she was able to lighten many lecture halls, birthday parties, conferences, and student activities around the University of Illinois campus and surrounding community. Many people knew her from across the room and were eager to learn about her and her species. Thistle happily participated in our educational events. She would show off characteristic behaviors of American kestrels, such as head and tail bobbing that can help us differentiate wild kestrels sitting on telephone lines from similarly sized pigeons. Thistle also allowed us to point out certain anatomy specific to falcons, like the tomial “tooth” notch on her upper beak. Thistle helped us to talk to people about our goals with rehabilitation – returning wildlife to the wild – and the strict requirements for those goals to be met.
American kestrels are not long-lived in the wild as most live less than 5 years, with a few individuals reported to have lived 10-14 years. In managed settings, these little falcons can live slightly longer. Our estimate is that Thistle was 12-13 years old. During the fall of 2022, she started showing signs of older age with some arthritis developing in her feet. She received frequent medical checks from the Wildlife Medical Clinic veterinarians and was put on a long-term, low-dose medication to manage her pain. Once her pain symptoms subsided, Thistle remained an active, curious ambassador. We were hoping to have a few more years with her but are so grateful for the time that we did have.
Thistle was infamous among volunteers for her piercing screams. These vocalizations came when she was excited, like when one of her favorite people entered her enclosure, but Thistle would also scream when she felt she was not getting the amount of attention she thought she deserved. Thistle sought out time with people – she would follow volunteers around as they cleaned, step on their shoes, and rarely had to be asked twice to step up on a glove for training sessions. She loved to go for walks outside with her trainers, especially if it was just slightly windy so her feathers would ruffle up. Some of our ambassador birds prefer to hang out near their trainers on perches during training sessions and educational programs, but Thistle invariably chose to stay on glove.
Thistle was an incredibly special bird. She changed the lives of many who worked with her and educated thousands of people over the years. Though she was small, she has left a huge hole in our hearts. We sincerely appreciate the community’s support as we take the time to grieve this loss.