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|June 19-26, 2008
Raptor rehabilitation centers face weather and disease to offer birds of prey a second chance at freedom
by Dana Logan
Pulling into the parking area of what looks like a warehouse, you’d never know that inside there are sick and injured raptors working toward a second chance at freedom. As I step inside, I am greeted by Bob Francella, the director of public support for the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program (RMRP). He leads me strait to the critical care unit, the first stop on a sick bird’s path to recovery.
And recovery is, of course, why they’re at the Fort Collins treatment center.
“The goal is rehabilitation and release,” Francella explains. “There are a number of birds that just don’t survive the first two hours.
And no one could save them. Of the ones that survive 72 hours, we release more than 70 percent. And about 5 percent go on to be educational ambassadors — those are permanently injured, non-releasable. But we’d never keep a releasable bird in our program. That’s our philosophy. Because we believe a life in the wild is better than a life in captivity.”
But sometimes a life in the wild can be dangerous. The violent storms that ripped through Weld and Larimer counties on May 22 are proof of that. Those storms, and others in the region, landed 32 raptors in the RMRP — 24 of whom are baby birds that found themselves orphaned or abandoned as a result of the powerful tempests.
The critical care unit is nearly full of the feathered victims of the storm when we walk in. With so many large birds, I expect loud squawking and carrying on, but the sterile white room is surprisingly quiet. The cages are draped in sheets to provide a dark, calming space in which the birds can recover.
“We try to minimize the noise in here. Keep everything quiet. Keep this kind of a healing environment,” says Francella.
As he pulls back the sheet and opens the cage door, ever so slightly, two great horned owlets puff up. Francella explains that they are striking a very defensive pose.
“Now, this is a good sign,” he says, pointing to one of the orphaned owls. “This one’s eye is open today. His eye wasn’t open yesterday. See the left eye, how the pupil is smaller. Now that eye was damaged — has an ulcer on it. We think that was damaged during the storm.”
Despite his injury, the bird is remarkably beautiful and gazes at me with its bright yellow, perfect-circle eyes. A sense of awe washes over me.
“Aren’t they cool?” Francella asks, noticing my admiration for the creatures. “They’re still a little downy, but they’re growing in quite a number of adult feathers. But when they first came in, they were little puffballs. They’ll be with us until they fledge. It’ll be another six months. And the babies — I mean, these are babies — they’re almost full grown, but they eat about three times the amount of the adults. So these guys will eat a half a pound a day. And they weigh like, two and a half or three pounds.”
As in the wild, the raptors at RMRP eat mice and rats. And a lot of them. The babies eat roughly eight mice in a day, which contributes to the financial burden of keeping RMRP in operation. Francella says that if the RMRP has to pay for them, mice cost about $1.50 a piece.
And while they do have some mice that they raise on site, the supply is hardly enough to keep all the raptors well fed — especially since the live mice are necessary for the birds that are about to be released to prove their hunting skills. So in addition to the mice and rats, the raptors at the center are also given meat that’s been donated from hunters or other sources of food that are either donated or that RMRP has to buy.
Like any nonprofit, money is one of the biggest struggles for RMRP. Donations and volunteers are crucial for the success of the program and the recovery of the raptors — including the raptors that are currently recuperating from the recent stormy weather.
As he leads me toward the back of the critical care unit, Francella tells me about another unlucky bird.
“We also have a storm victim over here that’s a bald eagle. This guy came down from Gordon, Neb.,” he says.
The majestic bird is an adult with a humeral fracture — a broken wing. Francella explains that they thought he had a really poor prognosis at the time that he was admitted. But after surgery, the eagle seems to be working toward recovery.
With a 100,000-square-mile service area, RMRP sees birds from as far away as Green River, Wyo., Plateville, Colo., and many points in between.
“So, yeah, we get calls from all over. We travel 10 to 12 hours in one direction to pick up birds. We’ve gone as far as north central Nebraska.”
But when they get a call from a location south of Weld County, they usually ask that the good Samaritan on the phone give Sigrid Ueblacker a ring.
Ueblacker is the founder and executive director of the Birds of Prey Foundation, a program similarly devoted to rehabilitating and releasing injured raptors. The foundation is located in Broomfield and serves the Front Range, though Ueblacker says that she’s gotten birds from as far away as California and Alaska. Even if she’s at capacity, Ueblacker will find a place for a bird in need. “There is always room for one more,” Ueblacker says.
That philosophy is probably why she sees so many birds. As this article goes to press, the Birds of Prey Foundation is admitting its 10,000th raptor since Ueblacker became a licensed rehabilitator in 1981.
Since then, the Birds of Prey Foundation has grown into an organization that not only has resources for rehabilitating raptors — including a veterinarian, an intensive care unit, flight cages that provide plenty of room for exercise, and volunteers that make it all possible — but also has a rodent colony and a quail hatchery to provide food for the raptors that are taken in. Ueblacker explains that 95 percent of the food the raptors get is as fresh as if they’d caught it themselves. And providing that — and doing it humanely — is labor intensive as well.
“We have over 100 quail every week,” Ueblacker says. “And they have to be kept clean and all the feed animals have to be taken care of humanely, because I couldn’t live with myself if they lived in cages that were filthy dirty. Everybody has a right to dignity.
Whether it’s a tiny mouse or a mighty eagle, it doesn’t make any difference.”
But, of course, the organization focuses most of its energy on the birds.
The majority of the time, Ueblacker explains, raptors are admitted because of human-related reasons, whether intentional or unintentional. Collisions with cars, gunshot wounds, and flying into windows are among the causes of trauma that she sees. But lately, she too, has seen victims of not human interference, but weather-related trauma and displacement.
“We did get some birds from the outskirts from the tornado in Windsor,” she says. “We got a baby great horned owl that was blown out of the nest and turned out to be totally blind. We have a little red-tailed hawk. I do not even understand why he has no injuries.
He fell 40 feet from a nest and had nothing to break [his fall]. There was nothing there, and he seems to be doing fine.”
Ueblacker explains that with Colorado’s temperamental spring storms, she often sees an increase in admissions. Baby owls, especially, get blown out of the nest, she explains, because owls don’t build their own nests. Instead, they use somebody else’s, and it may not be in very good shape, making it more likely that a baby will fall out in high winds.
Back in Fort Collins, at the RMRP, as we leave the critical care room and head outside toward the other three enclosures, Francella explains that many of the calls that they get are a result of baby birds on the ground. But he also says that finding a bird on the ground does not necessarily mean that it’s injured.
“They’re on the ground, but that’s not that abnormal this time of year — because they’re fledging. They’re trying to fly. If the parents are around, he’s probably OK. If he’s still there in three days, that’s a different story,” he says. “Also, parents will try to get the children into other areas so they’re not all in the nest at the same time. So if they are picked off by other [predators], they don’t get them all. They just get one of the offspring instead of three or four. So, they’re pretty smart about that.”
Ueblacker says that this time of year, she gets between three and five phone calls a day just on American kestrels that are on the ground.
But just because it’s a common sight, doesn’t mean that if someone finds a baby raptor on the ground, they shouldn’t call. To the contrary, both Francella and Ueblacker agree that it’s better to call so that they can assess the situation over the phone and perhaps come get the bird if they determine that it is likely hurt or in danger. After all, that’s why they’re there: to help sick birds.
As Francella shows me the first of three beautiful, 100 percent volunteer-built wooden enclosures — each a stop on the raptors’ way back to the wild — I ask about RMRP’s experience with West Nile.
“The year 2003 was the worst. It was when we were in our old facility, and we had floor-to-ceiling pet carriers filled with raptors,” he says.
He goes on to explain that despite the treatments that they were administering, they would come in every day and find birds on the ground. But around that same time, Francella explains, they had been working on some procedures using homeopathic remedies. “What we were doing was not working, so what we started was a real extensive homeopathic regimen that was designed to boost their immune system. So what we found was, it was working and birds were not on the ground when we came in the next day. And so we started to standardize that treatment across all the different birds that were coming in. And we had the highest success rate in the country in terms of West Nile Virus. So, yeah, we were real pleased with the outcome,” he says.
Ueblacker’s experience was not so pleasing. She agrees that 2003 was horrible and relays a similar experience of running out of cages and having volunteers bring in kennel carriers in which to keep the sick birds. But she also says that many of the birds did respond to what she calls “supportive care” — peace and quiet, minimum handling, good, fresh food — and were able to recover and be released.
But her experience with West Nile didn’t end there. Last year, she explains, was as bad as 2003. In some ways, it was worse because of complications with a fungal disease called Aspergillosis. Most of the time, the disease affects the lungs. But because birds have air sacs throughout their bodies, the fungus can travel into the birds’ bones. Their immune system, explains Ueblacker, was already compromised from the West Nile Virus and then they contracted Aspergillosis.
“Last year, West Nile hit as hard — at least in Boulder County — as it did in 2003,” says Ueblacker, “but the recovery rate was lower because they contracted other things because their immune system was already depleted.”
These days, things seem to be improving, though. Francella says that the RMRP still sees West Nile occasionally.
“It’s not anywhere near like it was,” he says. “Almost every bird that comes in we believe has it, although we don’t test for it like we did back then. We’re not required to. So we just kind of work on building the birds’ immune systems anyway, as a general rule.”
And keeping these amazing creatures strong is crucial as disease, weather and loss of habitat threaten the future of the raptors that call Colorado home.
“There are so many places, so many habitats they are losing because of our expansions of housing and shopping centers,” Ueblacker says. “What we have, we really need to treasure and protect because otherwise we’re going to be like in Europe where you see more crows than any other bird.”
Ueblacker praises the county’s open space program for providing habitat where raptors can breed undisturbed — thanks in part to seasonal raptor closures.
“Those open spaces are precious because that’s all that the birds have left. And not only to birds, but to all wildlife. We cannot do without prairie dogs and cottontail rabbits and mice and voles if we want raptors,” she says. “We need to find the balance.”
And, whether in our own lives or the environment that surrounds us, finding balance is tough. But as I say goodbye to the incredible birds at the RMRP, I feel hopeful that there are places out there that are giving birds of prey a second chance at freedom. And by doing so, they are helping to restore the balance that nature requires.
Rocky Mountain Raptor Program: 970-484-7756
Raptor Emergency: 970-222-0322
720B E. Vine Dr. Fort Collins, CO
Mailing address: 2519 S. Shields Street #115 Fort Collins, CO 80526
Birds of Prey Foundation: 303-460-0674
2290 S. 104th St. Broomfield, CO 80020
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