What’s the best way to get up close and personal with a Bald Eagle? At a raptor center, of course. The experience can be a little intimidating at first. Seen up close, Bald Eagles and other birds of prey are a lot bigger than you might think just by seeing them from afar. But that’s part of the mission of a raptor center: to dispel misconceptions, foster understanding, and encourage education.
What exactly is a raptor center? Think of it like a hospital, where injured, sick, or orphaned birds are brought to be healed, rehabilitated, and — hopefully — returned to the wild. Of course, birds of prey in need of care are also treated at most wildlife rehabilitation centers in North America, as well as by many independent rehabbers who care for wildlife out of their homes.
Raptors’ injuries often are the result of flying into power lines or some other obstacle. A 2018 study of raptors treated at an Alabama rehab center found that nocturnal species were more often involved in vehicle collisions than diurnal raptors and were admitted most commonly for head trauma. Diurnal birds were more frequently shot (either intentionally or by accident) than nocturnal raptors.
Poisoning is another major reason for birds of prey to be treated. Hawks that eat rodents that have consumed rodenticide can quickly become ill. And Bald Eagles and other scavenging species are susceptible to lead poisoning. In fact, a study of more than 270 eagles treated at four Iowa rehab centers over 11 years found that half the birds had clinical or subclinical levels of lead in their blood. Lead-affected eagles were more likely to die during rehabilitation or be euthanized, while those with no lead or lower levels were more likely to be released.
More attention for rehabbers
Depending on their location and the scope of their operation, raptor centers may treat anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand birds each year. For example, the Alaska Raptor Center in Sitka, Alaska, reports treating more than 200 birds annually. “The most common species we see in our clinic is the Bald Eagle, which makes sense since southeast Alaska is home to around half the population in North America,” says Executive Director Jennifer Cross. “Other raptor species we commonly see are Northern Goshawks and Western Screech-Owls. Non-raptor species we admit are ravens, crows, songbirds, swans, and woodpeckers.”
At the other end of the range, the Raptor Trust in Millington, New Jersey, reports treating around 6,000 birds each year, raptors and non-raptors alike. “We treat a wide variety of native birds,” says Education Director Shari Stern, “including many types of warblers, woodpeckers, thrush, ducks, heron, crows, gulls, wrens, sparrows, finches, and many, many more.”
Public awareness has led to a significant increase in the number of birds brought to the Vermont Institute of Natural Science Nature Center in Quechee, Vermont, according to Grae O’Toole, lead wildlife keeper at the facility’s Center for Wild Bird Rehabilitation. In 2017, the center cared for 466 birds, but by 2019, that number had grown to 705 and continues to increase. “I believe that we have been receiving more patients each year because wildlife rehabilitation has become more widely known with the help of social media,” she says. “By the end of 2020, we will intake up to 900 birds for the year, and I think that huge increase in birds is primarily due to the COVID pandemic and the fact that many people were at home working more or doing more outdoor activities, finding injured and orphaned wildlife.”
Birds that are successfully nursed back to health are released, but if a bird is too injured to survive on its own or has imprinted on humans, it may be kept for educational purposes — acting as an ambassador for its species. “It takes a very special bird and dedicated trainers to make the transition from wildlife to human care,” says Sidney Campbell, raptor program manager for the American Bald Eagle Foundation (ABEF) in Haines, Alaska. Not every bird, Campbell adds, is suited for that role. “These birds are trained to live on display and perform natural behaviors in front of guests. There is little more inspiring than experiencing the silent flight of an owl firsthand as he flies over your head or witnessing the speed of a falcon as they snatch a ball out of the air with ease. When our audiences connect with an animal, they become excited to be part of their success story.”
Seeing raptors up close
This, of course, begs another question: Just what is a raptor, exactly? Simply put, a raptor is a bird, often large, that hunts for its prey, typically using its feet. Raptors generally have similar physical and behavioral traits — like curved beaks, talons, and keen eyesight. Such species include eagles, hawks, falcons, owls, vultures, and Osprey.
Raptor centers, in turn, provide an important link between birds and people. Before COVID-19 canceled the entire 2020 Alaska cruise season, the American Bald Eagle Foundation was welcoming more than 20,000 visitors a year. “They [raptor centers] are a wonderful way to see wildlife up close, often species the average person may never see in the wild,” Campbell says. “Even very common species like Red-tailed Hawks can be difficult for people to truly appreciate until they meet an individual eye to eye. Raptor centers are a space for people from all walks of life to develop or reinforce a love for oft-misunderstood wild animals,” she says. “Raptors — and predators in general — often have a bit of a bad reputation because we are raised to fear rather than respect them.”
Raptor centers such as the ABEF aim to change that misconception. “Our educational objectives are to inspire and empower our guests with knowledge,” Campbell adds. “We inspire our guests with exciting programs and opportunities to meet birds up close. We empower them with easy conservation goals and tools they can incorporate into their everyday lives. Making a simple switch from rodenticides to alternative rodent extermination strategies has the potential to save hundreds of raptors from being poisoned each year. This is just one tool we can share with our guests to make a huge difference.”
Altogether, more than 140 raptor centers and other facilities that treat birds of prey are located throughout North America. The smallest may only engage in rescue operations. These are typically local organizations that individuals may call if they find an injured bird in need of medical attention; otherwise, they are not open to the public. The largest raptor centers may offer extensive visitor facilities, and usually they charge an admission fee. Some raptor centers may only provide private tours or programs by reservation. Raptor centers without visitor facilities may still host educational programs off site, such as in a classroom, library, or other public setting, like a state fair. In addition, many sponsor volunteer opportunities. And in the age of COVID-19, raptor centers are increasingly reaching out to the public through social media or online video presentations to create programs like virtual bird walks that augment their in-person offerings.
Raptor centers comprise a diverse range of entities, each with its own particular objective. The mission of the ABEF, for instance, is to preserve the Bald Eagle and its habitat. Some raptor centers may be associated with zoos, or they may be part of a well-known conservation group, such as the National Audubon Society or The Peregrine Fund. Universities, too, are part of the raptor rehab world: The Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center in Petersburg, Pennsylvania, is part of Pennsylvania State University (aka Penn State). By attracting people to its central Pennsylvania location — where people may see a variety of native raptors, including eagles, vultures, buzzards, falcons, and owls — the center acts as an extension of the university’s educational mission.
Engaging in conservation
“For Shaver’s Creek, it really boils down to connecting people to nature. It’s a message of coexistence with the natural world,” says Jason Beale, animal care program director. “It’s an opportunity for people to engage with the animals up close and maybe create a different narrative. It gives them an opportunity to engage in conservation in the local area.”
That local aspect is especially important to smaller raptor centers such as Millington’s Raptor Trust. “We’re hidden in northcentral New Jersey,” notes the Trust’s Shari Stern. “We get locals from all over New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. People come from all over the tri-state area to see the birds around here and to see the birds we have in our collection that are visible to the public.”
The facility houses around 50 birds — eagles, vultures, hawks, and owls — in large outdoor aviaries located along public walking trails. “We have a lot of local families that come frequently,” Stern adds.
Beyond the educational benefit you receive, visiting a raptor center is just plain fun, and the most elaborate have enough in the way of attractions to keep a family busy the entire day. At Vermont’s VINS Nature Center, visitors may see more than 40 birds ranging from eagles to falcons and owls. But live raptors are only the beginning: An immersive indoor forest simulates the sights and sounds of the surrounding woods. Outdoor nature trails wind through more than a mile of New England forest. A raised canopy walk gives visitors an elevated view up to 65 feet above the forest floor. Scavenger hunts, a nature-themed playground, and a dinosaur exhibit are among the attractions designed especially for children.
Of course, seeing Bald Eagles in the wild isn’t especially difficult thanks to the recovery of the species, but if you attend the annual Bald Eagle Festival in Haines, Alaska, you’re bound to encounter more eagles than anywhere else. The festival is timed to coincide with the yearly gathering of the eagles, which reaches a peak in November, when thousands of eagles congregate along the banks of the Chilkat River to feed on a late run of salmon. The highlight of the event is the eagle-release ceremony, using birds provided by Bird TLC of Anchorage. Festival attendees can bid to release a bird, opening the cage door and setting it free. It’s an incredibly moving sight to see.
This article was first published in the May/June 2021 issue of BirdWatching magazine.