Owls, eagles, hawks, and other birds of prey have it rough in the modern world. They have to navigate electric wires, cars, and loss of habitat. A handful of volunteers in the Midwest take on the responsibility of nursing injured birds back to health… The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Brad Linder has the story of a wildlife rehabilitator in Pennsylvania:
Owls, eagles, hawks, and other birds of prey have it rough in the modern world. They have to navigate electric wires, cars, and loss of habitat. A handful of volunteers in the (Great Lakes region/Midwest) take on the responsibility of nursing injured birds back to health… The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Brad Linder has this story on a wildlife rehabilitator in Pennsylvania:
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Wendy Looker’s back yard serves as a temporary home for 120 birds, and a variety of other exotic animals. Walking into a sixteen foot cage, Looker opens a box and tries to convince the two small birds inside that it’s dinner time.
“These are fledgling kestrels and they’re just learning to catch food. So we’re tossing baby mice in there just to mimic movement, they’re eating mealworms and crickets, and other things they’re learning to catch.”
By working primarily to rehabilitate birds of prey, or raptors, Wendy Looker has become something of an expert in the region. With a bachelor’s degree in psychology, and some graduate work in animal behavior, Looker has spent most of her life working with animals.
“I worked in zoos for a number of years, and I particularly developed an affinity for owls. I guess I, for whatever reason identify with cranky animal that seem to be misunderstood by people. And I just figured at some point in time, maybe I’d dabble with research, and dabbling became 24-7.”
Ten years later, Rehabitat – a 40-thousand dollar a year non-profit organization, run out of Looker’s back yard – is going strong. Each year Looker and a handful of local volunteers help hundreds of birds recover from injury. It’s often dirty and difficult work for no pay, but Looker says she feels a responsibility to the birds.
“Very few of these animals come in as a result of a failure to thrive, a natural selection sort of a thing. It’s almost always human related, so I feel very strongly that they deserve the opportunity to be given a chance to get back out there.”
Looker says many of the birds brought to her have been hit by cars, have flown into glass windows, or have been caught up in discarded fishing line. But the number one cause of injury for birds is what she calls CBC, or caught by cat.
Even a minor cat bite can be lethal as bacteria infect the wound. Looker says keeping house cats in the house would eliminate countless bird injuries each year.
Feeding the birds at Rehabitat takes 6-thousand dead rodents every week, donated from a local research facility. Looker says in nature, or living in the back of a barn, birds of prey are effective mouse hunters. A single barn owl could save farmers thousands of dollars in crop damage.
“The average owl out in the wild eats about a thousand rodents a year himself, so they’re incredibly efficient and valuable in controlling the rodent population. Eating a thousand rodents, and a single rodent can do about 28 dollars worth of damage to agricultural crops, so that’s a 28-thousand dollar bird, and that’s without him having a family.”
Looker says using rat poison to deal with rodents might not be as effective as having a few raptors around. And if there are birds of prey in the area, it’s likely that they could be susceptible to poison as well.
“Most rat and mouse poisons accumulate in the body of the rodent it takes several days for the rodent to die, and he’s wandering out in the open and it’s very easy pickings for the birds. So we get birds that come in here with what we call secondary poisoning, and they’re seizuring and sometimes we can turn them around and sometimes we can’t.”
“We must have had babies hatching… and let’s go check those babies out….”
While inspecting the newborn barn owls, Looker says some animals spend just a few months at Rehabitat, while others have become lifelong residents due to permanent wing or eyesight damage.
“Our standards for release are extremely high. These birds have a tremendously difficult life out in the wild and they need to be 100% perfect. Because just to have one feather missing compromises the feather next to it, throws them off balance, and may be the difference between life and death for them.”
Not every bird can make it in the wild. A few birds with disabilities such as amputated wings or partial blindness can be used for educational programs. But a number of birds have to be put down every year. Looker says it wouldn’t be difficult to find people willing to adopt injured birds, but Raptors are wild animals that don’t make good pets – and there are few locations with the proper facilities to care for non-releasable animals.
Birds of Prey are federally protected migratory birds, but rehabilitation is a private endeavor. With licenses from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Pennsylvania Game Commission, Rehabitat and similar facilities in the state do all the work of nursing injured wildlife back to health for release in the wild
“There are some restrictions in what rehabbers can and can’t do. Obviously we don’t do surgery, but pretty much everything else medically is done on site. It’s pretty grungy work and it’s pretty labor intensive, but it’s also extremely rewarding.”
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Looker says she’d love to put herself out of business by convincing people to avoid activities which put birds at risk, such as using rodent poisons or letting housecats roam the neighborhood. But as long as there are birds in need of help, there will be people like Wendy Looker to take them in.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Brad Linder.
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