They arrive at the clinic with life-threatening injuries. Many of these birds of prey are rehabbed and released back into the wild where they belong. Those that will never be well enough to leave become some of wildlife's best ambassadors.
By Frank Graham Jr.
As we enter the garden, where sunlight filters through native trees and shrubs and casts reflections on the surrounding redbrick walls, we are reminded of a classical sculpture gallery. Small figures stand about on comfortably spaced slabs or wooden stumps, like stone busts on pedestals. But the atmosphere becomes curiously charged as we notice that every head is turned toward us, on heightened alert, and that in every head is an intent, glittering, and very much alive pair of eyes.
Yet is it, in each case, a pair of eyes? No, several of the figures have only one, the other replaced by a cold, milky blankness or a simple slit. There are further signs of things awrya misshapen foot, a twisted beak, a wing hung at an odd angle. Leather leg straps hold these birds to their perches. This is an outdoor enclosure housing casualties of modern civilizationbald eagles, hawks, and owls that had once flown and fed in the outside world but have now come to grief. Still, there is about each bird a suggestion of fierceness, of high birth unbowed.
"These are our display birds," says Dianna Flynt, supervisor of the Audubon of Florida Center for Birds of Prey, who is giving us a tour. "Each was brought here when it had been shot, hit by a car, maimed by a collision with a powerline, or suffering from a birth injurysome mishap that will keep it from ever surviving in the wild. They are comfortable around humans now, easy to handle, and great ambassadors for Florida wildlife when we take them into schools and other gatherings. But if a bird that's brought in here doesn't have serious problems, we can often send it back into the wild. Our work here is really about hope."
Opened in 1979 in Maitland, the center is in the same town where Florida Audubon was founded at a meeting in 1900, "just around the corner from the center's location," Flynt said, "so this is like coming home." It is located in the urbanized region around Orlando, 30 miles from Walt Disney World, and handles the largest volume of sick and injured raptors east of the Mississippi. Since the center opened, its skilled staff and enthusiastic volunteers have treated about 14,000 native raptors representing 20-plus species, including more than 875 eagles. As many as 200 incapacitated birds occupy the center at any one time. ("But there is no limit," Flynt says. "If a bird needs attention, we will take it, no matter what.") Thanks to new techniques and the staff's experience, the success rate keeps increasing; nearly 45 percent of the healed birds are now released. Florida Governor Jeb Bush recently stopped by to turn loose, with evident excitement, a bald eagle that had been admitted earlier for puncture wounds from a territorial fight; it was the 267th eagle the center has discharged.
"About 30 percent don't survive their injuries," says Flynt, who has spent 30 years rehabilitating birds and is now the center's supervisor. "Others just couldn't make it on their own, and stay here in our education programs. A significant part of Florida's wild population of 3,000 bald eaglesone out of every 20is either related to or mated with a bird that has been released from the center. Success in rehab is measured by the percentage we return to the air and never hear from again."
Success stories abound. The center has nursed back to health and released
a snail kite, a species notoriously difficult to keep alive in captivity
because its normal diet consists almost entirely of apple snailshardly
a readily obtainable item. (Researchers discovered that these kites
will also eat quail meat.) Another notable release is a young northern
caracara, outfitted with a satellite transmitter to provide up-to-date
data on its movements.
Everyone at the center marvels at Hess's creative artistry. He once fashioned an acrylic beak for a mutilated barred owl; the beak looked a bit large, prompting other volunteers to dub the bird Jimmy Durante. Hess helped restore to the wild an eaglet attacked by a Doberman after it fell from its nest. And he successfully inserted into an eagle's eyes, burned by chemicals, a succession of protective lenses that dissolved as the eyes healed.
Jimmy Durante finally succumbed to old age, but he was not alone at
the center in bearing a colorful sobriquet. Because of the sometimes
grim nature of their work, staff and volunteers often give affectionate
names to the birds. Thus a male American kestrel, admitted as a nestling
with permanently damaged tendons and oddly curled toes, was outfitted
with a pair of blue "booties" to hasten its recoveryand
naturally was named Elvis. A 20-year veteran at the center is Lurch,
a red-shouldered hawk missing an eye and a wing (he was apparently hit
by a car). Picasso, another red-shouldered hawk twisted out of shape
(like a figure in an avant-garde painting) by a similar accident, has
resided here for 14 years.
Another name spoken fondly by the staff is that of Resee (short for Therese) Collins, the former director, who led the center through a rehabilitation of its own. Closed to the public during a three-year, $2 million renovation, the center reopened in early 2002 to fulfill Collins's dream of a facility worthy of her majestic charges. Its educational outreach is impressive, as more than 5,000 people visit the center each year. Of the 3,193 who took part in tours during 2002, most were children, while an additional 12,160 attended special events. Staff members and volunteers traveled to schools to bring programs and ambassador birds to an additional 9,705 children.
Trees and shrubs, many of them alive with wild birds, are everywhere on the center's grounds. Almost all of the captive species present can be seen in large outdoor enclosures along the walkways. Inside, the buildings include a state-of-the-art clinic with its own X-ray equipment, roomy enclosures, and separate lighting circuits that can be dimmed to calm stressed birds. There is a 100-foot-long flight cage, as well as a couple of smaller ones, where recovering raptors may accustom themselves to the sense of well-being that comes with unfettered flight. Instead of wire barriers into which the birds might crash and injure themselves, the aviary walls, designed by the staff, are composed of vertical slats, to mimic groves of trees; raptors sense the slats are too closely spaced for passage and remain comfortable within their confines.
After leaving the center, Collins signed on with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Atlanta. "But she's still my boss," Flynt says with a laugh. "She's the one who evaluates our facilities and issues the federal permits for keeping, rehabbing, and exhibiting birds!"
The way the community has embraced the center is reflected in its financial support. Among the major contributors to its programs are the City of Maitland, the Walt Disney Company, the Darden Restaurant Foundation, the George Batchelor Foundation, and SeaWorld. Still, the care of damaged birds is both expensive and labor-intensive. At present the 6 staff members are supported by a pool of 70 regular and occasional volunteers, making up a total workforce equal to at least a dozen full-time staffers. Eagle scouts have built nest platforms for their avian namesakes; senior citizens have served as receptionists or have lugged in stacks of old newspapers for lining cages. Tom Scala and his wife, Tammy, who have a video production business, made videos to teach the public about the center's work. Lee Lauderback, a local falconer who cochaired the center's capital campaign, exercises recovering birds in the field, in effect teaching them to be wild again.
Linda Corkhill, who works for her family's insurance business, is one of the center's adaptable volunteers. "In 1992 I entered the training program," she says. "First I worked in rehabilitation, caring for recovering birds. Now I come in three days a week and spend much of my time in the clinic, where new cases are brought." Corkhill likes to say that rehab is "a way of life." Her husband, Tom, also a center volunteer, is repeatedly startled by her habit of stopping along the street to pick up roadkill for raptor food back at the center. "Oh, my God, I hope the neighbors aren't watching!" he groans.
Another set of volunteers (about 220 of them, spread across 40 counties) take part in Eagle Watch. This program functions year-round, its participants keeping an eye on nests during the breeding season and continually monitoring development issues and habitat loss. Lynda White, a former volunteer who joined the staff after having raised her children, is its coordinator.
"There were 1,200 nesting pairs of bald eagles in Florida last
year, many in the Orlando region, because it has so many lakes,' White
says. "We educate volunteers in what they're "seeing"the
nests are usually high in trees and have tall sides, so it's hard to
tell what's going on. But a lot can be learned from a distance. Watchers
may report if a nest is being refurbished, how parents share the duties,
and the like. They find an average of six new nests a year that state
biologists don't know about."
Always in the back of a staff member's mind is the criticism leveled by some wildlife biologists that rehabilitation is a waste of time and money. Critics argue that species, not individual animals, are what really count, and that the effort could be better directed toward preserving habitat for healthy populations. Dianna Flynt, like Resee Collins before her, answers that education, which goes hand in glove with rehab work, is an indispensable tool in conservation.
"More than 80 percent of these injuries are caused by humans, directly or indirectly," she says. "Our outreach program brings our wonderful birds to schoolchildren all over the area. We very carefully pick eagles, owls, and hawks we can't release but that have become unflappable in the presence of humans. Kids get to see them, begin to understand and admire them, and are made aware of the problems they face in our modern world."
Now that the renovated center for birds of Prey has reopened to the public, Flynt sees expanded opportunities to make new converts to her cause. Whether they're locals, visitors to nearby Disney World, or casual drop-ins, visitors often rally to support the protection of birds and the wild places they need. "Meanwhile, every day's a new bird story," she says, and for an example she points to Kate Stamer, an area midwife who occasionally volunteers in the center's clinic.
"The Orlando police called one night to say an owl needed help," Stamer recounts. "It was in a troubled area of town, and the police said I shouldn't go in alone. So they provided an escort, lights flashing and sirens blaring, and I kept up as best I could in my own car. When we arrived we had to walk through several yards, and 20 or 25 angry people came out. 'Why are the cops bringing this woman here?' they wanted to know."
But as soon as Stamer said she was from Audubon, the tension dissolved. Everyone smiled and led her to an ancient oak, where a young barn owl huddled on the ground below the nest from which it had tumbled. Neighborhood people, not knowing what else to do, had taken turns all day guarding it from threatening dogs. One man, imitating the noises barn owls make, told her how the adult owls emerged from the tree at night. The police, obviously not needed, retreated. "Thank you for coming," several people called to Stamer as she left with the cold little owl in her arms. Then Kate Stamer smiles and sums it up.
"It was truly an uplifting experiencefor everybody!"
© 2004 National Audubon Society