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Amy Kocias handles American Kestrel, Mika, at Medina Raptor Center.
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Medina Raptor Center Staff: (left to right)Jill Raber (volunteer), Laura Jordan (founder), Amy Kocias (volunteer), Taryn Leach (volunteer).
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Cloud is a red-tailed hawk with an amputated wing and leucism, a genetic condition that prevents pigment from depositing on his feathers.
Juniper’s large talons grip tightly around Taryn Leach’s leather-gloved forearm. The owl’s head twists almost completely around to peer over her back as crows and geese call to each other overhead. Even the falling snow and below-freezing air do not seem to ruffle her variegated brown and white feathers, but her large yellow eyes move constantly, focusing on every bit of movement around her.
Leach is a volunteer at the Medina Raptor Center, a rescue and rehabilitation facility for birds. She describes how Juniper was brought to the center when she was only one year old after being inadvertently sprayed with pesticides by a local farmer. “It compromised her immune system [and] caused her to lose some vision,” Leach says. “With all raptors, it’s vital that they have excellent vision. So because of that, we can’t release her back into the wild.”
The center takes in around 400 to 600 birds every year, most of them injured by human activities, like being hit by a car or caught in fishing lines. Local veterinarians volunteer their time to help diagnose and treat the birds, sometimes hospitalizing them, sometimes just offering advice. Of the birds who arrive at the center alive, about 75-80 percent are rehabilitated to the point where they can be released back into the wild. That sounds like a very good number, until you realize that a large number of injured birds either die before reaching the center or arrive in such a state that they cannot be saved.
“Sometimes you can look at a bird and know you can do something, you know they’re going to be okay,” Leach says. “Others you look at and you know the best thing for them is euthanasia.”
Laura Jordan first formed the Medina Raptor Center in 1996 after spending several years rehabilitating mammals. Earlier, she had founded the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) of Medina County, working with dogs and horses. The shift to rescuing birds came about after Jordan saw 40 raccoons in one year. “I said to myself, I’m not sure I’m making a difference,” noting that raccoons survive quite well through adaptive behaviors. Birds, on the other hand, suffer greatly from human encroachment on habitat, as evidenced by the types of injuries Jordan and her volunteers see: gunshots, trappings, poisoning. Focused on the rehab work, it took time for Jordan to realize that educational outreach was also important to bring public attention to preserving the natural world.
Jordan grew up in Rocky River and spent lots of time walking through the woods of the Metro Parks with her dad. These experiences gave her a deep appreciation of the lessons humans can learn from nature. “I encourage people to get in touch with nature,” Jordan says. “Turn off your phone and go for a walk in the woods. If you focus on what’s around you, you can see so many amazing things interacting with each other.”
By bringing these unusual creatures into schools and letting kids learn how fascinating they are, the MRC helps young people develop a better appreciation of how humans can co-exist with them. “The more you care about the world around you, the more you want to preserve it,” Leach says. “And you can’t care about something if you don’t know anything about it.”
Amy Kocias, a former elementary and middle school science teacher, has been volunteering at MRC for six years now. She also emphasizes how important education about the natural world is, especially for children. “Nature is a stress reliever,” she says. “Even children need to take a step back from life and open their eyes and see things in a different way.”
Anyone can develop an appreciation for nature, but not just anyone can handle Juniper and the other birds at the center. There’s a training process that takes time. Handlers begin with smaller birds, learn the cues of bird behavior, and build a rapport with these gorgeous, wild animals.
“When you have a bird on your glove, there’s a lot of trust and a lot of training,” says Leach. “I’ve had people say, ‘oh, that bird must love you!’ It’s not that they love me; they’re trained. I’m not going to do anything to harm them, and likewise they’re not going to bite or scratch me.”
Leach stresses that these birds are, indeed, wild and not ornamental. “To us, having the birds in good health is more important than having them out so someone can look at the neat bird. They’re not toys, and they’re not tame.”
For every bird successfully rehabilitated and released, there are many who do not make it. Jordan and her volunteers have taken on an incredibly difficult job, largely because sick or injured birds can often be almost impossible to diagnose and treat.
“We are predators to birds,” says Jill Raber, a native of Uniontown who has been volunteering at MRC for six years. “They have an amazing ability to pretend they’re okay. They will do whatever they can, with their last breath, because we are scary to them.”
This fact might be surprising to most people because of the common misconception that raptors prey on humans, or that all large birds are birds of prey. “Turkey vultures are a big one,” Raber says. “Because they congregate together, people are afraid of them.” Vultures are scavengers, a sort of clean-up crew for remains left behind by predators.
Jordan and all her volunteers stress the overriding need to inform the public not only about the birds, but about the ways humans hurt birds inadvertently.
“People don’t think about things like poisons,” Raber says. Mice and other pests that consume poisons don’t always die on the spot. They often escape to open spaces where hawks or eagles prey on them; the birds then die from secondary poisoning in a kind of perverted circle of life.
Jordan has felt the loss of every failed rehab very deeply. “We lost two red tails that had been here for 20 years and I was ready to walk away. But I’m still doing this,” she says.
“It takes a special person to be able to do this,” Raber says. “The way I personally get through this is I know I’m doing what’s best for the bird.” All the women at MRC find their work incredibly rewarding. And they offer many ways the general public can help raptors to thrive, besides volunteering at the center.
For example, a mutually beneficial relationship has developed between the center and local Eagle Scout troops, who build cages, benches and towers for MRC’s birds.
The center is pretty far from civilization, on a single-lane road amid old farm country near Spencer Lake. It can be quite hard to find, but that was originally by design. The quiet, rural setting mimics raptors’ natural habitats. It is not open to the public; visits must be scheduled by appointment.
“There are quite a few other facilities, some open to the public with birds on display,” Raber says. “Like Huron [County] Nature Center, the Ohio Bird Sanctuary [in Mansfield], or Ohio Wildlife Center [in Powell]. Those places will have mammals and snakes and stuff, too.”
Just because a raptor cannot go back into the wild, that does not mean it won’t have a good life. Juniper is now six years old and will live the rest of her life—as long as 30 years for a great horned owl—at the Medina Raptor Center. Even with compromised vision, her piercing yellow eyes and magnificent feathers will help a whole new generation learn about the remarkable ways raptors contribute to our world.
/ Editorial Associate Sharon Cebula lives in West Akron with her very patient husband, two obnoxious cats, and an enormous collection of owl paraphernalia.
Email them to Molly Gase at email@example.com.
A Dozen Bird Facts
1. All raptors have a nictitating membrane, or a third eyelid that is translucent. It protects their eyes when they’re hunting, flying through brush, or in windy conditions. They can see through it, but it protects the eye.
2. All falcons have a Malar stripe, which is a darker stripe that runs across the eye. It works similarly to the way some athletes put a black streak beneath their eyes to avoid glare. You’ll know it’s a falcon from that unique marking.
3. American kestrels, sometimes called sparrow hawks because of a favorite prey, will sometimes hover with rapid wingbeats, like a helicopter or hummingbird. This allows it to keep its head perfectly still and scan the ground for prey.
4. The “Falcon shake”: The most natural thing for birds of prey to do is fly. Injured birds in captivity, like those at the Medina Raptor Center, can’t fly well or far, leaving them with lots of extra energy to expend. To get rid of this energy, the birds shake, making it appear to humans that they are cold or scared, according to Taryn Leach at MRC.
5. Red-tailed hawks have the most majestic call in the bird kingdom. Or so Hollywood believes. Whenever you see a film set in the West and you hear that stirring “eagle” call, you’re actually hearing the call of a hawk. Bald eagles make high-pitched noises and some chuffing sounds, according to Taryn Leach, but movie-makers and the general public prefer the quintessential red-tail sound.
6. Red-tailed hawks are not born with red tails. Around two years of age, the brown and white barring on their tails begins to turn the eponymous red. Their eye color also shows their age. At about five years, their golden eyes begin to darken, eventually almost matching the chestnut color of their wing feathers.
7. Raptors are pest control specialists. These birds eat rats, mice, squirrels and rabbits. A barn owl can eat 2,000 mice in a year. If you have a pest issue, there’s no need to put down chemicals. A bird of prey will do that job for you.
8. Great horned owls are one of very few predators that will prey on skunks. The owls have a sense of smell, but it’s not as well-developed as that of most mammals. That, plus the owl’s large, powerful feet and talons make larger animals, like skunks, welcome as meals.
9. The mortality rate for all raptors is highest during the first winter of their lives. That’s because they haven’t yet developed the hunting skills they need to find enough food. “When you’re dealing with snowfall and ice and all your prey is hibernating, you have to be able to get past that,” says Taryn Leach. Once a raptor survives its first winter, the odds of survival go up every year.
10. Convergent evolution is the idea that two very different species can develop similar adaptations to environmental pressures without being biologically related. The turkey vultures in the New World—North and South America—are not that closely related to vultures in other parts of the world, like Europe and Asia. However, vulture species in all parts of the world developed the characteristic of eating carrion as a way of surviving. Another example is the way that bats—which are more closely related to foxes than birds—developed the survival skill of flight.
11. Birds use tools to get food. Some use rocks to break open eggs and eat them; some hold twigs in their beaks to dig insects out of hollow trees. Some herons have even been known to drop a small object, like a feather or breadcrumb, onto the surface of water as bait. The object draws curious fish to the surface where the heron can more easily snatch them up for dinner.
12. Engineers often look to nature to figure out how to solve problems. One example is when engineers were trying to make aircraft go faster and faster. At higher speeds, the engines would choke and falter. The problem was that, at very high speeds, air currents would split and go around a cone-shaped engine, rather than continue to flow into the cone. Engineers looked at falcons—one of the fastest flyers on the planet—to figure out how the birds were able to continue breathing, even when flying faster than airplanes. The answer lies inside the falcon’s nostril, which contains a small protruding cone in the center. This cone disrupts the flow of air and allows it to continue going into the nostril rather than around it. Once engineers mimicked the construction in airplane engines, the problem of high-speed flight was solved.
(Handled by Taryn Leach)
Owwati is an Indian word that means “difficult one.” Red-tailed hawks are often quite easy to train, like golden retrievers. But Owwati’s training was difficult, with lots of repet
ition and reinforcement necessary. This might be because she had previously lived at the Ohio Bird Sanctuary as a display bird, but was not glove trained early enough. Now four years old, she is an excellent education bird. Leach says Owwati likes walks in the rain—birds in the wild will bathe their feathers in the rain. At the MRC, the birds are in enclosures and don’t always have the elements on them, so the handlers are sure to take them out periodically and let them experience these natural pleasures. Owwati was one of the first birds Leach worked with while training to be a handler, so she feels a strong connection to her.
(Handled by Amy Kocias)
Mika means “gift” in many different languages. Mika had been kept as a pet by a man who also had several parrots. He allowed all his birds to have free range inside his home, but clipped their wing and tail feathers so they couldn’t fly away. When Mika came to the MRC, she had no flight feathers and no tail, so she was unable to balance on a perch—a common behavior for kestrels. She also vocalized like a parrot, rather than like a kestrel. After a few weeks of nutritional therapy, Mika moved into a regular enclosure. Not long after that, a nest of baby kestrels came to the center and were housed with her. As the babies gre
w and began to vocalize, Mika started making kestrel-type noises. On top of that, a volunteer veterinarian suggested a way to help Mika get some of her feathers back. They put Mika in a cage in full sunshine, and over a few weeks, the vita
min D therapy helped her to grow new tail feathers. Now she is once again able to balance on a perch and communicate with others of her own species. Because of other lingering health issues, Mika is a permanent education bird who helps communicate with the human species, as well.
Great Horned Owl
(Handled by Taryn Leach)
Now six years old, Juniper was brought to MRC in her first year. She had been injured by pesticides sprayed on farm land. The chemicals affected Juniper’s immune system and eyesight, which owls largely depend on for hunting. Because Juniper’s eyesight is permanently compromised, she cannot be released into the wild, but will reside at MRC and be employed as an educational bird for school and public teaching visits.