Colorado center gives raptors second chance at survival
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — A great horned owl, injured when it flew into a car, will move to a larger outdoor cage for the next stage of its rehabilitation. A merlin falcon, no longer able to fly because of a wing fracture, will join the Air Force Academy’s collection of birds of prey. And a tiny northern saw-whet owl, blind in one eye after crashing into a window, will begin training to be an educational bird.
At the Pueblo Raptor Center’s intensive care unit, injured and orphaned birds of prey that would be out of luck in the wild get another shot at life, reported The Gazette.
The center, located off North Pueblo Boulevard, is a temporary home for birds in recovery and a permanent residence for many that are unable to be fully rehabilitated.
The ICU sees roughly 250 birds a year — about half of which are released back into the wild after spending a few months in recovery, said Diana Miller, director of the center.
“They get hit by cars, they get electrocuted on power lines, they get hung up on barbed wire,” Miller said. “There’s a million things that can go wrong. It’s not an easy life when you’re out and about.”
Birds spending this winter at the center include a range of species, from an 11-pound golden eagle with a wingspan measuring 7 feet to a miniature flammulated owl weighing in at just a few ounces, with a wingspan of about 14 inches.
All tenants are carnivores — the birds consume upward of 12,000 rats, 3,000 mice and hundreds of rabbits a year — except for Jack the Raven, who often dines on mealworms with a side of Froot Loops or grapes. The organization also cares for corvids, a family of birds that includes species such as crows and magpies.
Some animals spend just a few months at the center, while others spend decades. Aquila the golden eagle, the longest permanent resident, arrived in 1984, just three years after the facility opened as part of the Pueblo Nature and Raptor Center.
Several of the tenants spending the winter at the center are fully rehabilitated but were unable to recover in time for their annual migration.
A red-tailed hawk that didn’t bounce back in time to fly south when the cold weather arrived was brought to the center in the spring by Colorado Parks and Wildlife officer Zach Holder. The hawk, which he originally found at an archery range in Cañon City with an arrow lodged in its wing, now soars back and forth in a 120-foot-long flight enclosure, eager to return to the wild.
“People love to see success stories,” said Holder, a district wildlife manager.
When a bird cannot be rehabilitated, the center can ask the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for permission to add the animal to its permanent collection. Permission from the agency is required under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which was passed nearly a hundred years ago to protect native bird species.
But raptors that are too aggressive, physically suffering or likely to be unhappy spending the rest of their days in captivity are often put down, Miller said.
“We have to think about quality of life,” she said. “We want to make sure we’re choosing a bird that has a good personality and works well with humans.”
Animals that meet the right criteria are “trained on the glove,” a reference to the thick leather gloves that volunteers must wear to protect themselves from the animals’ powerful talons, and learn how to behave for audiences of visitors and schoolchildren.
The training process requires patience and grit — the gloves aren’t always heavy enough to prevent pinches and punctures from nervous birds — but is ultimately rewarding, said Kelley Stevenson, one of the center’s roughly 30 volunteers.
“You get a little bit of a bond with them. To get that trust, it’s just amazing,” Stevenson said. “Even as a volunteer, it’s a dream job.”
Diana is the only full-time employee at the center, which sees about 20,000 visitors a year, including roughly 8,000 school children on field trips. Volunteers and a part-time administrative assistant help with the day-to-day responsibilities of cleaning cages, feeding and watering the birds and breeding many of the rodents served daily.
The center also holds weekly “Raptor Talks” to educate visitors about its permanent residents, who are often presented at fundraisers and other events. Occasionally, event attendees can enter a raffle to help release a bird of prey back into the wild — one of Miller’s favorite parts of the job.
“I don’t know how many birds I’ve watched fly away,” Miller said. “It never gets old.”
The center is open Tuesday through Sunday, and admission is free. The Resident raptors’ next big appearance is scheduled for the Pueblo Eagle Festival Feb. 4 at Lake Pueblo State Park.